Iraq chaos has only emboldened Iran
With Karim Sadjadpour, International Herald Tribune, 13 October 2004
Among the shifting rationales for the Iraq war was the impact it might have on other countries in the region, central among them Iran. What a difference an ill-conceived and mismanaged occupation makes: The debate in Washington is no longer whether the United States can help Iraq shape Iran, but whether it can stop Iran from shaping Iraq.
From Washington's perspective no country appeared riper for change on the war's eve than Iran. Iraq's nascent secular democracy was to serve as a model, perhaps inspiring envious Iranians to rise up against their authoritarian leaders. Their encirclement by U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gulf sheikdoms would force Tehran's rulers to modify their behavior. And Iran's most respected Shiite scholars and clerics - a majority of whom oppose Khomeini-style theocratic rule - would take flight to Najaf, where they could freely question the Islamic Republic's religious legitimacy.
To those familiar with the depth of popular discontent in Iran, such grand scenarios may have appeared by no means inconceivable. They assumed, however, a smooth and stable postwar Iraq. In fact, the chaos there has not intimidated but emboldened the Iranian regime, which appears more stable, more repressive and less amenable to foreign pressure than it has been in over a decade. Meanwhile, Washington can resort only to indignant calls that Tehran cease meddling in its neighbor's affairs.
Over the past several months, conservative hardliners have begun to roll back the few political, economic and social advancements of Iran's reformist era. Whereas student-led pro-democracy protests had been pervasive, for more than a year a disillusioned public has been either silent or silenced. Among Iranians, diffuse hope that the United States could improve their lot has gradually given way to widespread skepticism. As a Tehran resident told one of us: "When we look at what's going on in Iraq, or even Afghanistan, it seems that the real choice is not one between democracy or authoritarianism, but between stability or unrest. People may not be happy in Iran, but no one wants unrest."
While the Iranian people may be averse to turmoil at home, their regime has decidedly mixed feelings about chaos in Iraq. Wary that an outright collapse or civil war might spill over into Iran, with its porous borders and close religious and political ties, and concerned that an out-and-out U.S. success would bolster those in Washington who believe in taking action against Iran, Tehran has settled for a de facto policy of championing chaos, helping to generate enough unrest in Iraq to dissuade the Americans from contemplating regime change in Iran, but refraining from supporting a full-fledged insurrection.
Likewise, it has decided to invest in Iraq by diversifying its portfolio, maintaining contact not only with Shiite co-religionists like Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Moktada al-Sadr, Ahmad Chalabi and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, but with Sunni and Kurdish groups as well. Nor is Iran's bolstered international confidence confined to Iraq. With the power vacuum created by Saddam's ouster, Tehran has been free to assert its aspirations for regional hegemony. After years of putting intangible Islamic interests ahead of national ones, Iran's religious conservatives have reverted, ironically, to the nationalistic rhetoric used by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi three decades ago. And, despite European diplomatic pressure and U.S. and Israeli military threats, Tehran has shown little sign of compromising on its nuclear program.
These are not the hallmarks of a frightened regime but an emboldened one. The Iranian component of its Iraqi gambit having failed, indeed, backfired, Washington needs to rethink its approach toward Tehran. A deeply divided Bush administration flirted with a confrontational approach, pondered limited engagement and ended up without a policy.
Today, with vital U.S. interests at stake in terms of Iraq, Afghanistan and global nonproliferation, Iran is playing a central role in each and the United States isn't talking to it about any.
All of these issues will continue to fester until both countries are in a position to overcome the distrust that has accumulated over the past quarter-century and strike a bargain that addresses their wider and more fundamental dispute. For that, however, the United States will need to put aside its illusory dreams of regime change, overcome its deep-seated trepidation over a bilateral dialogue and engage Iran in a coherent, sustained and comprehensive manner.
Gareth Evans is president of the International Crisis Group; Karim Sadjadpour is an ICG analyst based in Tehran.