They say a picture is worth a thousand words. And the image of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad glowing -- radiating a Bush-like smugness, some might say -- during a red-carpet welcome in the American-occupied "Green Zone" in Baghdad last week was no exception. That picture was more powerful than a thousand pages in illuminating who has emerged as the big winner after the United States ousted Saddam Hussein.
By contrast, recall the images of U.S. President Bush's brief and somewhat stealthy outings in Iraq. The commander of the most powerful military in the world, whose 160,000 troops are occupying Iraq, resembled a thief sneaking under cover of night into Aladdin's cave. The Iranian leader's two-day visit proved anything but stealthy. Ahmadinejad was received with great fanfare by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki -- supposedly an ally of Washington -- who, not unlike many of the other members of Iraq's ruling Shiite leadership had spent several years in exile in Iran and maintains close political, religious and personal ties with the Shiite ayatollahs in Tehran.
In fact, the costly U.S. invasion of Iraq -- which removed from power the Sunni-controlled regime that had fought a bloody eight-year war with Iran -- has created the conditions under which an historic first visit by an Iranian President to Iraq could take place. Indeed, Ahmadinejad declared that his visit had opened a "new page" in the relations between Iran and Iraq. And he suggested that "the Americans have to understand the facts of the region" and that "the Iraqi people do not like America." He also warned that a continuing U.S. presence in Iraq "will increase the problems in the region and will not solve them."
These comments by the controversial Iranian leader should not be dismissed offhand by the Bush administration, which continues to depict Iran as a "threat" to Iraqi stability and as an "exporter of terrorism" into that country. Most opinion polls indicate that, indeed, most Iraqis -- and actually, most Americans -- would like to see a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Mesopotamia. At the same time, Iranian leaders and members of the dominant Shiite majority have welcomed the growing Iranian political, economic and religious influence in their country, while the Kurds have accepted that development as part of the post-Saddam Hussein reality of a resurgent Iran.
If anything, what worries the Shiite leaders in Baghdad much more than the rising Iranian influence is the continuing American assistance to Iraqi-Sunni tribal leaders, which Washington describes as part of a strategy to counter al-Qaida in Iraq but which Iraqi Shiites see as an effort to strengthen the leaders of a rival sectarian group that had served as the political base of the Saddam Hussein's Baath party.
The irony is that the Bush administration, after upsetting an old balance of power in the Persian Gulf -- under which Iraq was able to counter Iran's influence -- and making it possible for the radical regime in Tehran to emerge as the pre-eminent power in the region, is now trying to return at least some elements of the old status quo.
But while it might help provide short-term security in parts of Iraq, bolstering the military power of Iraq's Sunnis only helps to antagonize the Shiites who count on Iran in their struggle with the Sunnis. At the same time, the U.S. effort to "contain" Iran with ineffectual U.N. Security Council resolutions seems to be leading nowhere, while Sunni Arab regimes like that of Egypt are trying to reach their own form of detente with Tehran.
Republican presidential nominee John McCain and some of the neoconservative ideologues who support him seem to suggest that only the application of U.S. military power will counter the power of Iran and help reassert U.S. influence in the Persian Gulf. That would be a huge strategic mistake, leading to more instability in the region and damaging U.S. interests. The only way a new American administration will secure U.S. influence in the region is by opening a diplomatic dialogue with Tehran.