In a speech to the national convention of the American Legion last Tuesday, President Bush warned that U.S. failure in Iraq would lead to an increased Iranian threat to the region and beyond. It’s a strange and inaccurate argument. To the extent that Iran poses such a threat, it is largely a creation of the Bush administration’s policies.
It is not at all clear why a defeat of the Sunni-dominated insurgency in Iraq would be bad for Shiite Iran. Indeed, one could make a better case that further weakening the Sunnis would actually strengthen Tehran’s hand. The big loser would more likely be Saudi Arabia, which has provided funding and military hardware for various Sunni factions in Iraq.
Iran’s principal avenue of influence in Iraq is the forces backing the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom Washington strongly supported when the Iraqi parliament chose him. These forces include the militias affiliated with the Dawa Party and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. Tehran’s ties with those factions are far stronger than they are with the more notorious Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.
The brutal truth is that it was almost certain from the day U.S. forces overthrew Saddam Hussein that Iran would be the main beneficiary of that action. Saddam had been the nemesis of the clerical regime in Tehran for nearly a quarter century. The two countries had waged an extremely bloody war throughout the 1980s, and Iraq’s Sunni political elite remained Iran’s mortal adversary. Iraq under Sunni rule was the principal strategic counterweight to an assertive Iran.
The United States did Tehran a huge favor by removing that political elite and paving the way for the Shiite-Kurdish alliance that now dominates Iraq’s political affairs. Having taken that step, it does little good now for President Bush to whine about Tehran’s expanded influence. It was predictable, and predicted by critics of the war, that Iraqi Shiites would embark on a close working relationship with their co-religionists across the border. That was a danger that administration officials should have considered far more seriously than they did before launching the invasion of Iraq.
The other problem Iran poses — its pursuit of a nuclear capability — is also not likely to be affected by the outcome of the insurgency in Iraq. Iran’s nuclear program long predates the onset of the current struggle to its west. Indeed, Iran’s nuclear ambitions date back the late 1960s, when the Shah, Washington’s close ally, was in power.
Tehran’s quest for nuclear weapons is an extremely thorny issue, and there are no easy solutions. But one thing is clear: A defeat of the insurgency in Iraq will not have a meaningful impact on it.
President Bush is ever more frantically grasping at straws to justify his faltering policy in Iraq. His argument that a victory in that country — even in the unlikely event one can be achieved — will check Iran’s strengthened position in the region is perhaps the least credible argument he has made to date.