Off the axis

February 01, 2007

Because of geography and the tie of Shiism, Iran is destined to play a role in Iraq. The U.S. might as well work toward making that role a positive one rather than a destructive one.

In recent days, Iran has been accused of providing components for explosives used by Shiite militias, and suspected of being tied to the kidnapping and killing of five U.S. soldiers in Karbala; it also wants to establish a bank in Iraq and help finance reconstruction. There's no reason the U.S. can't work to thwart Iran's hostile acts while encouraging those that are productive. Iran is hardly a monolithic, march-in-step country; everything Iranian is not evil.

But that's a hard sell to make in Washington, where two almost diametrically opposed depictions of Iran are floating around these days. In one, Iran is the big winner from the war in Iraq, triumphantly expanding Shiite power in the Middle East and stirring up alarm among the Sunni Arab regimes just to its west. In the other, Iran is hard-pressed by a faltering economy, with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's popularity plummeting and the mullahs growing increasingly displeased with his antics.

Forget logic: Hard-liners in Washington deploy one version and then the other to support their cause. A powerful and dangerous Iran must be stopped - and, see, the pressure being brought to bear by the U.S. is having the desired effect. Their conclusion: Step up the pressure even more.

Our question: What's the objective here?

If the U.S. is preparing to cast its lot with Sunni Islam in a struggle against Iran, the Shiite majority in Iraq should prepare itself for a rude shock. If the U.S. is trying to play Middle Eastern Sunnis and Shiites against each other, that will require a lot more finesse than the Bush administration has so far displayed. (For many, it would bring to mind American support for Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran in the 1980s.) If the U.S. is seeking a way to enjoy a free hand in Iraq, without an Iranian presence - that's just wishful thinking.

Iran's interests, in fact, are in some ways parallel to America's. Iran would not benefit from an Iraqi collapse into total anarchy, or from a wider sectarian war. Right now, Iran and the Sunni regime of Saudi Arabia, one of America's traditional allies in the region, have been trying to mediate a settlement in Lebanon. The U.S. should look for opportunities to expand that sort of common-sense approach to include Iraq as well. This would not bolster Mr. Ahmadinejad so much as it would bolster the chances for a peaceful resolution of the war in Iraq - and surely that should be America's primary goal.

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