Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The Wheel's Still in Spin

Austin Bay, returned from Iraq begins with this provocative leader:

Mark it on your calendar: Next month, the Arab Middle East will revolt. ...

Put a circle around Jan. 9. That's the day Palestinians go to the polls to elect a president. ... Draw another circle around Jan. 30. That's Iraq's first election day. Underline the two weeks prior to Jan. 30. That will be a savage fortnight in which terror campaigns and political campaigns collide. Democratic candidates will be assassinated and polling stations will be blown to bits, as Saddamite and Al Qaeda reactionaries -- the Middle East's ancien regime of tyrant and terrorist -- attempt to force an oppressed people to submit one more time to the yoke of fear.

But they are going to fail.

And earlier Belmont Club post linked to a Marc Ruel Gerecht article which argues much the same thing in principle: that a new Iraqi state represents a real threat to the Mullahs in Iran. He explains why.

Which brings us to the Jan. 30 elections in Iraq. Clerical Iran's primary objective is to ensure that Iraq remains destabilized, incapable of coalescing around a democratically elected government. Such a government supported by Iraq's Shiite establishment is a dagger aimed at Tehran's clerical dictatorship. ... What clerical Iran ideally wants to see next door is strife that can produce an Iraqi Hezbollah. ... The birth of the Lebanese Hezbollah, which Iran's ruling mullahs view as their greatest--only--foreign success, required a civil war and an Israeli invasion. In Iraq, Iran's ruling clerics have an American invasion. What they lack is civil war. ...

If the neighboring one-man, one-vote clerics can be downed and America can be physically and spiritually drained in Iraq, then the two most feared, disruptive forces in Iranian politics--Western-oriented Iranian youth and pro-democracy dissident clerics--can be further weakened. ... In Iraq, the U.S. ought to have two obvious goals. To crush the Sunni insurgency before it can provoke the birth of an exclusive, angry Shiite political identity willing to do to the Arab Sunnis what the Baath once did to the Shia. If such an identity is born, it is most unlikely democracy can prevail. Washington must thus ensure that the democratic process in Iraq, regardless of the violence, keeps on rolling. As long as it does, clerical Iran will not be able to gain much traction inside the country.

The really fascinating aspect of both men's analysis is the idea that freedom and politics are really going to be the agents of destruction for the "ancien regime of tyrant and terrorist",  not as a figure of speech but as literal truth. The role of the US military would be strategically indirect and subtle: to ensure that the old regimes cannot contain the forces that would naturally spring up against them.

In this view, victory against terror need not take the form of the 101st Airborne marching into Teheran. It would be enough to merely hold the ring in Iraq to win over the Mullahs. Nations often return to strategies which they are most familiar with. Iran instinctively turned to the Lebanese experience to model its confrontation with America. It was natural that the United States might remember Europe and Korea when at war again. In both cases America won a decisive victory not by marching into Moscow or Pyongyang, but by merely ensuring that Western Europe and South Korea developed separately. In Iraq the old was new again.

John Burns of the New York Times describes the potential of the Iraqi election to rock Damascus, Teheran and even Washington.

On a list of 228 candidates submitted by a powerful Shiite-led political alliance to Iraq's electoral commission last week, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim's name was entered as No. 1. It was the clearest indication yet that in the Jan. 30 election, with Iraq's Shiite majority likely to heavily outnumber Sunni voters, Mr. Hakim may emerge as the country's most powerful political figure.

Mr. Hakim, in his early 50's, is a pre-eminent example of a class of Iraqi Shiite leaders with close ties to Iran's ruling ayatollahs. He spent nearly a quarter of a century in exile in Iran. His political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, was founded in Tehran, and its military wing fought alongside Iranian troops during the Iran-Iraq war. American intelligence officials say he had close ties with Iran's secret services.

For the United States, and for Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which have Sunni Muslim majorities, the prospect of Mr. Hakim and his associates coming to power raises in stark form the brooding issue of Iran's future influence in Iraq.

It was the Americans who seem most confident about the possible outcomes. "They say Iraqi clerics are generally wary of the idea of religious government, partly because of an entrenched doctrinal opposition among Iraq's Shiite religious leaders to direct rule by clerics, and partly because they recognize that Iraq's Sunni Muslims would fiercely resist it." Hakim himself has publicly said that clerics should keep out of politics and remain in the mosques.

In addition, Iraqi and American officials say, the ethnic and cultural divisions that have carved deep historical fissures between Iran and Iraq militate against Iraq becoming a client state of Iran. ... American and Iraqi officials said polls commissioned by the American occupation authority, and more recently by the interim government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, have shown that ordinary Iraqis, including Shiites, are deeply suspicious of Iran's religious leadership and strongly averse to a government dominated by religious figures. ...

Many American and Iraqi officials say the talk of Iranian influence here reflects what they call a more plausible fear: that Shiite dominance in Iraq, coupled with Shiite rule in Iran, would reshape the geopolitical map of the Middle East. The development would be particularly threatening to Sunni-ruled states that border Iraq and run down the Persian Gulf, the officials say, carrying as it would the threat of increasing unrest among long-suppressed Shiite populations.

The outcome is far from foregone. The great likelihood is that the Palestinian and Iraqi elections, far from pouring oil to calm the waters, is likely to ignite them. While there may be a reduction in physical violence, the elections herald a shift in the ethnic balance of power and inaugurate a new standard for a political change in the Middle East. The US is calculating that its armed forces and political process will give it the edge in the tectonic upheavals that it will itself provoke.