The Shadow of Terror over Iraq
March 10, 2006
The unfortunate bombing of one of the holiest Shi’a shrine in Samara is considered the most dramatic event since the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Some observers even went so far as to equate the incident as another 9/11 attack which would eventually decide the fate of new Iraq and American presence there. The immediate reaction of Shi’as against Sunnis escalated the crisis to a full-scale bloody confrontation between the two Moslem factions, and brought the country on the verge of a civil war. This whole situation happened at a critical point of time when the new democratically elected parliament was in the process of forming a permanent government.
What are the immediate and long term consequences of the impending crisis? How the neighboring nations, especially Iran as a Shiite state, will be affected by the event? What should be done to curb the negative implications and avoid the worst case situation to happen, namely the total disintegration of Iraq?
One of the most urgent outcomes of the crisis is the new obstacles before the formation of the Shiite-led government which has been charged for its anti-Sunni attitude. Mr. Al-Jafari, accused to be incompetent to establish law and order, is already under serious pressure from all sides, including secular Shiites and the Kurds, to withdraw his candidacy for premiership. The Sunni faction in the parliament (with 44 seats) may harden its position to participate in a national unity government and invest its supporting strength in the legitimacy of the political process.
Among the neighboring states, Iran has multiple interests in the current situation of Iraq. With a long history of rivalry, hostilities and war, Iran will be indeed affected in many ways by any haphazard development. Iranians perceive the present condition very volatile and fear eventual collapse of the new Iraq. Of course, this will not meet the expected objectives, aspirations and potential opportunities opened to them with the majority Shiites in Power.
First of all, we should realize that Iran’s national interests are very much tied to all political, strategic and structural changes in Iraq. The collapse of the Baath regime, through the American military intervention, has created a new strategic environment for the Islamic regime in Tehran. Thus, Iran’s national interests are best served by a stable, democratic and free Iraq with a legitimate strong government willing to cooperate with its neighbors in the promotion of regional calm and security.
From a realistic point of view, Iran has every reason now to support the established Shiite-led government in Iraq and try its best to promote the delicate balance and stability there. Of course, at the beginning of U.S. military intervention in Iraq, Iranian leaders were quite anxious and believed that a quick victory in Iraq would bring the Americans in a face-to-face confrontation with the objective of toppling the Islamic regime. But now, after three years of harsh violence and bloodshed, Iran has gained some sort of assurance that the Americans would not venture another gamble whose outcome is quite uncertain.
As a point of interest, we should remember that since the beginning of U.S. intervention in Iraq, Iran has followed a clever policy that may be termed as a ‘two pillar strategy’ with respect to Iraq. On the one hand, it condemned American military intervention as an unlawful and aggressive act against a Moslem country, on the other it considered the downfall of Saddam Hussein and the Baath regime as a God blessing.
In fact, the downfall of Iran’s archenemy and longtime hostile produced a number of challenges and opportunities for Iran. The most threatening challenge was and still is the presence of American forces all around Iran, which virtually encircle Iran’s strategic position on land and at sea. This dimension of U.S. intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan could have been very alarming if Americans had succeeded to a quick round up in Iraq and did not encounter serious challenge by insurgents.
Thus apparently, it seems that the continued turmoil and insurgency in Iraq has an immediate benefit for Iran, since the United States may not be tempted to use hard power against Iran in the foreseeable future. But, at the same time, if chaotic situation continues and passes a certain threshold, it would be counterproductive for all neighboring states and the region as a whole. This proposition is especially true with respect to Iran, which has a lot of common interests with the newly established Shiite majority in Iraq. Therefore, it is fair to suggest that Iran should rationally do everything in its power to attenuate the ethnic, religious, sectarian and tribal conflicts in Iraq; since, it is itself very vulnerable on these matters.
With respect to the United States, public opinion is rapidly changing course not only inside but outside U.S. as well. Most recent survey show that an average of 60 percent in the 33 nations agreed that the March 2003 invasion of Iraq had increased the likelihood of terrorist attacks around the world. Indeed, the new situation is quite alarming for the American strategy in the Middle East, and many U.S. traditional friends are under severe pressure to do away with the horrible hurdle.
It has now become quite evident that American military planners failed to anticipate or prepare for any serious resistance and insurgency after the downfall of Saddam Hussein and perhaps less so after his miserable capture and trial.
Still now the intelligence about the identity of peoples who commit suicide attacks is very vague and unreliable. Even Iraqi officials have little understanding of the relative strength of Iraqi nationals and foreigners including Al-Qaeda, among fighters and the probable connections between the two groups. Iraqi officials have always put the blame on “extremist groups from abroad that merely objected to the presence of Americans and other foreign troops in Iraq.” It was also claimed that these groups are out to set “a sense of permanent violence to intimidate people and turn them against the government.”
Despite the fact that attacks on the Shiite shrine have triggered widespread violence in Iraq, it appears that those who wanted to foment an all-out civil war with the evil objective to topple the fragile government are not being much successful. An optimistic assessment leads one to believe that the majority of Iraqis now have every reason to be willing to avoid bloodshed and benefit from the potential democratic environment created at a very high price. Yet, they too seem to think that terrorism in Iraq is now a direct consequence of American and foreign presence, and thus would prefer to see their gradual withdrawal from their lands. Eventually, a quick solution to the crisis would be the replacement of U.N. Peace-keeping forces, composed of major elements of the existing coalition and other states, to take charge of security and order in war-torn Iraq.
[*] Professor of International Relations, Tehran-Iran.