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US, Iran Slug It Out over Iraq

As the US and Iran play out a tug-of-war over Iraq with the former trying to control the situation in Iraq through the heavily Iran-influenced shia leadership of the country, an invasion of Iran by the US seems unlikely.

US, Iran Slug It Outover Iraq

As the US and Iran play out a tug-of-war over Iraq with the former trying to control the situation in Iraq through the heavily Iran-influenced shia leadership of the country, an invasion of

Iran by the US seems unlikely.


our years after the invasion of Iraq, rather than seeing the conflict winding down the scenario is turning more complex with the US firmly fixing Iran too in its cross hairs. On the face of it the US threat against Iran is bemusing as any attack, even if only on its nuclear installations, expected to have disastrous consequences not only for the region but also for the rest of the world. Already hopping around with a bloodied nose, the Bush administration’s belligerence appears to indicate desperation at the nearuncontrollable situation in Iraq rather than a reaction to Iran’s dogged insistence on continuing with its project to generate electricity using nuclear energy.

Ever since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, each time an event of significance occurred, the US expressed hope that the situation would somehow stabilise, but that has not come about. First, after the occupation of Baghdad and the ouster of the Saddam Hussein regime, “In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed”, proudly proclaimed US president George W Bush on board the ship USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003. The bellicose proclamation has come to haunt him ever since. The US’ hopes were again up when the sons of Saddam were killed, but there was no let-up in violence. US officials heaved a huge sigh of relief when the deposed president was caught, “Ladies and gentlemen, we got him” exulted L Paul Bremer, then US administrator in Iraq. After a brief lull, violence picked up again and in greater intensity. It degenerated from anti-US resistance to a barely concealed subterranean internecine conflict. Elections and a new constitution followed, but made no difference, and finally, Saddam Hussein was hanged. Again it had no impact on the levels of violence.

The US now prefers to see Tehran’s Ahmadinejad regime as the reason for the continuing conflict in Iraq. Not just that, Washington fears that in the event of a withdrawal, Iran’s clout in Iraq and by extension across the region will increase manifold. This is already causing jitters among its allies – the sunni-ruled regimes in Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Gulf.

In the run-up to the invasion, Washington calculated that the majority shia population in Iraq would back it in its overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the sunnidominated government. A sizeable section of the shia did support the invasion. Once a new regime was installed in Baghdad, it should have been simple enough for the US. This is where Iran came into the picture, for much of the shia leadership which backed the US invasion was also heavily influenced by the shia-led Islamic leadership of neighbouring Iran. The US could not do without the shias even if it meant more influence for Tehran. Washington’s antagonists were the sunnis in Iraq, and marginalising them meant sidelining the closest allies of the US including Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Caught in this deadly conundrum, the US has found all its strategies in effecting total control, peace and stability in Iraq coming to naught. With sunni support for the US next to impossible in Iraq, the only way forward was to empower the shia in Iraq while ensuring that Iran did not benefit from this arrangement. This, the US has not been able to manage.

US-Iran Stand-off

That Iran has proved to be an obstacle to the US is not new. Ever since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, the US has tried many different ways to tame Tehran and bring it in line with Washington’s geopolitical vision. In the immediate aftermath of the Iranian revolution in 1979, it backed Saddam Hussein in Iraq’s war with its neighbour, but to no avail, as Iran determinedly fought off the challenge. Washington attempted covert support to disgruntled groups and leaders within Iran, but the hold of the Islamic clergy was too strong for the US-backed reformists to make a dent.

The US attempts to monitor and curtail Iran’s nuclear programme go back to the 1990s when it blocked Tehran’s attempts to acquire requisite technology, but Iran managed to skirt the restrictions imposed by the US. For a while, the nuclear issue took backstage while the US turned its destructive third eye on Iraq. At the time of Iraq’s invasion, Iran was headed by a reformist president, Muhammad Khatami, who seemed to blunt anti-US sentiments and held forth the promise of paving the way for a possible resumption of diplomatic relations with Washington. US hopes were dashed when the reformist contender was thrown out in elections only to be replaced by the hardliners led by Ahmadinejad in June 2005. Two months later, the US raised the nuclear issue to a new pitch, threatening the Iranian regime with a United Nations Security Council action.


According to some indications, the US may in fact be playing a game of brinkmanship with a view to pressuring Iran against meddling in Iraq’s fluid politics and proving troublesome for Washington there. For the US realises, and over the last few months has been forced to accept Tehran’s enormous influence in Iraq on the shia government and on the leadership of the anti-US shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr. Logically, if there is ever any possibility of working out peace in Iraq it is not possible without the cooperation of Iran.

When the US government sent in its second battle fleet into the Persian Gulf recently, speculation mounted of an imminent attack on Iran. Such a possibility had even the US military in a sweat. So much so, five top generals indicated they would resign if a go-ahead was received to attack Iran, but the US defence secretary Robert M Gates publicly told reporters there was no intention of attacking Iran.

With Iran busy trying to fend off the US-led moves to isolate and squeeze it

Economic and Political Weekly April 28, 2007 on the nuclear issue, the US is using the opportunity on another flank to force Tehran to keep off Iraq. President Bush has not only authorised US military personnel to treat Iranian intelligence agents and paramilitary operatives in Iraq as “enemy combatants” he is also reportedly egging on friendly sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia to register their protests over Iranian “interference” in Iraq. As an unnamed official quoted by the Washington Post told Iran, “Your power is not unlimited. You can’t go anywhere and do anything you want.”

Iran, at least publicly, has remained not only steadfast in its resolve to go ahead with the nuclear programme but has also attempted to counter US pressure by activating its link to the shia militias in Lebanon and backing Hamas in Palestine. This moved Washington to allege that Tehran was behind the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers leading to the limited Israeli-Lebanese Hizballah fighting last year. Moreover, the Ahmadinejad government has reportedly prepared sleeper cells of its agents in various US-allied Arab countries who are expected to turn active and inflict extensive damage on anyone backing Washington in a possible attack.

The latest incident of Iran taking into custody 15 British sailors and marines is being viewed by analysts as another example of how Tehran wants to show its disdain and flex muscles while not aiming directly at the US. Tehran’s action, incidentally, came about apparently in retaliation against the arrest of five Iranian diplomats in northern Iraq’s Irbil city in January in a US raid. Overall, the situation translates into a veritable tug-ofwar situation between the US and Iran for influence over Iraq.

Amidst this, top US and Iran officials have reportedly kept a line open on Iraq and discussed ways of cooperating to bring about a semblance of peace in the country. The willingness of Iran to talk with US officials is a sign that Tehran would prefer not to invite Washington’s military wrath. As for the Bush administration, as long as Iran continues to cooperate or at least appears conducive to the idea, the chances of firing a missile into Tehran look remote. Unless of course, an unexpected spark along the Iraq-Iran border wills otherwise.



Economic and Political Weekly April 28, 2007

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