US-Iraq – Iran relations

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On October 3 2012, the New York Times carried a report on Qassim Suleimani, reportedly a commander of Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force. It called him a “master of chaos,” a sort of high compliment really. Suleimani has been, according to the NYT the mastermind behind two central Iranian foreign policy initiatives: expanding Tehran’s influence in the internal politics of Iraq and providing military support for the rule of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

If the NYT is to be believed, Suleimani is the eminence grise masterminding the visibly increasing Iranian influence in Iraq. The NYT implies indirectly that his power exceeds that of Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei which is a patently ridiculous assertion. How power is disbursed in the opaque Iranian governmental structure is at best a guess even among Iran watchers who have a diplomatic perch in Tehran. The US has not had a diplomatic presence for 35 years and knows very little about Iran’s internal affairs. I therefore wonder who supplied the detailed briefing to NYT on Suleimani.

But let’s backtrack a little. The Bush Adminstration and its leading lights were woefully ignorant about Iraq – its history, culture and politics. A glaring example of such boyish serenity was that Bush and Cheney were blissfully unaware about a fact as elementary as the centuries- long doctrinal Sunni-Shia schism in Islam which has informed politics in Islamdom right up to this day. In deciding to invade Iraq on false pretexts in the face of considerable international opposition – an invasion which US Secretary General Kofi Annan termed “illegal”- the US was setting the stage for creating the largest and most powerful Shia confederacy in Islamic history! This was the assessment I gave my students in fall 2003 when discussing the Middle East. I am sure others too might have had similar misgivings.So for some time now post-2003, the Sunni countries in the Middle East from Jordan to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf are publicly dreading a” Shia crescent” (Iran, Iraq, Hizbullah). They should “thank” or blame Bush and Cheney because the actions of these two, abetted by the slippery Tony Blair, have created the Iran-Iraq axis based on religious affinity. Even though the 300 million plus Sunni Arabs are numerically far more numerous than the Shia Arabs, thanks to the lack of foresight of the Bush people, the political field in the Middle East has been transformed through the Iraq-Iran axis between Arab Iraq and non-Arab Iran making the minority Shia Muslims in the Middle East a force in the area. This Iran-Iraq alliance may not have been formalized so far in a treaty but it does exist in practice.

Saddam Hussain might have been a brutal thug but he was playing a crucial role in keeping Iranian influence at bay in Iraq and the wider Middle East. With Saddam forcibly removed by the US and democracy forcibly instituted in Iraq under US tutelage, it was inevitable that Shia Iran and Shia Iraq would develop solid affinities. Most of the Iraqi Shia leaders including the US installed dictatorial prime minister Nuri Kamal al Malki, had fled Saddam’s Iraq and were exiles for years in Iran and are naturally beholden to their host and protector whose religious and political ideology they are comfortable with. Sadly Iraq  will not become a pacific pro-Western ally that the US fondly hopes. On the contrary, its policies are likely to be increasingly aligned with those of its larger and more powerful benefactor, Iran. The Bush adminstration is largely responsible for this foreign policy fiasco. But I do not envisage a commission being appointed any time soon to probe the Iraq misadventure and its baleful after effects.

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