The Iranians appear from time to time to be of two minds when it comes to whether or not they really want the Americans out of Iraq. The problem is that we aren’t sure how we wish to handle either “mind.” One thing is sure; the Iranians want, for leverage purposes if nothing else, to keep the Iraqi pot boiling.
Tehran and Washington started off agreeing to a few diplomatic meetings held in Baghdad on an ambassadorial level. The Iranians came, had tea and listened to the American list of aims, objectives, ambitions and alternative methods to achieve these ends.
For the most part the Iranians countered with boilerplate propaganda and demands that captured covert intelligence officers be released. When all was done, the Persians picked up their pens and paper, announced they had had grand meetings and left.
Meanwhile Iranian special operations Al Quds officers operating under civilian cover have been working hard to organize and train what General Petraeus refers to as “special groups.” These are Iraqi Shia volunteers — some Muktada al Sadr followers, some tribal militia. All of them are willing fighters.
In addition to these Shia operations, Al Quds forces are reported to have been in covert contact with some of the Sunni tribal chiefs in an effort to create openings for longer term interests that Iran has in Iraq.
THE FACT IS that Al Quds has its own foreign policy objectives for Iraq. This covert operations element of the Islamic Republican Guards Corps is sizable enough and politically powerful enough to exercise its strength unilaterally — reporting solely to the office of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
As a result of the limited checks on its chain of command, Al Quds’ CCCI (command, control, communications, intelligence) operates within a political bubble impervious to outside intervention. A corollary of this, however, is that its actions in the field often will run counter to a political and operational line being taken by other government instruments.
In this regard, Al Quds officers in Iraq are running nets of information gatherers and action teams who operate on a local basis often with little but the most general coordination. This sometimes ends up producing what appears to be counterproductive activities and internal conflict within and amongst Al Quds operating nets.
Contrary to what might be thought, the problems created by any lack of coordination usually have some sort of beneficial aspect for Tehran, if only by totally confusing the elaborate U.S./Iraqi counter-intelligence operation. These Iranian paramilitary ops along with their akin combat intel are capable of keeping the Iraqi pot boiling for as long as Tehran wishes.
If the Americans pull out from Iraq, the Iranians know that the Sunni will have to come together to defend what they believe is their ancestral claims to land and economic benefits. The entire concept of a unified Iraq would be endangered and such a fractioning is just not in Iran’s interest.
TOWARD THE END of holding Iraq together after the Americans depart, the Iranians have tried to encourage the Saudis to construct a joint policy on Iraq essentially dividing spheres of influence. The Saudis were their usual diplomatic selves, but soon made it clear they thought talk of the Americans totally withdrawing under any administration was “premature.”
According to sources in Riyadh, even the Iranians had no answers or alternatives for a total absence of U.S. forces that would leave the minority Sunnis with no protector or even arbitrator. This would force the Sunni leadership into assuming a completely self-protective stance politically and militarily — and thus a call for full-scale Saudi aid and involvement.
From Tehran’s standpoint the last thing it needs in these perilous economic and political times is a major military commitment assisting the Iraqi Shia. It is at this point where Iranian desires regarding the U.S. presence in Iraq becomes ambivalent.
Having a substantially reduced yet strategically based American military force in Iraq has a value for Iran in that it could act politically and militarily to tamp down Sunni/Shia conflict. From an economic point of view it also brings additional capital into the war-torn country that, from the Shia side at least, will expect development assistance from their co-religionists on the Iranian side of the border.
The tactic that seems to best suit the occasion for Tehran is the ancient Persian recipe of having their cake and eating it, too. It sounds better in Farsi!
George H. Wittman, a member of the Committee on the Present Danger, was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy
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