December 25, 2006

Iran - still part of the problem

One of the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group (See my Iraq Study Group - Iran and Syria part of the problem) is to engage both Iran and Syria to develop a new strategy for Iraq. It is no secret that I have always viewed Iran and Syria as part of the problem, not part of the solution.

The New York Times reported today that at least six Iranians have been detained in Iraq as the result of raids by American forces (read story). Two of those initially detained turned out to be Iranian diplomats in Baghdad at the invitation of Iraqi president Jalal Talabani. Talabani, a Kurd, has longstanding ties to Tehran. The two diplomats were released, but at least four other Iranians, described by American authorities as senior military officers, remain in U.S. custody. Iraqi and Iranian officials are pressing the Americans to release the four.

Talabani was understandably unhappy with the detention of the two diplomats, but that issue seems to have been resolved. Other Iraqi officials are upset because at least one of the raids occurred on the compound of 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Hakim, leader of the Shi'a Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and its associated militia, the Badr Corps. Al-Hakim was recently in the United States for a meeting with President Bush.

The raids highlight several issues. First, there is the issue of Iranian involvement. While relations between Iran and Iraq are inevitable - they share a long border and a history of conflict. They also share majority Shi'a populations. With a majority Shi'a government in Baghdad, those relations will naturally improve, but the United States must ensure that the relationship does not jeopardize American interests in the region.

Secondly, the government of Nuri Al-Maliki must address the issue of the Shi'a militias, both the jaysh al-mahdi (the Mahdi Army) of Muqtada Al-Sadr and SCIRI Badr Corps. If he is unwilling or incapable of doing this, he has to go. Thus far, he has not shown either. As long as the militias continue to operate with tacit government permission, the civil war between Shi'a and Sunni will continue unabated - with American forces often caught between the opposing sides.

Thirdly, the Iraqi government needs to get over this indignation when American forces conduct raids in Shi'a areas. Whose side are they on?

Iranian meddling in Iraqi affairs is nothing new. It was the Iranians who sparked the 1991 Shi'a rebellion in southern Iraq against the Saddam Husayn regime in the aftermath of the Gulf War. Immediately after the withdrawal of American forces from southern Iraq, Iraqi soldiers detected the infiltration of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force members. It was these Iranians who convinced their fellow Shi'a to rise up against Saddam, with disastrous results.

Over the last two years, senior American leaders in Iraq have accused Iran (specifically the Qods Force) from providing arms to both the Sunni insurgents and the Shi'a militias in Iraq. They may now have gathered evidence to back up those accusations.

Iran continues to be part of the problem. It is hard to imagine them as part of the solution.