Recent news from Iraq has engendered an inescapable, and exquisite, paradox for the neoconservative backers of the war in Iraq. Happily I want to draw it out.
Astonishingly, the very Iraqi government whose supposed legitimacy the neocons want Americans to support has now made a deal with the neoconservatives’ worst devil, the ayatollahs’ regime in Iran. Specifically, the Iraqi defense minister made a high profile visit to Teheran last week, during which he concluded a deal with the mullahs. According to the terms of that deal, Iran will now begin training Iraq’s very own supposedly pro-American armed forces.
Let’s be clear, so we can enjoy the irony. On one hand the neocons are burbling about regime change in Iran, about bombing its nuclear facilities, even about invading Iran. Their leading Iran specialists, such as Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute, consider Iran the heart of the so-called “terror masters,” allegedly allies to Al Qaeda. On the other hand, the neoconservatives want us to continue to throw our boys’ lives and billions of U.S. dollars for years to come behind supporting the Shiite-run Iraqi regime that is now formally allied to Iran. What gives?
The problem in Iraq, and the centerpiece of the quagmire there, is that the United States is stuck deep in the quicksand of Iraq’s theocratic regime run by two Shiite fundamentalist parties, Al Dawa (whose leader is now Iraq’s prime minister) and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Both have been strongly supported by Iran since the 1980s, and still have close links to Iran’s clergy. Iran created and trained SCIRI’s paramilitary force, the 20,000-strong Badr Brigade, which is fast becoming the core of Iraq’s fledgling armed forces. So the new agreement between Iran and Iraq just formalizes a long-standing alliance between Teheran and Iraq’s Shiite paramilitaries. It guarantees that Iran will maintain and expand its worrisome role in Iraq for years to come.
Common sense, it seems, would indicate that the United States ought to start worrying more about the threat to U.S. interests from the Shiite fundamentalists like SCIRI and Dawa, especially as their alliance with Iran comes more clearly into focus. Instead of locking ourselves into support for the illegitimate (and U.S.-installed) government of Iraq, we ought to be seeking a deal with the largely Sunni resistance in Iraq. Many Sunnis, including moderate, secular nationalist ones who are the core of resistance in Iraq, consider SCIRI and Dawa to be cats’-paws for Iran -- and they’re mostly right.
Quietly, SCIRI, Dawa, and the even more fanatical -- and Iran-linked -- forces of junior Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr are busily transforming Iraqi society in areas they control into Iran-like theocracies. A terrifying report in the New York Times, from a correspondent in Basra, described in great detail how thuggish Shiite gangs are imposing extreme-right, religious orthodoxy on Iraq’s second-largest city. The fanatics are attacking liquor stores, movie houses, video stores, and barber shops (because barber shops shave beards). Worse, they are assassinating secular political leaders and Sunnis. Where is the neoconservative and Bush administration criticism of such terrorism?
President Bush -- and his neoconservative allies -- insist that America will persevere in supporting Iraq’s regime and in combating the insurgency. By so doing, they are creating space every day for Shiite fanatics to consolidate their grasp on southern Iraq and parts of Baghdad. Only too late, it seems, will they realize that they are creating a monster there. The only reason that these fanatics, led by SCIRI and Dawa, don’t openly turn against the United States is that if they did, their ersatz regime in Baghdad would collapse overnight. Only the power of 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq allows the Shiite regime to maintain its grip on power. Whenever SCIRI and Dawa feel that they can stand on their own two feet in a looming, tri-cornered civil war pitting Shiites against Sunnis against Kurds, they will boot the U.S. out, and the real civil war in Iraq will begin.
Ironically, most Iraqi Shiites are not fanatics. They don’t support the fundamentalist Shiite parties. For generations, they’ve been secularized, and many Iraqi Shiites consign religion to a modest place, acknowledging the separation of mosque and state. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the Shiites fought bravely on Iraq’s side, while SCIRI and Al Dawa fought for Iran. With every passing day, however, the Shiite fundamentalists are gaining in Iraq. There is a slim chance that secular Iraqi Shiites could establish a working arrangement with like-minded secular Sunnis, including former Baathists, and with the Kurds, who have no use for the Shiite fundamentalists. Unfortunately, it is getting late. And the ultimate irony is that the United States is supporting a regime in Baghdad that is drawing strength from a regime next door in Iran that calls America the Great Satan. The silence from the neoconservatives on this paradox is deafening.