Tuesday, February 24, 2004

the persian version
As Iranian democracy pursues its unusual course, an interesting interpretation of events comes from the ever creative minds at Stratfor:

U.S. intelligence about Iraq was terrible. It was wrong about WMD; it underestimated the extent to which the Shia in the south had been organized by Iranian intelligence prior to the war; it was wrong about how the war would end -- predicting unrest, but not predicting a systematic guerrilla war. An enormous amount of this intelligence -- and certainly critical parts of it -- came to the United States by way of the INC or by channels the INC or
its members were involved in cultivating. All of it was wrong.

It was not only wrong, it created an irresistible process. The WMD issue has delegitimized the war in the eyes of a substantial number of Americans. The failure to understand the dynamic of the Shiite community led to miscalculations about the nature of postwar Iraqi politics. The miscalculation about the guerrilla war created a U.S. dependence upon the Shia that is still unfolding. It is al-Sistani, in consultation with U.N. negotiators, who is setting the terms of the transfer of power. The U.S. position in Iraq is securely on Shiite terms, and that means it is on Iranian terms.

In short, that the inaccurate intelligence about the actual circumstances on the ground in Iraq was deliberately crafted to ensure that the occupiers would have to rely on Iran to help keep the peace, and that this was a caper cooked up between Chalabi and the government in Tehran.

I don’t know how far to go with this, but it certainly explains one otherwise puzzling aspect of the Iranian elections: namely, why the hardliners chose to purge reformists from the government when they did. After all, the reform faction of the Iranian Majlis hadn’t made much progress over the past four years, despite being in the majority. It was an inheritance issue: the mullahs wanted the reformers well away from any position of influence over Iraq, especially since they might make common cause with Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who opposes direct religious rule.

There is a strong possibility that over time large numbers of lay religious Iranians will switch their allegiance to Sistani, and some of the [Iranian] reformers are said already to have done so," says Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan and a specialist in Shiite affairs.

On the other hand, Iraq’s more militant Shi’a clerics would make better partners for the Iranian hardliners. Yet they tend to be more nationalistic, and, as the CSM article goes on to explain, are suspicious of Iranian influence on Sistani:

Other than ideological differences, the Sadrists also harbor suspicions of Sistani's Iranian background - he speaks Arabic with a thick Persian accent. Many senior clerics in Najaf are of Iranian descent, whereas the Sadrs are Arabs of Iraqi-Lebanese origin.

Distrust of Iranian marja appears to have been behind the killing on April 10 last year of Ayatollah Abdul Majid al-Khoei, son of a noted Iranian scholar who returned to Iraq from exile in England and was stabbed to death in the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf. Followers of Moqtada Sadr have been blamed for the murder, and there are fears that Sistani could be next.

"As a Muslim, Sistani has a right to ask for the rights of Muslims. But he does not have a right to interfere in the affairs of Iraq," says Sheikh Tai. "We won't cause problems, God willing, but we won't allow anyone to interfere in Iraqi matters because this is a subject for Iraqis."

Over the long term, Sistani’s more secular approach to politics may undermine the position of the Iranian Shi’a hardliners through a kind of osmosis. But in the meantime, it expands Iranian influence in the region and gives them an effective guarantee that the US won’t undermine theocratic rule. Martin Woollacott recently came to similar conclusions in the Guardian.

But could a bunch of mullahs really pull the US along by the nose? I wouldn’t bet against it. There’s always a tendency to identify people we disapprove of with qualities we dislike. Back around the time of Tiananmen, there was a kind of general assumption that the students were bound to win; they were young, wanted democracy and in some vague but overarching way represented the future. Their opponents, on the other hand, were a bunch of stupid old communists, who when it came to the crisis would be too feeble to swing the club.

We all know how that turned out. So also with the mullahs. Not only are the three way links between Tehran, Chalabi and the neo-con axis in Washington suggestive, but, paradoxically, Iranian hardliners have more reason than most to study the geopolitical zeitgeist and take what advantage of it they can.