Neo-conservatives close to the administration of President George W Bush are pushing for retribution against Iran for, they say, sponsoring this week’s Shiite uprising in Iraq led by radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Despite the growing number of reports that depict the fighting as a spontaneous and indigenous revolt against the U.S.-led occupation, the influential neo-cons are calling on Bush to warn Tehran to cease its alleged backing for al-Sadr and other Shia militias or face retaliation, ranging from an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities to covert action designed to overthrow the government.
But independent experts say that while Iran has no doubt provided various forms of assistance to Shia factions in Iraq since the ouster of former President Saddam Hussein one year ago, its relations with Sadr have long been rocky, and that it has opposed radical actions that could destabilize the situation.
“Those elements closest to Iran among the Shiite clerics (in Iraq) have been the most moderate through all of this,” according to Shaul Bakhash, an Iran expert at George Mason University here.
Many regional specialists agree that Iran has a strategic interest in avoiding any train of events that risks plunging Iraq into chaos or civil war and partition.
Neo-conservatives centered in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office and among the civilian leadership in the Pentagon have strongly opposed any détente with Iran, and have frequently blamed it for problems the United States has encountered in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Neo-conservatives outside the administration, such as former Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle and his colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Michael Ledeen and Reuel Marc Gerecht, called even before the Iraq war for Washington to support indigenous efforts to oust the “mullahcracy” in Tehran, which is seen as an archenemy of both the United States and Israel.
Some neo-conservatives have seized on Sadr’s uprising as a new opportunity both to raise tensions against Iran and to divert attention from Washington’s bungling of relations with the Shia community in Iraq.
Top U.S. officials both here and in Iraq have not yet named Iran as the hidden hand behind Sadr, although a senior reporter at the right-wing Washington Times, Rowan Scarborough, quoted unnamed “military sources” Wednesday as telling him that Sadr “is being aided directly by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and by Hezbollah, an Iranian-created terrorist group based in Lebanon.”
Unnamed “Pentagon officials” gave a similar account to the New York Times, although Times reporter James Risen stressed that CIA officials disagreed with that analysis, adding, “some intelligence officials believe that the Pentagon has been eager to link Hezbollah to the violence in Iraq to link the Iranian regime more closely to anti-American terrorism.”
The Iran hand was first raised in connection with Sadr’s revolt by Michael Rubin, who just returned as a “governance team advisor” for the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq to his previous position as a resident fellow at AEI.
In a column published in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday, he complained that Washington and the CPA had failed to provide liberal and democratic Iraqi leaders with anything like the kind of support that Iran was supplying to radical Shia leaders and their “gangs.”
Rubin said that on a visit to the Shia-dominated south he found that Iranians were pouring money and arms to key Islamist parties, including the Da’wa, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and Sadr himself, whose rise over the past year, according to Rubin, is explained by the “ample funding he receives through Iran-based cleric Ayatollah Kazem al Haeri, a close associate of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini.”
Another senior CPA adviser, Larry Diamond, a neo-conservative who specializes in democratization at the California-based Hoover Institution, told IPS this week that Sadr’s Mahdi Army, and other Shia militias, are being armed and financed by Iran with the aim of imposing “another Iranian-style theocracy.”
“Iran is embarked on a concerned, clever, lavishly-resourced campaign to defeat any effort for any genuine pluralist democracy in Iraq,” said Diamond. “The longer we wait to confront the thug, the more troops he’ll have in his army, the more arms he’ll have and financial support virtually all coming from Iran the more he will intimidate and kill sincere democratic actors in the country, and the more impossible our task at building democracy will become.”
“I think we should tell the Iranian regime that if they don’t cease and desist, we will play the same game, that we will destabilize them,” he added.
On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page took up the same theme, arguing that Sadr has talked “openly of creating an Iranian-style Islamic Republic in Iraq (and) has visited Tehran since the fall of Saddam. “His Mahdi militia is almost certainly financed and trained by Iranians,” the editorial continued, adding, “Revolutionary Guards may be instigating some of the current unrest.”
“As for Tehran, we would hope the Sadr uprising puts to rest the illusion that the mullahs (in Tehran) can be appeased. As Bernard Lewis teaches, Middle Eastern leaders interpret American restraint as weakness. Iran’s mullahs fear a Muslim democracy in Iraq because is it a direct threat to their own rule.”
“If warnings to Tehran from Washington don’t impress them, perhaps some cruise missiles aimed at the Bushehr nuclear site will concentrate their minds,” the Journal suggested.
On Wednesday, New York Times columnist William Safire asserted the existence of an axis involving Sadr, Iran, Hezbollah and Syria. “We should break the Iranian-Hezbollah-Sadr connection in ways that our special forces know how to do,” he wrote.
But this line of reasoning appears particularly curious to Bakhash, who notes that the Sadr family, including Moqtada himself, is precisely the kind of Iraqi Shiite who would be deeply suspicious of Tehran.
“Sadr’s father was a strong Iraqi nationalist, like Moqtada himself,” he told IPS. “He often used to question why there were in Iraq ayatollahs who spoke Arabic with a Persian accent.”
Like other experts, Bakhash believes that Iran has indeed been heavily involved with the Iraqi Shia community, but sees the leadership providing far more support to SCIRI and its Badr brigades than to Sadr, who, from Tehran’s point of view, is seen as untrustworthy.
Bakhash also questions the neo-conservative assumption that Iran wants to destabilize Iraq now. “Obviously the Iranians are not unhappy to see the Americans discomfited in Iraq, but I don’t think it’s the policy of the Iranian government to destabilize Iraq right along its own border,” he said.
Middle East historian Juan Cole of the University of Michigan also questions the notion of a link between Iran and Sadr in the current uprising. While Sadr’s views on theocratic government are consistent with those of Iranian hardliners, according to Cole, his outspoken Iraqi nationalism poses a major challenge to Khameini’s claim to authority over all Shiite religious communities, including those outside Iran.
Contrary to the Journal‘s assumptions, adds Cole, Sadr did not receive much encouragement from the Iranian leaders he met in Tehran. “The message he got was that he should stop being so divisive and should cooperate more with the other Shiite leaders.”
Geoffrey Kemp, an Iran specialist at the Nixon Center and Middle East adviser on former president Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council staff, says he has little doubt the Iranians have influence with several different Shiite groups, and that there might even be “rogue elements” inside Iraq who back Sadr.
But he agrees that Tehran’s strongest ties are with SCIRI and the Badr Brigades, who were trained by the Revolutionary Guard inside Iran during Hussein’s rule. “The situation is far too complex to make simplistic statements about what Iran is or is not doing,” Kemp told IPS. “But to suggest that this is an Iranian-inspired insurrection is a stretch.”
“The neo-conservatives are all so heavily invested in the success of Iraq that instead of blaming the Pentagon for some extraordinary blunders, they want to blame everyone else the State Department, the Iranians, the Syrians for the mess that was partly of their own making.