On March 25th, the Government of Iraq (GOI) launched an offensive against the Shiite Mahdi Army militia under the command of radical cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr. Six days of intense fighting later, al-Sadr directed the militia to stand down; his order instructed fighters to cooperate with GOI forces, but did not accede to the government’s demand to surrender their weapons. Roundly perceived as ineffective and unwilling to confront the Mahdi Army and like militias, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki surprised many observers with this initiative. Prime Minister al-Maliki himself arrived at the frontlines in Basra to oversee operations led by the fledgling Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). While the ISF initially relied on US and British air forces for reconnaissance, Mahdi Army resistance was more robust than anticipated and eventually, US and British ground forces participated as well. The ceasefire was accomplished under the auspices of Iran, specifically the commander of the al-Quds Brigade, an organization categorized as terrorist by the US government and closely tied to the Mahdi Army and other paramilitary “special groups” operating beyond the reach of the GOI.
While the conclusion and consequences of the fighting are fairly plain to the general observer, the circumstances surrounding the initiation of the operation remain mysterious. According to reliable news reporting, US commanders only learned about the operation 48 hours before it commenced. One of the more plausible theories depicts the operation as a calculated strike by al-Maliki to strengthen the faction of fellow Shiite leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim in his contest for Shia loyalties against the more thuggish al-Sadr. Nonetheless, al-Maliki’s true motivations behind the assault remain murky.
As the mediator, Iran has again gained prestige at the expense of the Americans. Indeed, commentators routinely note the primary beneficiary of the US invasion of Iraq has been Iran, and not American interests. Furthermore, in yesterday and today’s testimony to Congress, Gen. David Petraeus has identified Iran as the premiere threat to the stability of Iraq. With the removal of Saddam Hussein and the Sunni power elite, Shiite Muslims, co-religionists to neighboring Iran, have assumed the leadership of the country, but divisions do exist variously among the secularists, religious conservatives, and outright militants. Iran has extended assistance broadly and has established strong relationships with each of the Shiite factions. Iran had provided sanctuary to much of the present government leadership when they had been in exile during Hussein’s regime and now delivers considerable covert assistance to radical militias in southern Iraq in two key forms. First, the steady supply of money and weapons has sustained their fight against the central government and US forces in the country. Second, Iranian agents have helped al-Sadr emulate the example of Hezbollah in Lebanon, by establishing a state within a state in defiance of US efforts to craft a more cohesive Iraq.
Equally important, bilateral relations between Iran and Iraq have never been better. Just this past March, hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran completed a landmark visit to its former nemesis, the first visit by an Iranian president since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Tehran. Ahmadinejad held talks with al-Maliki, al-Hakim, and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. In a stark and obvious contrast to visits by al-Maliki’s erstwhile ally, President Bush, Ahmadinejad was able to travel around the country unencumbered by security cordons. Iraq is now Iran’s second largest non-oil export market and ambitious joint infrastructure and development projects are in the works.
If Iran is poised to accrue significant advantages via normal bilateral relations (to the likely detriment of the United States) in an increasingly stabilized Iraq, then why are Iranians gambling on rogue clerics and mafia-like militias? Consider the following:
Iranian oil has indeed become more valuable since the US’s un-sanctioned war in the Middle East prompted China to aggressively pursue its own energy agenda, ultimately raising global demand and prices. Moreover, all consumers now pay a “security premium” as every spike in regional violence unnerves oil traders world-wide. But buttressing the disruptive efforts of Shia gangs in the Basra region is short-sighted and counter-productive; China is indicative of long-term demand growth – the security premium is marginal in this calculation.
The Iranian theocratic leadership may fear greater fealty for the more esteemed Shiite scholars in Iraq, but no how much money and materiel Iran provides al-Sadr, he will never supplant Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as a revered Shia leader in the near term. Furthermore, the leading candidate to succeed al-Sistani is Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Ishaq al-Fayadh, an ally and theologian in the mold of al-Sistani.
Finally, the greatest fear has always been that the former guests of the Iranian regime now in power in Baghdad will invariably tilt east when the country is finally pacified and free of US troops.
So, again, what explains Iran’s dual course in Iraq?
Perhaps one explanation is the realization that US gains against Al Qaeda and reconciliation with Sunni insurgents have diminished Iranian attempts to co-opt the American sponsorship of the Iraqi leadership. If the US conception of a bottom-up, regionalized Iraq gains traction whereby the authority of the Iranian-allied Shiite central government is limited, then Iran will have missed an unmatched opportunity to achieve a tremendously advantaged position in the region. Where previously unbearable sectarian violence made neighboring Iran an attractive ally, an increasingly peaceful Iraq leaves al-Sadr and his ilk as cruel reminders of Iranian treachery. Accordingly, the only option is to support al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army so Iran can at least replicate the leverage gained by its sponsorship of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine.
Alternatively, perhaps Iran is closely monitoring the course of the US presidential election. A review of major US political news will inevitably include commentary on how the divisive Democratic race has provided Republican John McCain, an ardent war supporter, with an immense opportunity to prepare for the November election. A McCain presidency may be feared by Iran as a continuation of US forces in Iraq and certain confrontation over their covert nuclear weapons program. Again, with Al Qaeda increasingly marginalized, the primary means of perpetuating the violence so despised by American voters falls to Iranian-supported militias. By encouraging al-Sadr (knowing full well the Madhi Army was well poised to fight the ISF to a stalemate), Iran ensures continued factional violence and, unfortunately, more American deaths, which undercuts the prospects for the McCain candidacy. If McCain loses, Iran is probably calculating the new Democratic president will begin the withdrawal of US forces. Given Sen. Barack Obama’s readiness to meet with Ahmadinejad, dialing up the violence in the lead up to the vote provides additional incentive for Iranians to aggravate the situation.
Finally, as an exercise in complete speculation, contemplate the following. Divining the outlook of the Iranian leadership recalls the challenge of deciphering the machinations of the old Soviet Politburo. However opaque the decision-making process may be, evidence is accumulating there are divisions among the leadership. Hard-line conservatives may have triumphed over the reformers by securing the election of Ahmadinejad, but his disastrous economic policies and bombast on the international stage has incurred the displeasure of Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, the true authority in Iran.
While open factional fighting has not yet occurred in Iran (except on the part of disgruntled reformist elements), perhaps the recent fighting between Iraqi Shia factions signals a increasingly tense proxy clash between opposing elements in the Iranian leadership.
What if Ahmadinejad’s frustrations with theocrats undercutting his authority in Iran led him to advise al-Maliki during the summit earlier this month that the time was ripe for a surprise strike against the Sadrist militia, closely allied with Ahmadinejad’s enemies back in Teheran. Ahmadinejad may have not had any special knowledge of Mahdi Army vulnerabilities, but estimated an unexpected attack might secure gains against the militia and thus strengthen his hand vis-à-vis al-Sadr’s patrons.
Otherwise, no other explanations, events or trends have qualified as plausible explanations for al-Maliki’s sudden urge to take on the Mahdi Army, so encouragement from Ahmadinejad remains reasonable.
True, American counterinsurgency efforts have provided adequate space for the fragile Iraqi government to gird itself for battle, but the US has primarily leaned on al-Maliki to achieve political reconciliation, not security. The most significant intervening events in the Iran-Iraq-US triangle have been the December 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate, which dramatically undercut any belligerent talk on the part of the US against Iran, and Ahmadinejad’s historic visit in March. Indeed, at the joint press conference with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Ahmadinejad stated a “united, powerful, and developed Iraq is in the interests of the entire region,” a declaration in stark contrast to the role played by Iranian covert operations in league with the Madhi Army.
American counters to Iranian maneuvers are limited. Iranian covert support to the Madhi Army and the special groups is detectable but difficult to deter or prevent. The experience of the Israeli assault against Hezbollah last year and putting down the infitada in the past are stark warnings to those would suggest a unrestricted move against Iraqi militias and their Iranian handlers. If the first two hypotheses are on the mark, then the current course of action -- well-resourced and methodical counterinsurgency operations -- should be sustainted. If the last scenario is the case, then America's path is less certain.
At a minimum, American intelligence activities, both human and signals, have hopefully been augmented. Furthermore, collaboration with the Russians and Chinese is not implausible. Their relationships with Iran have been essentially opportunistic -- the PRC has already provided intelligence on the Iranian covert nuclear weapons program.
If divisions are to be exploited, then perhaps the Bush Administration and Sen. John McCain should seriously re-consider the option of re-establishing relations. A tight embrace, short of presidential summitry and under the auspices of an administration credible on national security, could enhance diplomatic, commercial, and intelligence insights. Ultimately, relations would be an advantage to the US, not Iran -- no matter the perception to observers. If divisions are minimal to non-existent, a Bush or McCain initiative could credibly be reversed by citing Iranian intransigence in Iraq, the Gulf, or in regard to transparency of its nuclear weapons program. An accommodationist approach of an Obama Administration would lack the flexibility.