What's going on here? Is it possible the United States is working with the hated theocratic regime in Iran to solve the challenges to establishing democracy in Iraq? It appears so. However, this approach is seriously wrong from every angle. The good news is that viable options exist.
When President Bush correctly identified Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an "axis of evil" in his 2003 State of the Union address, he warned that it was critical to world safety to nullify these countries' abilities to do mischief to other nations.
To date, Bush's grand strategy for Iraq and the region has worked remarkably well. The US military successes in Iraq and its reiterated determination to stay the course have resulted in significant progress rebuilding the country's infrastructure and government. As a direct result of America's seriousness of purpose, there have been major changes in Libya, fundamental reassessment by Syria of its allegiances, initial steps towards elected government in Saudi Arabia and unprecedented admissions of nuclear culpability by Iran.
All this has created respect, if not affection, for the U.S. - respect unseen for decades. The Administration's increasingly public rapprochement with Iran, the most powerful of the three charter members of the "axis of evil" could nullify many of the major achievements gained to date. If continued, such action would cast further doubt about the trustworthiness of the US as an ally, and once again put American prestige in the Middle East on a downward path.
Regime removal in Iraq and steady progress with a Chinese-led multilateral approach to pursuing substantive change in North Korea are powerful examples of Washington's determination to alter drastically the status quo. In Iran, however, negotiation with the mullahs in power is totally antithetical to the Administration's stated policy and radically undercuts the massive popular unrest against the country's oppressively corrupt, aggressively expansionist Islamist regime.
There is no underestimating the challenges confronting George W. Bush, his Administration and its Coalition allies. More dangers than can readily be counted lurk in virtually every corner of the world - well beyond the boundaries of the three cardinal members of the "axis of evil" -- as a grand coalition of nations led by the United States wages the War on Terror.
Iran poses the most complicated and conflicting issues and presents as Byzantine a set of challenges as can be imagined. Consider:
- Between 65 and 85 percent of Iranians are opposed to the mullahs who have reigned in despotic fashion for a quarter century.
- The "moderate" mullahs, led by President Mohammad Khatami, have repeatedly shown themselves to represent a hollow reformist movement, controlled in various ways by the hardliners.
- The Iraqi Shiite community, 60 percent of the population, is led by the complex Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani, who refuses even to meet with Coalition head, Ambassador Paul Bremer. Although he has lived in Iraq for most of his life, Al-Sistani was born and raised in Iran, where his negative estimate of the United States was nurtured. It was sealed in the days following Desert Storm, when the Americans encouraged but failed to support Shiite rebellion against Saddam Hussein.
- Iran is clearly angling for an Islamist religious state in Iraq. It is unclear whether Al-Sistani's protestations that he favors a secular regime are real or window-dressing. His insistence on early direct elections, before a constitution is written and promulgated and a reasonably accurate census taken, would result in electoral chaos favoring a Shiite sweep. Tehran's mullahs understand, whether Al-Sistani does or not, that as renowned Princeton professor Bernard Lewis puts it, "Democracy is strong medicine, which you have to give … in small, gradually increasing doses. If you give too much too quickly, you kill the patient." And it may be said the mullahs are praying for snap direct elections.
Al-Sistani has said, "The best thing is to conduct general elections," reportedly with the understanding that several experts believe that the elections could be conducted in the next few months. The Grand Ayatollah has also stressed that any new constitution should be approved by the Iraqi people in a referendum. He knows very well that there is unanimous agreement that power should be transferred to the Iraqis as soon as possible, but he doubts U.S. administration's ability to transfer power in Iraq to an appointed transitional government by midyear, as U.S. officials in Baghdad and Washington have recently stated.
Anti-mullah Iranian observer Amir Tahiri believes the Iraqis have no desire to prolong the period of uncertainty, having awakened from a half century of oppression, terrorism and war. He further comments that Ayatollah Sistani "does not want to take the blame for any unrest resulting from delaying the elections and prolonging the duration of the allied military presence in the country."
Al-Sistani's views should certainly be taken into account, but they should not be treated as anything more than an opinion. Moreover, his claim to favor total separation of mosque and state is based on the fear that politics may pollute spiritual matters. There is no history of "walayat al-faqih", that is, absolute rule by the mullahs in Iraq, unlike in Iran. Thus, the political views of clerics including Al-Sistani, while welcome and worthy of attention, do not automatically overrule other views.
Nevertheless, the possibility of two of the region's wealthiest and most powerful nations - Iran and neighboring Iraq - run by Islamist governments should give Washington policy makers nightmares. Unfortunately, the dominant view on the Potomac seems to be that the United States must achieve détente with Iran if it is to keep peace with the all-important Shiite community in Iraq. Pursuit of anything approaching normal bilateral relations, however, is fraught with dangers.
In Iran, disgust with the theocratic thugs running the country is so grave that many young people have ceased practicing the Muslim faith. Iranians know first-hand the duplicitous nature of their government. They know they may not nominate candidates for the supposedly free elections to the national Majlis [parliament], except those approved by the corrupt mullah-controlled Guardian Council.
They know that, despite inspections by the IAEA of its nuclear facilities, the regime will continue atomic development unless stopped by outside forces. And they know that their government continues to harbor Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in comfort and fund other murderous terrorists safely encamped in Lebanon as they plot fresh mischief against Israel.
Is it any wonder that, as Iranians view the United States moving to normalize relations with the mullahs, their previously held affection for America has begun to fall precipitately?
In Iraq, where the Shiite community is far from monolithic, Washington's acceptance of the peaceful-transition-through-Tehran thesis embitters those moderate Shiite leaders who have managed not to be murdered and who genuinely seek a secular government, representing the numerous ethnic and religious communities in the country. Two ayatollahs reasonably friendly to the United States have been assassinated, the one probably by killers obedient to Tehran and the other by Al Qaeda terrorists.
Moreover, U.S. détente with Tehran confounds efforts by moderate Sunnis and Kurds who try to convince their suspicious compatriots that they should put their trust in the United States' commitment to representative governance.
This all puts the previously promoted strategy of establishing Iraq as a beacon of democracy in the region at great risk. With a presidential election less than nine months away, President Bush's long enunciated determination to "do whatever it takes" to create a viable Iraq as an example for the unpopular regimes ruling most countries in the Middle East appears to have faded away.
Power is being ceded almost as fast as face is being lost to the politically ineffective United Nations. The UN is unexpectedly becoming a major interlocutor to Al- Sistani concerning election timing and organization, as well as advisor to the Interim Governing Council and the Coalition Authority on constitutional content and state structure.
Can the U.S. and its coalition partners really be willing to have the United Nations -- which so seriously corrupted the Oil-For-Food program, which worked assiduously with France, Germany and Russia to block the U.S.-led liberation of Iraq and which has failed to birth any country in the world, save tiny, destitute East Timor -- undertake such enormously complicated aspects of nation building in Iraq?
Can Washington have any hope that the UN is able to bring Iraq out of its post-Saddam trauma into a vibrant, free market democracy? If so, we are marching down a veritable road to perdition for the long-suffering Iraqis, America's valiant military, its Coalition partners and the Bush Administration itself. Oddly, no responsible Iraqi we have met believes so, vastly preferring America's remaining as both peacekeeper and nation builder.
It is not too late to change course.
Start with structure of the new Iraq. A confederation can have a coordinating but not centralized role over largely autonomous major communities. Three Iraqi "cantons" with Baghdad [a melting pot of Turkomen, Christians, Sunnis, Kurds and Shiite among others] the semi-autonomous capital and administrative district, would take its cue from Switzerland's 800 year success story. [Interestingly, key politicians in the European Union are today seriously exploring the Swiss method of dealing with heterogeneous communities.]