Strategic confusion

Misunderstanding Iran's role works to increase its influence in Iraq

April 11, 2008|By Brian Katulis and Matthew Duss

In their testimony before Congress this week, Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and General David Petraeus portrayed recent clashes between competing Iraqi factions as a fight between the Iraqi government and Iranian-supported groups looking to undermine that government. This simplistic "good guys versus bad guys" depiction masks a much more complicated reality in which U.S. policy in Iraq unwittingly strengthens Iran's overall hand there and around the region.

Speaking before Congress, General Petraeus said, "Iran has fueled the violence in a particularly damaging way through its lethal support to the special groups," referring to Shiite splinter groups allegedly receiving support from Iran. According to the general, the recent clashes between Shiite groups stretching from Basra in the south all the way to Baghdad "highlighted the destructive role Iran has played in funding, training, arming, and directing the so-called special groups."

Conservatives such as Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, have latched on to this incomplete description of the ongoing intra-Shiite struggles in Iraq as the latest reason why our over- stretched military forces must remain in Iraq.

One of the most skewed analyses of the recent intra-Shiite clashes in Iraq came from two architects of the Bush administration's 2007 surge, Fred and Kimberly Kagan. Writing in the Weekly Standard, the Kagans described last month's battle in Basra as a security operation launched by "the legitimate Government of Iraq and its legally constituted security forces [against] illegal, foreign-backed, insurgent and criminal militias serving leaders who openly call for the defeat and humiliation of the United States and its allies in Iraq and throughout the region."

These depictions ignore an inconvenient truth: The leaders in Iraq's current government are closely aligned with Tehran and represent some of Iran's closest allies in Iraq. This is perhaps best illustrated by the warm welcome Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad received in his visit to Iraq last month, which punctures the myth that the current battle is between a unified Iraqi government and fringe groups receiving support from Iran.

There is little doubt about who is Iran's primary proxy in Iraq: the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. This leading Shiite faction, now a key member of the ruling coalition in Iraq's government, was founded in the early 1980s by exiled Iraqi clerical activists in Iran, with the blessing and support of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The Quds Force, a special branch of the ayatollah's Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, created and trained the supreme council's armed wing, the Badr Corps, for the express purpose of eventually serving as an arm of the Quds Force in Iraq. The supreme council was among the Iraqi exile parties with which the U.S. worked in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, even though it maintained close ties to Iran. And the Iraqi Shiite faction continues to receive Iranian funds.

Thousands of these Iranian-trained and indoctrinated militiamen have been incorporated into the Iraqi police and army, the security forces that U.S. taxpayers have supported at the cost of more than $21 billion. So one consequence of the long-standing U.S. policy in Iraq has been to boost the power of Iran's best allies there - by directly funding and arming Iraqi security forces.

Over the past five years, Iran has hedged its bets, maintaining ties and offering support to all of the major Shiite factions in Iraq, including Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army, which fought pitched battles with the Iraqi army and the Badr Corps last month. But Americans should be clear about where Iran's closest allies are in Iraq. They are at the highest levels of the Iraqi government.

With the Iraq war in its sixth year, the United States needs to step back from its current approach in Iraq, which at best could be described as strategic confusion. The United States is working to isolate the Iranian regime internationally through sanctions and threats, yet in Iraq our current policy is working to consolidate the historic expansion of Iran's influence that came as a consequence of the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

It is time for the United States to remove itself from the quagmire in Iraq and begin a phased redeployment of troops. Staying on the current path will only continue to strengthen Iran's position in Iraq and the region, a result that undermines America's national security interests.

Brian Katulis is a senior fellow and national security expert at the Center for American Progress in Washington. His e-mail is bkatulis@americanprogress.org. Matthew Duss is a research associate at the center. His e-mail is mduss@americanprogress.org.

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