U.S. and Iran have a huge stake in the future of Iraq

May 23, 2006|By TRUDY RUBIN

PARIS -- Two countries make up the new Axis of Uncertainty in the Middle East - Iran and Iraq.

A few years ago, when Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, these countries never would have been viewed as a duo. They fought a brutal war in the 1980s that claimed more than 1 million lives, a war in which the United States aided Mr. Hussein against Ayatollah Khomeini.

But Mr. Hussein's ouster has created a very different Middle East from the one the Bush administration intended. The White House hoped Mr. Hussein's fall would precipitate an Iranian upheaval that would end the rule of the ayatollahs. Instead, Iran has become the prime Mideast beneficiary of the war. It has also become the crucial ally of the most powerful parties in the new Iraq.

So it is a fascinating time to go to Iran, with its complex political system, rich history and tortured relationship with America. When I fly from Tehran to Baghdad - Iraqi Airways now has two direct flights a week - I will be traversing an axis of supreme importance to Americans as well as Iraqis. Washington and Tehran are now linked by the intense ties each has to Baghdad.

In recent days, the media have focused on the tension between the U.N. Security Council and Iran over Tehran's nuclear energy program, suspected of producing fuel for nuclear weapons. A debate has arisen among U.S. pundits over America's options for preventing Iran from getting nukes, those options ranging from speaking directly with Iranian leaders to bombing nuclear sites.

But few Americans are aware of how tightly U.S. and Iranian prospects in the region are bound together in Iraq.

The Bush administration unwittingly made Shiite Iran into the potential superpower of the region when it ousted Mr. Hussein. Shiites are a minority branch of Islam that believes in a different line of succession from Mohammed than does the Sunni mainstream. Sunni Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan - all close U.S. allies - long dominated the region and make no secret of their dislike for the Persian Shiite ayatollahs.

By crushing a Sunni dictator, the United States shifted the balance of power in the region. U.S. officials hoped to ally with Iraq's newly empowered Shiite majority, who are Arab, not Persian, and who the United States believed would counterbalance Iranian Shiites. The administration also hoped that the holiest sites of Shiite Islam - the Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala - would come to outshine the Iranian religious seat, Qom.

But Iraq's Shiites were unwilling to cut their close ties with Iran. Southern Iran teems with Iranian pilgrims, intelligence agents, investments and funding for various Iraqi Shiite political parties.

The postwar chaos in Iraq has made Iraqi Shiites ever more dependent on Iran. Iran has a vested interest in the current Iraqi chaos because it bogs down U.S. troops and makes it difficult for the United States to contemplate another military adventure.

Emboldened by Iran's new influence, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been appealing to the Arab street by denouncing Israel and denigrating the United States in an effort to broaden his appeal as a regional leader.

Yet Iran runs the risk of overplaying its hand. If Iraq descends into all-out civil war, Iran, as well as the United States, will lose big. Sunni Arab states would intervene more actively in the fighting, creating a situation akin to the Lebanese civil war, in which neighboring states fought proxy battles by backing different Lebanese factions. Such a debacle would undermine any Iranian pretensions in the region.

So Iran should have common interests with the United States in stabilizing Iraq. But the poisonous history between the two and the nuclear dispute make it hard to act on those common interests.

One thing I hope to learn on this trip is whether there is any chance that Tehran and Washington can work together to save Iraq from dissolution. If not, the Iran-Iraq link will drag both countries down.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is trubin@phillynews.com.

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