Lack of U.S. strategy for Iran a missing link
By JIM HOAGLAND
Americans can be forgiven for asking of Iraqi Shiites the famous and ill-advised question Sigmund Freud asked about women: What do they want? A year ago this weekend, Shiite crowds cheered as U.S. troops drove into Baghdad and toppled statues of Saddam Hussein. This springtime, Shiite gangs in southern Iraq are shooting at their liberators.
That is only part of what would intrigue Dr. Freud. The Shiites are just as justified in asking his question of the Bush administration, which has shown a psychological unwillingness to accept two major policy corollaries of its swift military victory in Baghdad.
The defeat of the Baathists changed much in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. But Washington has not used that victory and the year that has passed to seek a change in relations with -- or regional strategy toward -- Iran. The administration has chosen not to choose when it comes to the nation that is Iraq's most important and most dangerous neighbor, a major supporter of international terrorism and the only country ruled by a Shiite majority.
Change on Iran should have been the first clear policy corollary of regime change in Iraq. But there was either no point or no way to accommodate Tehran's large stakes in post-Saddam Iraq, U.S. policy-makers concluded. Neither was it possible to prevent Iran's ruling Shiite clerics from influencing events and attitudes in the large Shiite population centers in Baghdad and southern Iraq.
Instead the administration left U.S. policy on Iran in a steadily deepening limbo: Once a member of the "axis of evil," Iran became the embarrassing, unaddressed missing link in the Bush administration's bold ambitions to transform Iraq and to becalm the world's most volatile and treacherous region. Iran slipped into the "too hard" file.
That is understandable, if unforgivable. No one has a sure-fire policy for dealing with the theocratic state founded on the ruins of the Persian empire. France, Germany and Britain have proved this in trying to talk the ayatollahs out of developing nuclear weapons. Despite clear and repeated Iranian lying to them, the Europeans persevere.
"In the end, we may wind up only slowing them down -- hopefully significantly -- in what they intended to do all along," a European participant in this effort told me recently. "But given the lack of any other workable option, this is worth doing."
U.S.-Iranian discussions on cooperating -- or at least on not crossing wires -- in Iraq would have been difficult to arrange and carry out. It would not have been as simple as the indirect but useful dialogue American diplomats had with the Iranians on post-Taliban Afghanistan, where Iranian interests and opportunities are substantially less than in Iraq.
But any serious effort in that direction was smothered in its crib by familiar hardliner vs. softliner debates within the administration -- and the less remarked on but equally crucial absence of a clear U.S. diplomatic strategy for consolidating and converting American battlefield prowess into sustainable political gains abroad. It is difficult to fit Iran into a strategy if there is no strategy to begin with.
Instead, policy has consisted of occasional growls from senior Pentagon officials warning Iran -- and its quasi-surrogate Syria -- to halt infiltration into Iraq, followed quickly by public assurances from the State Department that the growls do not represent threats of military action. Even Freud could not explain the Rumsfeldian-Powellian Syndrome that afflicts Bush foreign policy.
The effects of indecision on Iran could have been minimized if the administration had embraced the second corollary of changing regimes and establishing a parliamentary democracy in Iraq: Representatives of the Shiite majority had to become the most important consistent political partners for the United States in the first phases of constructing a new Iraq.
But the Coalition Provisional Authority leadership in Baghdad -- which was deeply suspicious of Tehran -- failed to convince Iraq's Shiites that their bottomless insecurities -- stirred greatly by the betrayal of their 1991 anti-Saddam uprising by the first Bush administration -- and political aspirations were understood in Washington. This left room for the bloody rabble rousing of Moqtada Sadr and the self-protective mysticism of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to cast doubts on American intentions and commitment.
Washington and the CPA have been running behind the growing radicalization of Iraq's Shiite community over the past three months. Iran's ayatollahs and their agents may well have played a role in that deterioration and the current upheaval. It is impossible to know at this point.
One thing is clear: Washington did not enunciate or pursue an Iran policy that would have prevented Tehran from doing its worst or would have encouraged it to do its best. That is the price of limbo. http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/ssistory.mpl/editorial/outlook/2497538