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Iran, Iraq, and the United States: The New Triangle's Impact on Sectarianism and the Nuclear Threat

Authored by Dr. Sherifa D. Zuhur. | November 2006

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SUMMARY

What is the best possible response to growing Iranian influence in Iraq? How does this issue relate to the crisis over Iran?s efforts to obtain nuclear capabilities? Can the United States leverage one issue against the other, offering Iran incentives to shift down its nuclear program and, at the same time, withhold judgment on that country?s influence in Iraq? Or are these concerns best dealt with separately from the American policy perspective? Beyond American foreign policy and policy analysis, European, Arab, Israeli, Russian, and Chinese interests are factors in the new equation.

Perhaps there is no optimal response to an Iran determined to acquire nuclear capabilities, nor to an Iraqi Shi?i revival fostered or enhanced by Iranian ?soft power.? Still, to understand the dire predictions about the growth of Shi`a power, or to offer constructive advice about the trilateral relations of Iran, Iraq, and the United States, we must consider Iraqi-Iranian popular, religious, and state-level dynamics. If we appreciate the strongly varying interests and political experience of the Shi`a of Iraq and Iran, our fears of the dire scenarios predicted in the Arab world may diminish.

Iran and Iraq historically have influenced and threatened each other. However, the triangle of U.S.- Iraq-Iran relations outweighs the two Middle Eastern states? bilateral history, their contrasting political aims, respective grievances, and competition. Now, Iran?s nuclear ambitions cast a shadow on the future of both countries, the Arabian Gulf states, Israel, and American forces and facilities in the region.

European efforts to extend incentives to Iran so that it would cease uranium enrichment contrasted with the American administration?s initial approach to the dilemma. The U.S. offer to join multistate negotiations with Iran in June 2006, breaking with 27 years of official silence, was conditional on Iran?s promise to give up uranium enrichment. Yet, European nations already had attempted negotiations with Iran in lieu of its compliance with International Atomic Energy Agency?s (IAEA) conditions.

Are these differing approaches to diplomacy the outcome or a reflection of varying responses to the war in Iraq? Does the American posture stem from longtime anger over the 1979 hostage crisis? Its projection for Iran in the ?New Middle East?? European nations sometimes claim to be more knowledgeable about the Middle East than the United States due to their firsthand experiences in the colonial and Mandate eras and their lengthier tradition of Oriental studies. Possibly this could enhance their pragmatism, resignation, diplomatic skills, or policy approaches to Middle Eastern democratization, or the issue of proliferation. European nations also may be more sanguine about the potential for containing radical Islam in the region than the United States is.

When regime change in Iraq became a certainty, nearly all observers realized that the Shi`a of Iraq could only gain political influence in a new government organized on a representational basis. Leading figures in the Arab world, as well as some Westerners, sounded the alarm on Iran?s goals in a weakened Iraq. In some cases, their charges proceed from the claim that Shi`a influence or Iranian-style militant fundamentalism has increased throughout the region. The Shi`a, in Iraq as elsewhere in the Middle East and Central Asia, have been accused of being Iranian agents.1 But some believe, like Reuel Marc Gerecht, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, that Iraqi nationalism provides the best defense against undue Iranian influence. Or, that foreign nations have other reasons for calling ?wolf? in Iraq, namely, their Iran policies.2

One even hears that the Shi`a could be a positive force offsetting or detracting from radical Sunni salafism. This idea stands in stark contrast to the vision of Iraq as a future Islamic Republic, or at least, the breeding ground of a new Hizbullah. Some observers, like Thomas Friedman, foreign affairs columnist at the New York Times, urge others not to make too much of an Iranian bogeyman, pointing out that Iran had and will continue to have influence in Iraq, but that it is the Shi?i Iraqis whose status had been transformed.3

In contrast, Iran?s political system has not changed, and there is probably little hope for encouraging reform from afar. In fact, Islamic revolutionary values are being reinvigorated by the new President, Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Has he become a lightening rod for populist sentiment in Iran, a catalyst for anti-American and anti-Western grievances? Under his leadership, and that of a young Iraqi government struggling with daily crises, how will these two very important situations play out and what sorts of resulting risks and threats may be anticipated in the future?4

INTRODUCTION

Many observers are doubly concerned by the growing Iranian influence in Iraq and Iran?s announced determination to develop nuclear capabilities. Is there an optimal way for the United States to respond to either issue, or both? The linkage of these issues affects Iran?s neighbors, other Arab states, European nations, Russia, and China. A single example may be seen in British charges of an Iranian hand in the bombs that killed British soldiers in southern Iraq reported by the BBC. The ?evidence? concerned similarities to Hizbullah-wielded devices. The correspondent drew a conclusion and then asked a loaded question. First, he noted that Iranian-British diplomacy was at such a low as a result of stalemate on the nuclear issue that the Foreign Office did not muzzle such accusations (which are rampant in Iraq). The question concerned which foreign powers know how Hizbullah makes a bomb.5 Other accusations focus on Iranian connections with Shi`a militias, insurgents in Iraq, or that Iranian religious officials are infiltrating Iraq and spreading a more militant version of Shi?ism.6

In fact, there may not be a ?best response? to the question of Iranian or Shi`a soft and hard power, but in order to select the least dangerous path forward, we must first understand Iran?s influence on Iraq, Iran?s national self-image, and the fears of neighboring countries regarding their minority populations, or Iraq and American influence there.Iran and Iraq historically have influenced and threatened each other. However, the triangle of U.S.- Iraq-Iran relations now overshadows the two Middle Eastern states? bilateral history, their contrasting political aims, respective grievances, and competition. Iran?s decision to pursue the development of nuclear technology further complicates the relationship between the three states. In addition, European efforts to extend incentives to Iran so that it would cease uranium enrichment contrasted with the American administration?s approach to the same situation. Is this an outcome of differing approaches to the war in Iraq? Does it express long-standing American anger with Iran? Or have the Europeans adopted an essentially different attitude to Middle Eastern affairs in general that is based on their economic interests, and extends to questions of proliferation or democratization in the region?

When regime change in Iraq became a certainty, all informed observers realized that the Iraqi Shi`a population would gain political influence in a government organized on a representational basis. Many are comfortable saying that the Shi`a of Iraq represent about 60 percent of the population. But in fact, it is quite possible that they make up much closer to 70 percent. Because of 1) the nature of political development and organization in Iraq throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries, 2) the American alliances forged with Iraqi opposition groups prior to spring 2003, 3) the emphasis put on communitarian representation, and 4) outlawing the Ba`th party, Shi`a religious parties and clerics hold more influence in Iraq than ever.7

The prominence of Islamist actors and ideas, whether Shi`i or Sunni, is reflected in public opinion. Many Iraqis state that Islamic parties and values should be represented.8 Not all Shi`a agree on the separation of religion and state, but more Shi`i Iraqis supported Islamist parties and principles in the December 2005 elections than secularist figures like former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Voters in the city of Hillah said, ?The important thing is to satisfy God,? and ?We?re with the marja`iyya,? meaning that they had voted for the United Iraqi Alliance because they believed the Shi?ite religious leadership based in Najaf endorsed that list.9 Secularism has declined in Iraq in this community, possibly through peer pressure.10 Iraq is not unique in this respect as was demonstrated in the Saudi 2005 municipal elections and parliamentary elections in Egypt and the Palestinian Authority. Nonetheless, even religious Shi`i politicians represent a range of views about political Islam and its future in Iraq.

Quite a few figures, including King Abdullah of Jordan, charged Iran with electoral fraud and undue influence in Iraq, and they referred to a potential Shi`a crescent of power in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon that would ?alter the balance of power between the two main Islamic sects and pose new challenges to U.S. interests and allies.?11 Gulf leaders feared that such an outcome would, or already had, stirred up their own Shi`a populations, whether a minority as in Saudi Arabia,12 or a majority as in Bahrain.13 Prince Saud, Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt also expressed their concerns about the Shi`a of Iraq and Iran?s intentions toward the country. Mubarak declared, ?The Shiites are always loyal to Iran. Most of them are loyal to Iran and not to the countries in which they live.?14 These public statements reflect anti-Shi`a and anti-Iranian sentiment that predominates in the Arab Middle East and some discontent with U.S. Iraq policies.

Egypt, Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia all blamed Iran for fomenting Islamist opposition at the very least, if not more directly charging the country for inciting radicalism in their own (Egypt), funding opposition movements (Tunisia), and unleashing violence (Saudi Arabia). Iraq could be the breeding ground of a new Islamic Republic, or at the very least, a new Hizbullah. Some observers, like Thomas Friedman, foreign columnist at the New York Times, caution against making too much of an Iranian bogeyman, pointing out that Iran had and will continue to have influence in Iraq, and that it is the Shi`i Iraqis whose status had been transformed.15 In contrast, Iran?s Islamic political system remains in place, and Iranians were not able to effect changes at the polls. Their reform movement is not extinct, but it cannot stand up to other forces in society or the power of the hardliners in government. Iranians, moreover, see few problems with their own policies in Iraq. Instead, their official government press blames attacks on the Shi`a on the misguided policies of the American government. As always, there is a more cooperative aspect to Iran?s relations with Iraq, in that the country has been willing to negotiate certain border issues and to communicate informally with the American Embassy in Iraq.

Iran?s Iraq policy gave way to concerns about Iranian brinkmanship on the issue of nuclear development. Tensions circled around the person and statements of the Iranian President. Was the new President Ahmadinejad a lightening rod for populist sentiment in Iran, a catalyst for anti-American and anti-Western grievances? How will these two very important situations play out and what sorts of risks and threats can we anticipate in the future?

ENDNOTES

  1. Craig Gordon cites General George Casey on Iranian and Hizbollah training of Iraqi insurgents. ?Iran Cited as Threat in Iraq,? Newsday.comto Coalition Forces in Iraq,? Washington, DC: Institute for Near East Policy, January 15, 2004., June 23, 2006; Raymond Tanter, ?Iran?s Threat
  2. Reuel Marc Gerecht, ?Will Iran Win the Iraq War?? Wall Street Journal, December 14, 2004; Mahan Abedin, ?Britain, Iran Playing with Iraqi Shi?ite Fire,? Asia Times, October 1, 2005, www. atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/GJ22Ak01.html.
  3. Thomas Friedman, ?A Political Arabesque,? New York Times, December 19, 2004.
  4. The informational cut-off date for this monograph was August 1, 2006. It was written between January and June 2006
  5. Paul Reynolds, ?Hardball Diplomacy Goes Public,? BBC News, October 5, 2005.
  6. Craig Gordon cites General George Casey on Iranian and Hizbollah training of Iraqi insurgents. ?Iran Cited as Threat in Iraq,? Newsday.com, June 23, 2006; Ivan Eland, et al.,?Occupied Iraq: One Country, Many Wars,? Middle East Policy, Vol. 12, Issue 3, Fall 2005; Raymond Tanter, ?Iran?s Threat to Coalition Forces in Iraq,? Washington, DC: Institute for Near East Policy, January 15, 2004.
  7. Mahan Abedin, ?Amrika-ha midonad har intikhabat-ye dar `Iraq shi`iyan hastand,? Mehr News, January 3, 2005, www.mehrnews.com/fa/NewsDetail.aspx ?NewsID= 271504.
  8. ?Survey of Iraqi Public Opinion,? International Republican Institute, July 9-July 14, 2005, www.iri.org/pdfs/08-10-05-Iraq percent20poll percent20presentation.ppt.
  9. Ashraf Khalil, ?Religion Again Holds Sway Among Shiite Voters,? Los Angeles Times, December 16, 2005.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Robin Wright and Peter Baker, ?Iraq, Jordan See Threat to Election from Iran,? Washington Post, December 8, 2004.
  12. The Shi`a of Saudi Arabia are approximately 10 percent of the total population, but 45 percent of the Eastern province. Saudi Shi`i movements of various types arose in Saudi Arabia, from radical activists of the 1970s to pacific, but demonstrative groups later, and the terrorist Hizballah of Saudi Arabia. International Crisis Group. ?The Shiite Question in Saudi Arabia,? Middle East Report, No. 45, September 19, 2005.
  13. Fred Lawson analyzes the tactics and different groups involved in Bahrain?s 1994-98 Shi?a uprising, a serious event, but one that primarily featured protesting of local conditions. Fred Lawson, ?Repertoires of Contention in Contemporary Bahrain,? Quintan Wiktorowicz, ed., Islamic Activism: A Social Movement Theory Approach, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004. Attributing the Bahraini Shi` a organization solely to Tehran, either then or now, could be a bit of a red herring.
  14. This idea was perhaps earliest put forth in an article by Sayyid Vali Nasr, ?Regional Implications of Shi?a Revival in Iraq,? The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 3, Summer 2004, pp. 7-24; see interview with President Mubarak on al-`Arabiyya, April 8, 2006, a sweeping condemnation of the Shi?a. Prince Saud al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, stated that Iran was already sending money and weapons into the south of Iraq, Joel Brinkley, ?Saudi Warns U.S, Iraq May Face Disintegration,? New York Times, September 23, 2005.
  15. Thomas Friedman, ?A Political Arabesque,? New York Times, December 19, 2004.