With the Bush administration facing a deepening quagmire in Iraq, it is seeking to divert attention from its inaccurate pre-war claims and inadequate plans by consigning fault to external actors. The Islamic Republic of Iran seems tailor-made for such a campaign. A charter member of the "Axis of Evil" and a theocracy whose rule is predicated on a radical Shiite ideology, Iran is well placed to take the blame. President Bush recently led off the chorus by claiming that Iran "will be held accountable" for its lack of cooperation, while Secretary Rumsfeld accused Iran of "meddling" in Iraq.
While wariness of Iran’s intentions is certainly warranted – given Tehran’s volatile relationship with the United States – the problem with such assertions is that Iran’s vision for postwar Iraq actually conforms to that of Washington. It is undeniable that Iran is active in Iraq, as it seeks to maximize its influence with the contending Iraqi factions. However, avoiding an Iraqi civil war and sustaining Iraq as a nation are important Iranian national objectives. Instead of denouncing Iran as a meddlesome actor, United States should recognize that its quest to create a stable and representative Iraq commands a receptive audience in the theocracy next door.
The Persian Gulf, encompassing Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and several smaller states, constitutes the most important strategic arena for Iran, providing its most direct link to the international petroleum market. Turmoil and instability in the Gulf region therefore pose both a security and economic dilemma for Iran, which fears that conflict in Iraq could create chaotic reverberations. In one of the Middle East’s many paradoxes, even the most reactionary Iranian mullahs have emerged as ardent proponents of pluralism in Iraq.
Skeptics dismiss this rhetoric as evidence that the clerical regime is hoping to empower Iraq’s Shiite Muslims, who will in turn behave as its compliant agents. However, unlike their counterparts in the West, Iran’s leaders recognize that the long-suppressed Shiite populace in Iraq has no intention of subordinating its national aspirations to Iran’s geopolitical ambitions.
Tehran appreciates that the best manner of exerting influence over internal Iraqi deliberations is to avoid stridently pressing its revolutionary template on a very different Iraqi society. As Iran’s Foreign Minister, Kamal Kharrazi, has stressed, "No Iranian official has suggested the formation of Iranian style government in Iraq."
Iran’s persistent pressure for democratic pluralism and the necessity of Shiite representation in Iraq has a security basis. From the perspective of Iranian decision-makers, Iraq’s past belligerent policies resulted from Sunni domination of its politics. The Sunni-minority sought to justify its monopolization of political power by embracing a pan-Arabist foreign policy and mobilizing the Iraqi nation into an aggressive Arab entity. Under the banner of Arabism, successive Iraqi strongmen positioned their state as the natural leader of the Gulf and sought to enlist the intimidated sheikhdoms in their struggle against Iraq’s non-Arab neighbors, Iran and Turkey.
Conversely, Iraq’s Shiite elites have traditionally pressed for a regional policy that forgoes divisive pan-Arabist pretensions and calls for proper relations with Iran and Turkey. A post-Saddam government comprised of such voices can be counted on to curb the potential resurrection of Iraq as a revisionist state seeking to dominate the regional order.
In this context, Iran’s advocacy of pluralism is not designed so much to secure compliant Shiite clients, as to produce a governing order less inclined toward regional adventurism. Indeed, the creation of such an Iraq has also been an important U.S. policy objective since the first Gulf War.
Framing Iran’s calculations on Iraq is the reality of American power and tenacity. Iran’s leaders understand that any prospective immediate gains in Iraq have to be counterbalanced with the prospect of conflict with the United States, compelling Iranian deference and even occasional cooperation. Iran’s initial hope for a quick transfer of power to the United Nations and departure of U.S. forces has evaporated, as Tehran has grudgingly recognized the durability of America’s presence.
Given the centrality of Iraq to U.S. foreign policy, Iran appreciates that it must tread cautiously and not be seen as undermining Iraqi stability. Iran’s powerful Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Hasan Rouhani, has insisted on this point, claiming, "Tehran does not want confrontation and friction with America over Iraq." The influential Iranian paper Aftab-e Yazd, which boasts ties to the foreign policy establishment, echoed this sentiment, noting, "we cannot think of resorting to confrontation to dissuade America and ensure the failure of its efforts and those of its allies."
Despite their differing foreign policies, the American and Iranian perspectives have fortuitously converged in their approaches to post-Saddam Iraq, in the sense that both parties desire a unitary, pluralistic state. For its part, Tehran holds out the possibility of cooperating with the United States in achieving their shared objectives, despite its vociferous objections to the American intervention itself. Deputy Foreign Minister Hussein Adeli recently put forward such prospects, claiming, "We don’t mind joining forces with all countries including Americans to do something over there [Iraq]."
Should the United States choose to engage with Iran on the issue of Iraq’s political transition, it could not only open a much needed diplomatic door in the troubled U.S.-Iran relationship, but can also expect to find a relatively constructive interlocutor.
Ray Takeyh is an adjunct scholar at the Center for American Progress and a Professor at the National Defense University.