November 18, 2004

...had it not been for you meddling Iranians!!

So I finally found time to sit down and read the long U.S. News bombshell about Iran's sinister meddling in Iraq. I recommend it to all—it's good, it's interesting. If you want line-by line exegesis, Dan Darling has two posts that pretty much accept the story wholesale (though he adds plenty of insight).

Me? I'm skeptical. Not about the general picture—I have no doubt that Iran's been dipping its fingers in Iraq; few do—but perhaps about some of the details. A few of the sources are, I think, dubious. At one point the head of the Iraqi secret police, Muhammad Abdullah Shahwani, is quoted accusing the Badr Corps (SCIRI's military wing) of assassinating Iraqi intelligence officials, at the behest of Iran. Possibly. But Shahwani is also an old-guard Baathist who has been of late accused of harassing the Shi'a and arresting members of Hizbullah Movement Iraq without a warrant. Now I don't know the full story here, but it's certainly hard to distinguish between legitimate intelligence and old-fashioned persecution. The rivalry between Baathists like Shahwani, Allawi, Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Shalan on the one hand, and Shi'a clerics on the other, is not very well understood, and my suspicion is that "blame it on Iran!" doesn't quite capture the full situation.

Complicating things even further is the fact that many of these Iranian-supported groups are hardly mere pawns of Tehran. SCIRI, the party thought to be in Iran's back pocket, along with its Badr Corps (which is funded by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard) broke with Tehran hardliner policy in spring 2003 by supporting the American invasion. Everyone has their own interests at heart. Not to mention that smooth operators like Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of SCIRI, and Moqtada al-Sadr, can play Iran just as well as Iran can play them.

But set all that aside. In the big picture, Iran is no doubt aiming to destabilize Iran, for a variety of geostrategic reasons: continuing violence makes Iranian aid the only reconstruction game in town; neoconservatives in Tehran fear a hegemonic Iraqi state; religious hardliners fear that Najaf and Karbala will displace Qom in Iran as the most influential Shi'a center. But this was always going to be the case. Look at the situation from Tehran's (considered in the aggregate) point-of-view. The only way to change the calculus of decisions is to give Tehran (considered in part or in the aggregate) some other incentives. That could include either the threat of massive retaliation, or economic/political carrots that are too good to endanger by sponsoring terrorist groups. Presumably one of these is better than the other.
-- Brad Plumer 12:41 AM || ||