Iran

All Quiet on the Political Front

Posted by Cutler on June 20, 2006
Foreign Policy Factions, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Saudi Arabia / No Comments

Right Arabists (so-called Realists) seem to be calling the shots at every turn and the Sunni Arab politicians in Iraq who tend to yell the loudest at the first sign of a Right Zionist tilt to Bush administration policy continue to be very quiet.

The stability of the political process looks impressive, although it will surely be tested by one or more possible scenarios.

First, the government of national unity would be tested by any serious attempt by US forces to crush the Sunni insurgency, such as the plan that AEIs Frederick Kagan presumably offered to President Bush during their recent meeting.

Juan Cole notes something like a news blackout on allegedly massive counter-insurgency operations in Baghdad and Ramadi right now. According to a New York Times report, US military officials deny that a Falluja-style assault is in the works.

Some Sunni Arab leaders have said they are worried that American forces may be preparing an offensive in Ramadi meant to wipe out the insurgent groups that have taken control of much of the city, similar to the November 2004 assault on Falluja by the Marines.

An American military official in Baghdad said on Sunday that no such offensive was planned. “We’re trying to separate the insurgents from the rest of the people,” the official said. “There are a lot of rumors flying around that people think it’s another Falluja. It’s not.”

One reason to believe these reports: Sunni Arab political leaders are, thus far, quiet. It would be difficult for them to remain so in the face of a major assault.

Second, any attempt to negotiate Constitutional changes will almost certainly re-open the sectarians wounds that have been sutured by the Maliki government.

Third, the Maliki government could be tested by more sectarian violence or intra-Shiite factionalism in Basra.

Until then, one cannot fail to notice that Iraqi politics look very calm right now. Pretty impressive, given the Haditha revelations, etc.

On Haditha: Funny how quiet imperialism becomes in the US when the Right Arabist political establishment has been restored to power and no longer has any use for the anti-war Left. Recall the extraordinary political outcry in 2004 from US political elites over Abu Ghraib during the era when Right Zionists were still running the show. Now compare that political storm to the muted themes (“clouds” and “contradictions” seem to be the watchwords at the New York Times) that have accompanied revelations about the Haditha massacre.

Where is Richard Lugar and his outrage? Silence.

Ledeen and Zarqawi

Posted by Cutler on June 19, 2006
Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia / 1 Comment

In an earlier post, “Zarqawi and Zion,” I argued that Right Zionists like Michael Ledeen represent an ideological mirror image of Zarqawi because they both wanted to fight the same war, albeit on opposite sides.  Both wanted to make Iraq the central battleground of a regional war over the balance of power in the Gulf.  Right Zionists favor a Persian Gulf dominated by Shiites and Zarqawi sought to preserve the Arab Gulf as a stronghold of Sunni power.

All of this seems so unlikely, however, when reading Michael Ledeen’s June 16, 2006 article, “Nonsense: Don’t Read What You Are into the Big Document of Iraq” about the “the much ballyhooed document found in Iraq and published with great gravitas all over the world.”  The document in question–that is, an English translation provided to the media by Iraqi National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie–is HERE.

Here is the part that Ledeen seems to find upsetting/laughable:

[T]he whole thrust of the document is that Iran is a sweet innocent, actually an ally of the United States in Iraq, and that the terrorists should do everything possible to foster conflict between Iran and the Americans.

Ledeen begins his column with a question lots of folks have asked when his name comes up:

“So how exactly do you figure out when something is real, and when it’s a deception?”

Good question.  His conclusion, in this instance:

I think the Iranians put out this sort of nonsense so that we’ll have trouble figuring out what’s real. And by the way, it wasn’t found in Zarqawi’s house, contrary to the triumphant announcement from the office of the Iraqi prime minister. So it’s certainly not a Last Testament. It’s just nonsense.

Why does Ledeen go so far out his way to claim that the US-backed government in Iraq and the government in Iran has perpetrated a massive deception?  Surely it is not because he doesn’t wish it were true.  Ledeen is the most strident advocate of such an alliance between the United States and Iran.

The disagreement between Zarqawi and Ledeen was that Zarqawi thought this alliance was already in the works while Ledeen has been frustrated by the slow pace of such an alliance.  Ledeen’s most common refrain? Faster Please.

The “Big” posthumously published Zarqawi document was not the first time that Zarqawi “allegedly alleged” that Ledeen’s regional vision had already been consummated.

In early June 2006 Zarqawi allegedly lashed out at Lebanon’s Iran-backed, Shiite Hizbollah movement:

The head of the Iraqi branch of Al-Qaeda, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, called Thursday for the disarmament of the Lebanese Shiite fundamentalist movement Hezbollah, according to an audio message posted on the Internet.Zarqawi accused Hezbollah of serving as a “shield protecting the Zionist enemy (Israel) against the strikes of the mujahedeen in Lebanon,” in an apparent reference to Sunni Arab militants loyal to the Al-Qaeda network.

“Why should Hezbollah be exempt from the… Taef accords” which brought an end to fighting in Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, a voice purporting to be Iraq’s most wanted man asked in the lengthy audio message whose authenticity could not be verified.

Hezbollah is an independent state inside Lebanon… It puts forth lying slogans about Palestinian liberation when in fact it serves as a security wall (for Israel) and prevents Sunnis from crossing its borders.”

As the Telegraph commented at the time of these reports,

[Zarqawi] strangely echoed Israeli and western demands by denouncing Hizbollah as “an independent state inside Lebanon” and demanded that it should be disarmed.

For Ledeen, the only real problem with this characterization is that it is premature.  Right Zionists have not yet managed to achieve the long-term goal of aligning Lebanon’s Shiites with Israel.

Don’t take my word for it, though.  Here is David Wurmser, Cheney’s Middle East expert, on the subject (from his 1999 book, Tyranny’s Ally, profiled in my article “Beyond Incompetence“):

“Liberating the centers of learning in Najaf and Karbala in the wake of Saddam’s demise would offer the region and the West a chance to…reinstate the traditional dynamic among Lebanon’s ShiitesPrying the Lebanese Shi’ites away from a defunct Iranian Revolution and reacquainting them with the Iraqi Shiite community could significantly help to shift the region’s balanceA collapse of Iraq’s Baathism could be the catalyst for the implosion of Assad’s regime in Syria and, though the Shiite community, of the Islamic revolution in Iran as well.”

The problem, for Ledeen, is that Zarqawi was jumping the gun, so to speak.

Ledeen may be right that the incumbent regime in Iran has done everything possible to find common ground with Arab regimes.  Hence recent news out of Iran that the current regime has very warm relations with Saudi Arabia and that both countries seek to ease tensions over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Right Zionists at Middle East Media Research Institute (where Meyrav Wurmser–married to David Wurmser, cited above–served as Executive Director) are quick to note the longer-term basis for Arab hostility to Iranian nuclear ambitions.  That is for another day, however, when Right Zionists can once again support an Iranian nuclear program.  Until then, they must explain how Arab hostility toward Israel has led some to offer qualified support for the incumbent Iranian regime.

For Right Zionists, everything turns on regime change in Iran.  Then comes the new regional balance of power against which Zarqawi fought.  Zarqawi died fighting a war that Ledeen thinks has barely begun.  Hence Ledeen: faster please.

Basra v. Persia, Part II

Posted by Cutler on June 15, 2006
Iran, Iraq, Israel / 2 Comments

Details regarding a flare up of tensions between Basra Shiites and Iran–discussed in the previous post–remain sketchy. Here are some of the media reports:

The Associated Press (via Forbes) suggests that Basra Shiites are upset because of accusations made on Iranian TV about Iraqi cleric Mahmoud al-Hassani (variously referred to as Ayatollah Mahmoud al-Hassani al-Sarkhi or Shaikh Mahmud al-Sarkhi al-Hasani):

Viewers in Iran and Iraq said a talk show guest on the channel Saturday criticized Mahmoud al-Hassani, a fiercely anti-American cleric whose followers have battled in the past with U.S. and other coalition troops in Iraq. The guest, Shiite cleric Sheik Ali Kourani, said al-Hassani was not a real cleric and Israel was using him to tarnish Islam, according to the viewers.

Many of al-Hassani’s supporters took the criticism as an accusation that the cleric was an Israeli agent, Basra police Capt. Mushtaq Khazim said.

Question #1: Was Sheik Ali Kourani saying that al-Hassani was an agent of Israel, as the Basra police Capt is said to have suggested?

Such an interpretation would make it seem like Kourani was fanning the flames of anti-Zionism by accusing al-Hassani of serving “Zionist masters.” There is reason to doubt this interpretation. First, the AP report that “Israel was ‘using’ him to tarnish Islam” could have more to do with Kourani’s discomfort with al-Hassani for militantly anti-Zionist and anti-American positions that Kourani thinks gives Islam a bad name. That would be a very different thing, no? It certainly rules out the possibility that the “anti-Iranian protesters” are implicitly pro-American or pro-Israeli.

Question #2: What does the media say about Ayatollah Mahmoud al-Hassani al-Sarkhi?

Not much. On April 5, 2004, a Washington Post article briefly mentions militias in Iraq that are loyal to “a mystical cleric named Sarkhi Hassani.”

The depiction of al-Hassani as “mystical” makes some sense in light of another charge allegedly levelled against him by Kourani on Iranian TV. According to a June 14, 2006 Agence France Presse report under the headline “Iraq protestors tear down Iran consulate flag in religious row” (I could not find a copy on-line; link anyone?):

The incident came after an interview on Iranian television with Islamic scholar Sheikh Ali Korani, during which he criticized al-Sarkhi for claiming to be in regular communication with the hidden imam — a messiah-like figure who will one day return and redeem the Shiite community.

Although al-Hassani’s followers deny the charge, it is one that is regularly made against mystics in many religious traditions.

According to a December 28, 2005 “Iraq Weekly Status Report” published by the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs of the U.S. State Department, al-Hassani is an “extremist Shi’a cleric” and leader of the Islamic Walaa Party (ballot number 758). The report also notes that Walaa Party members demonstrated in Karbala “and accused the United Islamic Alliance… of a host of election infractions…”

So there seems to be some tension between al-Hassani’s Walaa Party and the ruling Shiite alliance.

[Update: Juan Cole was on the case way back in October 2003 when he provided a profile of al-Hassani. He describes al-Hassani as a Sadrist.]

Question #3: Who is Shiite cleric Sheik Ali Kourani, the talk show guest whose comments sparked the demonstrations at the Iranian consulate in Basra?

Ali Kourani (also Ayatollah Ali Korani) received a burst of US media coverage in the middle of the 1990s as the representative of a new, moderate, modern trend within Iran. His specific claim to fame was as a “new wave” mullah, at least according to a May 11, 1995 Wall Street Journal report by Peter Waldman under the headline “Islamic Upheaval: Iranian Revolution Takes Another Turn, But Where Is It Going?–On the Inside, Signs Point to Greater Moderation; U.S. Still Sees Terrorism–‘New Wave’ Mullahs On-Line”:

[Y]ounger, “New Wave” mullahs, as the turbaned hackers are called, have persevered.

The spread of information will inevitably lead to a more moderate climate,” says Ali Korani, the cleric who heads the Qom project to publish the planned Encyclopedia of Islamic Law.

Some of the clergy say we’ve been hurt by being part of the government; we should return to our original role as spiritual leaders,” says Mr. Korani, the computer mullah. “Among the marjas [the most influential ayatollahs], this is the dominant view.”

Question #4: What is the relationship between Ali Kourani and the current Iranian government?

According to the Associated Press, the Iranian program appeared on a state-run channel:

Iran…has increased Arabic-language TV broadcasts in an attempt to further boost its influence in neighboring Iraq.

Al-Kawthar, which has a mix of religious and political programming, often with an anti-American tone, is the second largest Iranian station seen in Iraq, after al-Alam television.

According to the Agence France Presse report cited above, however, Iranian representatives in Iraq weren’t eager to claim Kourani:

The Iranian consulate in Karbala pointed out that its press was free and Korani was Lebanese, not Iranian, so the whole affair was not Tehran’s responsibility.

Implications: It may be too soon to say, but it looks like this whole event turns traditional Right Zionist assumptions about Shiite politics on its head. If, as I have argued in my article “Beyond Incompetence“, Right Zionists hoped that moderate Iraqi Shiites would help undermine the revolutionary Iranian regime, this case looks like the exact opposite: radical Iraqi Shiites demonstrating against political “moderates” in Iran.

Basra v. Persia?

Posted by Cutler on June 15, 2006
Iran, Iraq / 3 Comments

Juan Cole at Informed Comment has posted a very important discussion of recent tension between Shiites in Basra and the Iranian government:

An angry crowd of Iraqi Shiites attacked the Iranian Basra consulate on Wednesday, protesting an insult aired on Iranian television against Shaikh Mahmud al-Sarkhi al-Hasani, a popular Basra preacher. They set fire to an annex of the building, and black smoke billowed above it. Iraqi Shiite leaders said that they feared further violence if Iran did not apologize. Many Basra Shiites still hold a grudge against Iran for the latter’s shelling of the city during the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988. Sadrist Iraqis in particular denounce the dominance of Persian Shiism over Iraqi Shiism. The crowd planted an Iraqi flag on the building.

Is the Bush administration supporting these anti-Iranian demonstrators? One might imagine so. But if you look closely at Bush administration policies in Iraq, it sure looks like the Bush administration continues to back the pro-Iranian SCIRI party against anti-Iranian Iraqi nationalist Shiites in Basra.

In a series of recent posts (HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE), I have been trying to make some sense of Basra politics–especially in light of Prime Minister Maliki’s highly publicized declaration of a “state of emergency” in Basra. What are the stakes?

In the oil-rich city of Basra, political control is crucial and from early on in the war there has been talk about various plans for Shiite regional autonomy centered in Basra. In most instances, such talk has also been viewed as part of an emergent regional alliance between Iraqi and Iranian Shiites. One recent Reuters report went so far as to suggest that the Maliki crackdown on Basra was, in essence, a battle to win control of Basra away from Iran.

“There are local and international battles for Basra. Locally it is between Fadhila and other groups while regionally it is between Iran and other forces, like the British.”

By all appearances, Maliki’s “state of emergency”–for which Maliki has earned considerable White House praise–seems directed at the political influence two political forces in Basra: Moqtada al-Sadr and the Fadhila/Virtue party.

Here is the mystery: Sadr and Fadhila are often depicted as being the two Shiite forces that oppose Shiite regional autonomy. See, for example, an August 2005 New York Times article.

But there are also Shiites who vehemently oppose any move toward autonomy. Moktada al-Sadr, the young rebel cleric who led two uprisings against the Americans last year, and Ayatollah Muhammad Yacoubi, another radical cleric with ties to Mr. Sadr, have both denounced the movement, saying it goes against the concept of central Islamic rule.

Yacoubi is the leader of the Fadhila party.

A more recent June 13, 2006 New York Times article “Oil, Politics, and Bloodshed Corrupt an Iraqi City” tellsl a somewhat different story:

In Fadhila’s model, Basra Province, the only one it controls, would stand on its own. “We as Fadhila, we want to make our province our own region,” Mr. Talib said. “We have two million people, an airport, a port and oil — everything we need to be a state.”

Does Fadhila favor a strong, centralized Iraqi state, as initially reported? If so, one would think that on this question in would have quite a bit in common with nationalist Sunni Arab political forces. Certainly Sadrists have, at times, recognized this common ground.

Or does Fadhila favor regional autonomy for Iraqi Shiites?

The relationship between Fadhila and Iran may be crucial in this respect. Anti-Iranian sentiment would seem to tilt Fadhila toward an Iraqi nationalist position. The recent reports of tension between Basra Shiites and Iran would seem to support this view.

One additional tidbit that points in the direction of anti-Iranian sentiment among Basra Shiites come from a January 25, 2005 Washington Post report, “Political Islam Put to the Test in Southern Iraq“:

The question of Iranian support is debilitating for Basra’s Islamic parties, in particular for the Supreme Council, which fought on the Iranian side during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and, as is bitterly recalled by some Iraqi veterans, oversaw prisoner-of-war camps. Some Supreme Council officials in Basra still speak Arabic with a Persian inflection, and many residents — both religious and secular — punctuate their conversations with rumors about the involvement of Iran’s intelligence service in southern Iraq.

One rival Islamic party, an offshoot of Sadr’s movement known as Fudhala, is campaigning on a slogan that is a not-too-subtle jab at the Supreme Council’s perceived leanings: “Born in Iraq, Iraqi financed, with Iraqi leadership.”

If the Bush administration is full of praise for the SCIRI-backed Iraqi government of Prime Minister Maliki for its attempt to drive an anti-Iranian Shiite political party from power in Basra, what does that say about Bush administration attitudes toward Iranian regional influence?

Biden Time

Posted by Cutler on June 14, 2006
Foreign Policy Factions, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Saudi Arabia / No Comments

Does Senator Joe Biden think that his party is so irrelevant that he can champion views on Iraq that seem completely contradictory without anybody knowing or caring?

Biden, in case you have missed it, has been all over the media in recent days arguing for appeasing Iraq’s Sunni Arab political forces even as he simultaneously champions regional autonomy for Iraqi Shiites and Kurds. In other words, he is essentially trying to woo Sunni Arabs and antagonize them at the same time. Along the way, he manages to support both of the visions for Iraq that have generated fierce factional antagonisms withing the Bush administration.

Here is Biden on the Jim Lehrer News Hour on PBS last night:

[E]verybody agrees three things have to happen for us to be able to leave and leave success behind, that is a stable government. You’ve got to do something about the militia, and you’ve got to purge the existing, trained Iraqis of these sectarian thugs.

Secondly, what you got to do, is you got to get the Sunnis to buy in. That’s why our ambassador did a great job getting the constitution amended before they voted on it, to provide for the opportunity to get the Sunnis to buy in by giving them a larger piece of the action.

And, three, you’ve got to keep the neighbors out.

Biden has reproduced these three bullet points on CNN, MSNBC, and in a press release.

These talking points are not particularly different from the current “Right Arabist” policies being pursued by Zalmay Khalilzad. Hence the nod to the “great job” Khalilzad is doing.These talking points are quite different, however, from Biden’s simultaneous endorsement (discussed in a previous post) of regional autonomy for Iraq’s Shiite and Kurdish minorities.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Biden, what do you say to the growing number of your fellow and sister Democrats who are saying, “Hey, it’s time to set a date certain to get America out of there, get the troops out of there”? What do you say to them?

SEN. JOE BIDEN: I’m saying setting a date is not a plan. I’m not suggesting that Senator Lugar agrees with the plan I put forward, but I laid out a clear, precise plan as to how I think we should proceed, by giving more breathing room to the various sectarian groups, by sharing the oil revenue, by amending the constitution

This “clear, precise plan” is hardly the stuff of Right Arabist strategy in Iraq. Take, for example, Senator Lugar, Republican Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who appeared with Biden on the News Hour:

JIM LEHRER: Senator Lugar, are you on board for the Biden plan?…

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: I think it should be carefully considered, but my own view is that the best option is still to try to find a unified Iraq

I think that Turks will be very nervous about Kurds heading toward more independence under those situations… quite apart from Sunnis that might hook up with Sunnis in Saudi Arabia… the Wahhabi-types that could be very dangerous for the conclusion for all of this…

Biden’s plan drew similar criticism from Anthony Cordesman in a May 9, 2006 New York Times Op-Ed entitled “Three Iraqs Would Be One Big Problem.”

[T]here is no way to divide Iraq that will not set off fights over control of oil. More than 90 percent of Iraq’s government revenues come from oil exports. The Sunni Arab west has no developed oil fields and thus would have no oil revenues…

And with Iraqi Sunnis cut out of oil money, Arab Sunni states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia would be forced to support them, if only to avoid having the Islamist extremists take over this part of Iraq.

Iran, of course, would compete for the Iraqi Shiites. The Kurds have no friends: Turkey, Iran and Syria would seek to destabilize the north…

[A quick detour: “The Kurds have no friends” Is it my imagination or did Anthony Cordesman just “wipe Israel off the map”? For better or worse, Israel has long aligned itself with Kurdish forces.]

Biden and Gelb responded to Cordesman’s criticism in a May 11, 2006 letter to the New York Times (subscription required):

[Cordesman] says our proposal cuts the Sunni Arabs out of oil money. But as we wrote, our plan would constitutionally guarantee Sunnis 20 percent of all oil revenues. Right now, they are guaranteed nothing.

Our suggested oil guarantee would also give Sunnis a major incentive to fight the insurgents and accept the regionalism we propose and Iraq’s constitution allows.

You will have to ask Iraqi Sunnis for yourself if they find Biden’s promise of “20 percent of all oil revenues” sufficient “incentive to fight the insurgents,” but I have yet to find any Right Arabists (including Lugar) who find in this clarification a basis for signing on to Biden’s regionalism plan.

It is worth noting, however, that Biden’s insistence here on exisiting provisions of the Iraqi constitution runs agains the grain of his News Hour praise for Khalilzad: “our ambassador did a great job getting the constitution amended before they voted on it.”

What were the changes that Khalilzad introduced days ahead of the October 2005 ratification vote? Khalilzad’s own October 12, 2005 press release is quite clear:

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad praised Iraqi political leaders for agreeing to last-minute compromises on the language of the country’s proposed constitution. The changes are aimed at forging broader consensus ahead of the October 15 constitutional referendum.

“As Iraqis prepare to vote their consciences in the coming referendum, leaders who have led the democratic process and leaders who have boycotted it have decisively settled their differences and joined together to announce, ‘Vote yes for Iraq’s constitution,’” Khalilzad said in an October 12 statement…

One agreed change would allow for the new Council of Representatives to review the document and propose changes…

This provision was important to Sunni Arab negotiators who feel that they were under-represented on the constitutional drafting committee…

Other changes include language emphasizing the unity of the Iraqi state and highlighting its ties to the Arab world.

Two new clauses state that membership in the former regime’s Ba’ath Party is not an adequate basis for referral of an individual to the courts and that the new Council of Representatives shall establish a committee to ensure that the de-Ba’athification program is carried out in a just, fair and objective manner. Sunni Arab negotiators insisted on these provisions to ensure that their constituents, many of whom were rank-and-file members of the party, are not unjustly prosecuted.

How can Biden praise Khalilzad’s constitutional amendments that won some Sunni Arab buy in only by promising the “unity of the Iraqi state” even as Biden continues to support regional autonomy?

Senator Biden: which side are you on?

At a minimum, let us pray that the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations committee understands that his current talking points represent two antagonistic approaches to US policy in Iraq–approaches that have hitherto appeared as mutually exclusive to the Right Zionist and Right Arabist factional forces that have battled for position since the start of the Bush administration, to say nothing of forces on the ground in Iraq and the entire Gulf region.

Basra: the Virtue of Autonomy?

Posted by Cutler on June 13, 2006
Iran, Iraq / 1 Comment

The New York Times has published a report from Basra today under the headline “Oil, Politics, and Bloodshed Corrupt an Iraqi City.” A quote from the article is also the “Quote of the Day” in the Times.

Quotation of the Day

“I cannot talk with you. I haven’t joined a party and no militia is protecting me.”

SAJID SAAD HASSAN, a professor, on lawlessness in Basra, Iraq.

Funny thing about that quote: it isn’t exactly “of the day.” The same quote appeared 10 days ago–along with another colorful lead quote from a British officer–in the Saturday, June 3, 2006 edition of the International Herald Tribune under the headline “State Has ‘Melted,’ Leaving Basra in Chaos.”

Thrown in amidst the recycled Basra vignettes, the Times seems to have actually either broken some news or quietly retracted an earlier reporting error. The issue involves the political spectrum of Shiite views regarding regional political and economic autonomy for the oil-rich, Shiite-dominated southern Iraqi city of Basra.

Aqeel Talib, a senior member of the [Fadhila] party, argues that a disagreement over federalism is one of the issues dividing the parties. The party and its two main competitors — the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Dawa Party — all had different visions for a southern Shiite region.

In Fadhila’s model, Basra Province, the only one it controls, would stand on its own. “We as Fadhila, we want to make our province our own region,” Mr. Talib said. “We have two million people, an airport, a port and oil — everything we need to be a state.”

In a previous post on Basra politics, I cited an April 25, 2005 New York Times report by Edward Wong–published under the headline “Top Shiite Politician Joins Call for Autonomous South Iraq“:

Some Shiites have supported creating a region out of Al Basra Province and neighboring provinces, while others have pushed for a much larger region that would also encompass the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.

But there are also Shiites who vehemently oppose any move toward autonomy. Moktada al-Sadr, the young rebel cleric who led two uprisings against the Americans last year, and Ayatollah Muhammad Yacoubi, another radical cleric with ties to Mr. Sadr, have both denounced the movement, saying it goes against the concept of central Islamic rule.

Ayatollah Muhammad Yacoubi is the leader of the Fadhila party (translated as the Virtue Party).

So, what exactly is the political lineup on regional autonomy in Basra? Has Fadhila changed its position? Or is one of the New York Times articles incorrect?

The significance of the issue cannot be overstated: if Yacoubi and/or Sadr are Shiite nationalists who oppose Iranian influence in Iraq and support a centralized government in Baghdad, this tends to align them far more with the Sunni Arab insurgency then it does with either the Shiite political forces associated with SCIRI or with Iraqi Kurds who seek similar autonomous control of the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk.

If, on the other hand, Yacoubi and/or Sadr support Basra regional autonomy (in some form or another), then this tends to tilt the political balance toward a sectarian and fragmented–rather than Sunni Arab nationalist–future for Iraq. Yacoubi and Sadr can swing the balance of power either way.

For that reason, I note with great interest a very important post by Juan Cole at Informed Comment.

Shiite Iraqi clerical leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim is multi-tasking, according to al-Zaman [Ar.]/ AFP Al-Hakim first went to Najaf. There, he consulted with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and 2 other grand ayatollahs. Then he met with young Shiite nationalist Muqtada al-Sadr. Its sources say that the two discussed ways of calming the fighting and tensions between the Badr Corps fighters and the Mahdi Army in the southern port city of Basra, Iraq’s sole window to the outside world and sole secure avenue for the export of petroleum.

Then al-Hakim went off to Tehran. His trip has two purposes, according to the Baghdad daily. One is to mediate between the Americans and the Iranians over the nuclear crisis. The other is to explore with the Iranian government how it might be helpful in quieting Basra, and to consult with the ayatollahs in Tehran over al-Hakim’s plan to form regional confederacies out of provinces in the Shiite south of Iraq.

Did Sadr give Hakim any kind of green light on regional autonomy for Basra before Hakim made his trek to Iran?

Tehran Tilt

Posted by Cutler on June 12, 2006
Iran, Iraq, Israel, Saudi Arabia / 1 Comment

What is the Bush administration up to in Iran? And what, if anything, does it have to do with the fate of Neoconservative/Right Zionist foreign policy initiatives?

The first thing to note is that “open source” (media-based) analysis of Bush administration policy toward Iran has been complicated by lots of mixed signals. It wasn’t long ago that all the chatter was about impending nuclear strikes on Iran. Remember that? It was only about two months ago that Seymour Hersh published “The Iran Plans” in the April 17, 2006 issue of the New Yorker.

Now fast forward to the June 1, 2006 New York Times report by David Sanger, “For Bush, Talks With Iran Were a Last Resort.”

After 27 years in which the United States has refused substantive talks with Iran, President Bush reversed course on Wednesday because it was made clear to him — by his allies, by the Russians, by the Chinese, and eventually by some of his advisers — that he no longer had a choice…

[A]fter five years of behind-the-scenes battling within the administration, Mr. Bush finally came to a crossroads at which both sides in the debate over Iran — engagers and isolaters, and some with a foot in each camp — saw an advantage in, as one senior aide said, “seeing if they are serious.”…

But three officials who were involved in the most recent iteration of that debate said Mr. Cheney and others stepped aside
In the end, said one former official who has kept close tabs on the debate, “it came down to convincing Cheney and others that if we are going to confront Iran, we first have to check off the box” of trying talks.

A little more than a week later, Right Zionist (so-called Neocon) verdicts are in. Over at the American Enterprise Institute, the reviews are quite negative. The Forward quotes AEI’s Michael Rubin:

“The administration can’t have it both ways. They can’t embrace the regime and still talk about liberty for the Iranian people,” said Iran analyst Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank widely associated with the push for regime change in Iraq. A former Pentagon official, Rubin added that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice “can spout whatever platitudes she wants to spout, but at this point, when it comes to liberty and freedom, she has no credibility.”

In a Weekly Standard missive, Rubin suggests, “the Bush administration is in full retreat” even as “rich Saudi and Persian Gulf financiers work to consolidate the region as a jihadist base.”

AEI’s Michael Ledeen also seems unhappy. In his recent National Review Online column “Iran Connects the Dots,” Ledeen slams the idea of Iran diplomacy.

The intelligence community was savaged after 9/11 for its failure to connect the dots, and it would be truly embarrassing, and very dangerous, to leave the Iranian dot out there apart from the rest of the network we have uncovered and shattered. A week ago Director of National Intelligence Negroponte gave a very interesting interview to the BBC in which he reiterated what everybody knows: ‘(the Iranians) are the principal state sponsor of terrorism in the world.’

So how come we’re not going after them?

And for those who think the recent ‘we’ll-talk-if-you-stop-enrichment’ gambit was some sort of master diplomatic stroke, consider this: it turns out that the Iranians have actually increased their enrichment program.

There is no escape from the necessity of bringing down the mullahcracy, for they will keep killing our people and our friends.

It may be worth noting, however, that Reuel Marc Gerecht–also at AEI–seems not to have chimed in yet on the Rice initiative. One Gerecht missive in the Weekly Standard–published before Rice announcement of a shift toward direct talks with the Iranians–predicts that such an initiative would fail.

Even if the secretary still has strong “realist” instincts–she is, after all, a disciple of Brent Scowcroft, Bush One’s national security adviser, and she is surrounded in the State Department by foreign service officers who live to negotiate–it won’t matter. The Iranians won’t play ball.

But Gerecht also seems less certain than Rubin or Ledeen about the immediate prospects for regime change in Iran.

No matter what happens, it is long overdue for the Bush administration to get serious about building clandestine mechanisms to support Iranians who want to change their regime. This will take time and be brutally difficult. And overt democracy support to Iranians–which is the Bush administration’s current game plan–isn’t likely to draw many recruits. Most Iranians probably know that this approach is a one-way invitation to Evin prison, which isn’t the most effective place for expressing dissent. However we go about assisting the opposition, the prospects for removing the regime before it acquires nuclear weapons are slim.

Gerecht’s pessimism regarding regime change in Iran seems like a retreat from some of his earlier confidence.

And then there are prominent Neocon figures like Charles Krauthammer who–as I noted in a previous post–have been more forgiving of the Bush administration’s attempt at diplomacy.

There is probably something to the Forward headline that suggests, “Bush Overture To Iran Splits Israel, Neocons.”

The basis of any such split may center on the best way for the US to rebuild its alliance with Iran. By contrast, Right Arabists–including many who talk very tough on Iran–do not favor any serious US alliance with Iran and did not support the US tilt toward Iran during the 1970s. For reasons that I have explained in previous posts and in my ZNet article–“Beyond Incompetence: Washington’s War in Iraq“–Right Zionists favor a tilt toward Shiite power–and an assault on Sunni Arab power–in the Gulf; Right Arabists oppose such a shift.

Some “Right Zionist history” may help make the point: way back on July 19, 1988, Michael Ledeen–famous for his involvement in the Iran-Contra affair–published an Op-Ed in the New York Times entitled “Let’s Talk With Iran Now” (I couldn’t find an on-line copy. Link anyone?). Here are some excerpts of his position at that time:

The United States, which should have been exploring improved relations with Iran before… should now seize the opportunity to do so. To wait might suggest to even pro-Western Iranians that a refusal to seek better relations is based on an anti-Iran animus rather than objections to specific Iranian actions.

Those Iranians who have been calling for better relations with the West have clearly been gathering strength… Among the advocates of such improved relations are two leading candidates to succeed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini: Ayatollah Hojatolislam Rafsanjani and the Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri

Yet there has been no sense of urgency among our top policymakers to design and conduct a policy toward Iran–in part because our top officials, traumatized by the Iran-contra scandal and the hearings and investigatiosn that followed, were determined to to be caught dealing with the Iranians…

Yet past mistakes should not prevent the Administration from pursuing the clear chance for a potential breakthrough in one of the more strategically sensitive areas of the world.

Same theme, again, in a February 1, 1991 Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, “Iran–Back in the Game,” as the US waged war against Iraq.

Iran is once again a player in the Great Game, even to the point of being able to contemplate territorial acquisitions of its own once Iraq has been defeated…

Iran will be seated at the table when the new Middle Eastern order is designed at war’s end, and it will not be easy for the U.S. to know how to deal with it. For there is no country in the world that American diplomats have shunned so totally, indeed avoided so compulsively, as Iran. We have done so primarily for political reasons; ever since the Iran-Contra affair, no American leader has wished to be caught talking to an Iranian, even though many recognized the many sound geopolitical reasons for dealing with Iran.

It would have been wiser to have dealt with the Iranians earlier, but we now have little choice in the matter. Our contacts will surely increase, and President Rafsanjani and company will likely sit at the postwar negotiating table, thereby producing the great historical irony that Saddam Hussein, the conqueror of Persia, will have forced us to resume sensible relations with a reemerging Iran.

You get the point. No mention of the liberty of Iranians or the mullahcracy here. The significance is not that Ledeen is caught changing his position. The reals significance is that Ledeen may not actually have changed his central goal–a US alliance with Iran.

So, the real question is why isn’t the current prospect of dialogue with Iran the culmination of Right Zionist regional ambitions? The US is, after all, contemplating a tilt toward Iran–having already empowered Shiites in Iraq. Are those real Right Zionist tears in the eyes of Rubin and Ledeen?

If so, the tears are probably shed on account of tactical, not strategic defeats.

Here is the tactical question: Any Bush administration dialogue with Iran will be with Ayatollah Hojatolislam Rafsanjani, one of the two figures Ledeen identified as an advocate of “improved relations” back in 1988. Rafsanjani successfully pushed aside the other leading figure–Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri–who now sits in Iran under house arrest. When Ledeen dismisses dialogue with Rafsanjani and advocates regime change, what he really means is that he has now taken sides within the Shiite revolution: He favors Montazeri, not Rafsanjani.

Take a look, for example, at the transcript of this Brit Hume Fox News interview with Michael Ledeen from May 1, 2002 (I couldn’t find a copy on-line. Link anyone?):

HUME: Now, we look from this country at Iran. And we see it pretty much through a glass darkly. We see these statements coming out of their leading religious figure who outranks and has more power than any of the secular leaders there. And we think, uh oh, this is getting worse over there. Is it?

LEDEEN: No, it’s getting better because the people really are in insurrection, virtual insurrection, against the regime right now. What Supreme Leader Khomeini is reacting to with all these speeches in the last couple of days is a fatwa issued by probably the most respected religious leader in the country, Ayatollah Montazeri.

HUME: Now, I’ve heard of him, the Ayatollah Montazeri, or Montazeri as we American hicks sometimes are prone to say. Is not Khomeini the ranking leader, though? Isn’t he the guy with the title?

LEDEEN: Khomeini runs the country. He runs the government.

HUME: Right. And so Montazeri has standing by virtue of what?

LEDEEN: By his religious authority and his apparent saintliness and the respect of the people. And he’s been voted by the other ayatollahs to be the grandest of the so-called grand ayatollahs. So, he sits atop that whole religious structure, even though he sits atop it at home under house arrest.

HUME: And what did he say? He said — he issued a fatwa, a religious decree, last week saying that suicide terrorism was in absolute violation of the rules of Islam and that people who practiced suicide terrorism, instead of going to heaven with the 72 virgins, would go to hell, where for all eternity they would have to repeat their suicide.

HUME: And the importance of this beyond the clerical disagreement between two mullahs?

LEDEEN: No, it’s a division within the religious authorities within the country. And Montazeri is aiming it far beyond the boundaries of Iran. He is aiming it at the Islamic world entirely.

HUME: So his word would be heard across Islam?

LEDEEN: Yes. And it was coordinated with other ayatollahs, Iranian Shiite ayatollahs living in Europe. So, it wasn’t just restricted to Iran.

HUME: We never heard a word about it here.

LEDEEN: No, it’s not reported. I mean, it was reported in one or two Iranian publications. And here and there, you can find it on the web. But it was not picked up here.

HUME: And we Americans should regard this as a consequential event because of what consequences?

LEDEEN: But it shows that the authority that’s being claimed by the tyrants in Tehran is not being enforced and that the people of Iran, including some of the most important religious leaders, are in open rebellion against that regime. And we should support them.

Next thing to look for, if the dialogue with Rafsanjani breaks down? How about talk of a budding alliance between Montazeri in Iran and Sistani in Iraq?

[Update: Ledeen’s full-throated, June 7, 2006 criticism of Bush administration “appeasement” of Iran is HERE]

A Quiet Reception for new Interior Minister Bolani

Posted by Cutler on June 09, 2006
Foreign Policy Factions, Iran, Iraq, Israel / 6 Comments

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s appointment of Jawad Bolani as Iraq’s new Interior Minister has, thus far, been received with little if any protest from politicians who might be expected to be skeptical about Bolani’s political profile.

A report by Ferry Biedermannin in the Financial Times (my favorite newspaper) appears under the headline “Infighting Ensnares New Cabinet Appointees” but the article doesn’t really support that theme.

The new ministers – Jawad Bolani at interior and Abdel Kader Jassim al-Mifarji at defence – were immediately caught up in political infighting as some politicians criticised them for being too close to the main Shia and Sunni blocs.

If “some politicians criticised” the appointment of Bolani, Biedermannin fails to deliver up money quotes that would have illustrated the claim. Biedermannin explains why some politicians might criticize Bolani:

Mr Bolani was one of the preferred choices of the dominant but divided Shia United Iraqi Alliance. The Interior Ministry is seen as particularly sensitive because of accusations that the ranks of its security forces have been infiltrated by Shia militias who have been responsible for some of the sectarian violence against Sunni.

So where are the harsh quotes from key Sunni leaders about how Bolani’s appointment will inflame sectarian tensions and push Iraq closer to civil war? There are none. Here is what Biedermannin offers, instead:

Some politicians doubted that the new ministers will be able to tackle the various sectarian groups decisively. It depended on the “strength of the minister”, in relation to the party that had supported his appointment, said Falah Naqib, who was interior minister in the brief government of Iyad Alawi in 2004. The new ministers will need at least three months before any judgment could be made, he said.

Oh, snap! Ouch! Falah Naqib is bringing the heat!… Not so much.

There is only one more quote in the whole article:

The independent Sunni member of parliament Mithal al-Alusi said he had voted for the new ministers without much enthusiasm “because Iraq needs a government”. He said he was less worried about the ministers themselves than about the likelihood that their ministries would be sectarian bastions.

That’s deep.

A quick detour about Alusi. Mithal al-Alusi is an odd duck. Basically, Iraq’s only known pro-Israel Sunni Arab politician and the object of considerable adoration from Thomas Friedman (subscription required). My favorite Alusi article is one published in the Detroit Free Press by Nancy A. Youssef of Knight Ridder under the headline “Iran now enemy No. 1, Sunnis say: Fears fhift from Israel to Shi’ite nation next door“:

Sunni Muslims have begun to ask: Is Israel really Iraq’s enemy or is it neighboring Iran?

Sunnis are often not comfortable talking openly about Israel, especially in a region where most Arabs won’t refer to it by name and blame Israel for the conflict with the Palestinians. But privately, many have said Israel has not done anything lately to harm them, but Iran has…

While campaigning for a seat in the new parliament, Mithal al Alusi called for stronger ties between Israel and Iraq, and he appears to have won. He said some Iraqis are warming to a stronger relationship with Israel, in part because they are frightened of Iran’s influence. “They are afraid of Iran’s extremist political system,” he said.

It is not hard to see why I would find this particularly interesting. It is the “pro-Sunni” mirror image of the regional “balance of power” strategy that Right Zionists developed as the rationale for de-Baathification and the empowerment of Iraq’s Shiite majority. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Is this “Plan B” for Right Zionists in case the Shiite-Israeli alliance falls through?

Anyway, returning to the new Maliki government: So far, at least, those who shorted the market in “national unity” are scrambling to cover losses. Of course, it is only one day–and a day overshadowed by the big news of Zarqawi’s death. But wouldn’t you score this a surprising victory for “national unity” politics?

Killing Me Softly: A Soft Landing for Sunni Arabs?

Posted by Cutler on June 02, 2006
Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia / 6 Comments

In looking at Washington’s political inclinations in post-Saddam Iraq, I have argued for a factional interpretation that pits Right Arabists (so-called Realists) against Right Zionists (so-called Neocons). If, at first, the US moved aggressively to empower Iraqi Shiites and undermine the political power of Iraq’s Sunni minority, I suggested that this should be coded as a victory for Right Zionists. I still hold to that view.

At least as early as September 2003, however, there seemed to be signs of a serious effort by Right Arabists to win back control of US policy in Iraq. One popular marker was the decision to bring in Robert Blackwill to run the Iraq Stabilization Group, viewed at the time as an attempt to marginalize Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and his Right Zionist deputies. One of the great observers of this process–the alleged eclipse of the Neocons and rally of the Realists–has been Jim Lobe who has been tracking the details of the story without fail for several years now.

I offer, for your consideration, however, a modest–less factional–interpretation of Bush administration policy that, if plausible, would indicate no real loss of influence for Right Zionists. The source of this analysis is Vali Nasr, on the occasion of his being named the newest adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

I have posted below some extended excerpts of Nasr’s March 26, 2006 remarks (how much, if anything, has changed since these remarks were made?) about Iran, Iraq, and Arab regional hegemony. Let’s start, however, with the key “less factional” amendment to the usual analysis of US policy in Iraq.

ultimately there are winners and there are losers out of Iraq, not only in Iraq, but across the region. The Shi’as won and the Kurds won, and the Sunnis lost. And if Iraq continues, ultimately when there’s a balance, for Shi’as the glass will be half full, and for the Sunnis the glass will be half empty. And the U.S. has tried to sort of—has been trying to give the Sunnis, if you would, a soft landing, at the same time as it’s—in Iraq it’s trying to hold the hand of the Shi’as being ascendent…

But at some point, we’re not going to be able to do this, and actually, we’re reaching that point, that ultimately in Iraq, and then across the region, there is going to be a winner and a loser. And there is an enormous amount of effort, particularly by regional leaders, to try to influence Washington in this regard. I mean here, for instance, in the council, I think when last year the Saudi foreign minister essentially called for the U.S. to change its tactics and be much more amenable to Sunnis is indicative of that.

Has US Ambassador Khalilzad been trying to close “pandora’s box” (re-Baathification, curbing Shiite influence, etc.) and reverse US policy in Iraq? Or is he merely trying to provide a “soft landing” to Sunnis in the region, even as the Right Zionist tilt toward the Shia proceeds as planned?

Here are more of Nasr’s remarks. The full transcript is available HERE and is well worth reading.

I would like to sort of raise a number of issues that—in a way of generating discussion with regard to the impact that Iraq has had, at least in terms of changing the balance of power in the region, and introducing in a major way a new factor into the regional dynamics, which is the Shi’a power, not only in Iraq, but actually as a regional phenomenon. I mean, often people don’t consider that about half the population between Lebanon and Pakistan are Shi’a. And around the Persian Gulf, by most counts, about 80 percent of the population are Shi’a. And the Shi’as themselves would always like to point out that wherever there’s oil, there’s Shi’a essentially. (Laughter.)

Now, this has been seen as both a new phenomenon, a threat, or an opportunity. King Abdullah of Jordan referred to the Shi’a Crescent, the first time in a major way, as at threat, essentially, to the established powers in the region and therefore, by implication, he suggested, to the United States…

But what we are seeing is a bit more complicated. Namely, we’re—what we’re seeing is that there is possibility for change everywhere in the region. In other words, the mantra is not a centralized revival or empowerment of the Shi’as, as happened with Iran’s efforts in the 1970s, but the replication of what many in the region refer to as the Sistani model, namely, one man, one vote; call for pluralism; call for power-sharing; call for redistribution of power, which in every—most cases, as it was in Iraq, it will benefit the Shi’as. Where they’re a majority or a plurality, as in Lebanon or Bahrain, they can expect to gain control. Where they’re a minority, as in Pakistan, across the Persian Gulf in Saudi Arabia, they’re likely to get a lot more than what they have right now.

And this notion of a sort of an enveloping, cascading Shi’a call and achievement of power is based on not just a political dynamic, but what has happened after Iraq and often we don’t take note of is the much bigger cultural, economic and religious ties that have been spawned since 2003 and are now sort of the underbelly of this movement…

The—in many regards, at least in the short run, the relations between Iraqi Shi’as and Iranian Shi’as is going to be less defined by objective connections between them, as it’s going to be defined by the Sunni threat that is perceived. Iranians view it differently in terms of what the—the rise of al Qaeda in the region and rise of salafism and jihadism means, but for Iraqi Shi’as it’s very clear that the prospects or possibility of a Sunni restoration or a continuation of insurgency at the pace that it has been occurring and the vehemence that we saw at the Askariya shrine bombing overrides any Arab Iranian divisions that they proceed with Iran.

And in fact, many Iraqi Shi’as would say that there are two pillars to the Shi’a position in Iraq, and considering one can say this is true of everywhere in the region, but more so in Iraq. One is the United States, and one is Iran. And in many regards that’s the reason why many Shi’a politicians have been lobbying for an Iranian-American dialogue because the more these two pillars move away from each other, the more difficult it will be for Iraqi Shi’as to maintain their position…

I think Ibrahim Ja’afari is the first Shi’a leader that the U.S. has dealt with in some way since the Iranian Revolution. And even Ja’afari’s ability to influence, to impact U.S. policy, U.S. thinking, is not comparable to the regional powers, who essentially are arguing against the Shi’a empowerment in the region—Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan and the like…And I think, you know, not everybody in the region laments the fact that there was de-Ba’athification or the destruction of the Iraqi army. I think the Shi’as and the Kurds were very happy with the destruction of the Sunni officer class…

Bush Administration Right Zionists: Dead or Alive?

Posted by Cutler on May 31, 2006
Foreign Policy Factions, Iran, Iraq / 5 Comments

Has news of the death of the Neocons been greatly exaggerated?

In some respects, the eclipse of the Neocons is an old story. As I suggested in a prior post, many Neocons decided long ago they had been sold out by the Bush administration’s failure of imperial nerve.

Since at least September 2003, the basic Bush administration political program in Iraq–echoed in today’s Washington Post column by Fareed Zakaria, “A Political Path out of Iraq“–has been to try to put the Shiite genie back in the bottle. As Zakaria suggests, this implies wooing the Sunni minority that was marginalized by the agressive de-Baathification program initiated in May 2003 at the start of the formal US occupation of Iraq.

Co-opting the majority of the Sunnis is the simplest way [Prime Minister] Maliki can cripple the insurgency…

[Maliki] will have to address the core Sunni demand: an end to the de-Baathification process, which has thrown tens of thousands of Sunnis out of jobs and barred them from new ones. Iraq’s deputy prime minister, Barham Salih, a Kurd, told me that “the time has come for us to be courageous enough to admit that there were massive mistakes in de-Baathification.” The American ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, argued similarly, saying that “de-Baathification has to evolve into reconciliation with accountability.” Khalilzad added that Prime Minister Maliki supported the notion that de-Baathification “has to focus on individuals who are charged with specific crimes, not whole classes and groups of people.” If so, it would mark a major and positive shift in policy.

This “shift in policy” marks a sharp rebuke to the Neocon agenda in Iraq. On the basis of this defeat and others (failure to support democratization in Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, etc.), Guy Dinmore of the Financial Times has pronounced the Neocon patient dead in his May 29 article, “Neo-cons Question Bush’s Democratisation Strategy” and–following Neocons Michael Rubin and Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute–Dinmore lists the cause of death as suicide.

Rubin and Pletka ask:

Is it possible that the administration is questioning the wisdom of promoting democracy as a long-term solution to U.S. national security woes? “Realists” suggest that the president has finally woken up and smelled the coffee. They say democracy gave us an Islamist government in Iraq and Hamas in Palestine. It could give us the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Heaven knows what it would spawn in China or Libya. Better the devil you know.

But there is no sign the White House has done any strategic rethinking. The president continues to believe his own preaching, but his administration has become incapable of making the hard choices those beliefs require.

Everyone is grateful to Rubin and Pletka for the “straight man” set up: “no sign the White House has done any strategic rethinking”? Was there ever any sign the White House did any strategic thinking? (As irresistable as that line may be, I think the White House did quite a bit of strategic thinking on the road to war in Iraq.)

Where, exactly, should one draw the line between the “president,” the “White House,” and “his administration”?

One place to draw the line might be the State Department. The careful observers over at Whirled View find ample evidence (here and here) of so-called “Realist” influence over at State, including the new Iran desk.

If only the president continued to believe his own preaching, that would be one thing. But the “White House” presumably includes the Office of the Vice President. Do Rubin and Pletka really think Cheney remains an ally?

There are some signs they may be right. If so, the Neocons might live to see another day. Dinmore filed his story on the death of the Neocons only to report in today’s Financial Times that Bush and Blair have met with Right Zionist (aka Neocon) Iranian exiles:

US President George W. Bush and Tony Blair, the UK prime minister, have received separate background briefings from Iranian opposition activists, including one visitor to the White House on Tuesday who caused a storm earlier this month by reporting Iran had passed a law requiring Jews to wear special identification.

Contacts at such a high level with Iranian opposition activists are likely to raise concerns in Tehran while the US and UK lead diplomatic efforts to get Iran to abandon its nuclear fuel programme.

White House officials said Amir Taheri, a London-based former editor, was among a group of experts invited to discuss Iraq and the region with Mr Bush. Mr Taheri is well known for his support of the war in Iraq and regime change in Iran.

You shall know them by their agents: Taheri is represented by Neocon public relations firm Benador Associates, home of Right Zionist all-stars.

So, is this just Bush throwing a bone to Neocons in the dog house? Or is this the “White House”–i.e., the Office of the Vice President–sending out the word: Game On.

Farsi or Farse?

Posted by Cutler on May 26, 2006
Iran, Iraq / 4 Comments

Today is clearly Iran day at the Washington Post. Witness the two competing columns on today’s editorial page: Charles Krauthammer’s “Say No to Tehran’s Gambit” and David Ignatius’s “Its Time to Engage With Iran.”

Bad Cop/Good Cop. Krauthammer makes the case for tough love and Ignatius proposes more honey, less vinegar.

Truth is, if you drill down a little in the Krauthammer column, he isn’t entirely willing to “Just Say No.”

Entering negotiations… is an obvious trap. We should resolutely say no.

Except on one condition. If the [European] allies, rather than shift responsibility for this entire process back to Washington, will reassert their responsibility by pledging support for U.S. and/or coalition military action against Iran in the event that the bilateral talks fail, then we might achieve something.

You want us to talk? Fine. We will go there, but only if you arm us with the largest stick of all: your public support for military action if the talks fail. The mullahs already fear economic sanctions; they will fear European-backed U.S. military action infinitely more. Such negotiations might actually accomplish something.

At the most simple level, this is an equivalent in the case of Iran of trying to preempt the diplomatic mess of the Iraq invasion when the Bush administration agreed to support a UN resolution regarding inspections, etc. but couldn’t win European support for the ill-fated second resolution backing military action.

In a larger sense, Krauthammer’s “conditional” support for negotiations probably means that even he doesn’t actually believe there is a viable military option–let alone one feared by the mullahs.

I may have to eat these words, but I don’t think military action is the preferred option of either Ignatius (not a risky interpretation, given his writing on the subject) or Krauthammer and his allies.

Here is what seems clear about Right Zionists: Iran is–in the long term–the key indespensible ally that they cannot afford to do without if they are going to beat back Arab nationalism. What remains uncertain for Right Zionists is the best way to win Iran as an ally, rather than simply defeating it as a foe. The military option doesn’t even seem likely to defeat a foe, let alone win an ally. It is a farse. But can “official Iran” become an ally? Or only the “eternal Iran” that would presumably emerge from “populist” regime change?

Shared interest in Shiite political power in Iraq might provide the basis for an alliance of sorts between the US and “official Iran.” That is the Khalilzad/Ignatius option, a Farsi option. Beyond detente with “official Iran” is the kind of US-backed “populism” rebellion deployed in Serbia, Ukraine, and elsewhere to achieve extra-constitutional regime change without military force. What to call this option in Iran?

Farsi? Or just Farse?

Regional Rivalry: Persian Gulf or Arab Gulf?

Posted by Cutler on May 25, 2006
Foreign Policy Factions, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia / 2 Comments

The US invaded Iraq, but the target was Saudi Arabia–at least among Rigth Zionists within the Bush administration. Iraq is the central pivot for the regional balance of power in the Gulf. On the western shores of the Gulf sits Saudi Arabia. To the East, Iran. Iraq, in the North, is the tip of the triangle. Insofar as Iraq is politically controlled by a Sunni Arab minority, the Gulf is an Arab Gulf. Insofar as Iraq is politically controlled by its Shiite majority (loyal to a Persian Grand Ayatollah named Sistani), the balance of power in the Gulf tips toward a Persian Gulf.

The US invasion–and more specifically, the all-important decision to destroy the Baathist military state that guaranteed Sunni minority rule–tipped the balance toward a Persian Gulf. It is for this reason that the war has provoked hostility from Saudi Arabia (and other Arab regimes like Egypt and Jordan)–and Right Arabist friends of Saudi Arabia in Washington.

I mention all this for two reasons. First, no dynamic is more important for understanding what the war in Iraq–including all the post-war political wrangling–has been about.

Second, the “Saudi Question” regarding Iraq (leaving aside, for the moment, the equally important “Iranian Question”) has recently received some media attention from the Los Angeles Times and discussion by Juan Cole at Informed Comment, here and here.

According to the LA Times,

A stark dilemma lies before the rulers of this desert kingdom: how to insulate their land from the sectarian fighting in neighboring Iraq yet find a way to counter Iran’s swelling influence there.

Though Saudi rulers might prefer to avoid involvement in Iraq, there is a growing sense here that of all the Arab countries, Saudi Arabia is the most likely to be sucked in if the violence doesn’t slow. A host of ideas, virtually all of them controversial, are swirling around Riyadh, including funneling arms to Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and improving ties with Iran.

This dilemma is not new. It is the same dilemma that determind the end of the 1990-1991 Gulf War. On the one hand, the Saudis had no love for Saddam Hussein. On the other hand, they could not support a Shiite uprising in Iraq. The result: Saudis pressed the US to leave Saddam in power and then spent the better part of a decade trying to initiate a Baathist coup to oust Saddam with the help of ex-Baathist figures like Iyad Allawi. (The best source on all this remains Andrew and Patrick Cockburn’s outstanding book on Iraq in the 1990s, Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein).

One very strange feature of the LA Times article: there are plenty of quotes supporting the notion that one of the “ideas…swirling around Riyadh” is “funneling arms to Iraq’s Sunni Arabs.” Indeed, I think this may constitute more than merely an “idea” at this point. But the article doesn’t include even one talking head that actually suggests “improving ties with Iran.” Hmmm. Just a journalistic/political flourish on the part of reporter Megan Stack?

It should also be said–if it isn’t already obvious–that Right Zionists cleary intended to have the US invasion of Iraq tip the regional balance of power away from Saudi Arabia.

And what about the “Iranian Question”? Did the US intend to tip the regional balance of power toward Iran? Yes and no. It depends on which Iran you mean, as suggested by a recent Financial Times report on US relations with Iran:

Speaking about US plans to spend more than $75m (€58m, £40m) on promoting democratic change in Iran, Alberto Fernandez, head of the US State Department’s press and public diplomacy for the Middle East, set out how the US sees Iran’s duality. Like night and day, he said, Iran was divided between – “official Iran” (the regime) and “eternal Iran” (the people).

When the US invaded Iraq, its target was also “official Iran” but its goal was “eternal Iran.” Regime change in Iran depends on sharpening the distinction between the two.  Right Zionist aren’t expecting much help in this regard from the $75m to be spent by the Right Arabists over at the State Department.  Nor do they favor a military invasion.  For regime change–pitting “eternal Iran” against “official Iran”–Right Zionists are counting on a clarifying fatwa from a certain Persian Grand Ayatollah named Sistani.

I’m waiting for that shoe to drop. How about you?

Khalilzad and Iran

Posted by Cutler on May 22, 2006
Foreign Policy Factions, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia / 1 Comment

How to read this Khalilzad opening to Iran in todays news?

In an interview with The Associated Press in the U.S. Embassy Annex in Baghdad, Khalilzad said talks with Iran about Iraq could not have taken place earlier because the United States did not want to leave anyone under the impression that Iran and the United States “got together to decide the government in Iraq.”

“But we have said publicly, and that remains our position, we’d be prepared to consider talking with them once the government of national unity is formed,” he said. He declined to specify how talks might begin, saying only, “There are channels for communicating.”…

There have been reports that a prior effort by Khalilzad to open a dialogue with Iran in March of this year met with opposition from within the administration. The source of that opposition–and its meaning–remains unclear.

One might have supposed that the opposition to a dialogue with Iran came from hawks who favor regime change over dialogue with the incumbent regime. Khalilzad’s official explanation for prior hesitation to open such a dialogue–that the US didn’t want to leave anyone with the impression that the US and Iran “got together to decide the government of Iraq”–sends a very, very different message.

Who might get the impression that the US and Iran were carving up the region for their mutual benefit? Well, the Iraqi population for starters.  And/or the Sunni Arab regimes who fear that the US tilt to Shiite Iraq is part of a broader tilt away from Sunni Arab regional domination.

Does this mean that now the US is now prepared to more openly facilitate a regional alliance between Iraqi and Iranian Shiites? Does anyone believe that those most afraid of such an alliance (Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians, etc.) will be comforted by the fact that the US and Iran did not formally get together to decide the government of Iraq?

Who’s Afraid of Regime Change in Iran?

Posted by Cutler on May 09, 2006
Iran, Iraq / 7 Comments

Who’s Afraid of Regime Change in Iran? The answer might surprise you. Right Zionists (so-called neo-cons) surely favor regime change in Iran. But they also fear regime change that is based on ethnic separatism in Iran–specifically Arab separatism.

In the long term, Right Zionists are less interested in defeating or weakening Iran than they are in strengthening a pro-Western Iran. This is, arguably, a different agenda than that of Right Arabists who object to Shiite regional power. In the Right Zionist strategic worldview, Iran remains Israel’s logical (if not empirical) ally in a region dominated by Arab regimes. The model: flourishing US-Israeli-Iranian relations during the 1970s under the Shah. So, too, Right Arabists objected to this US tilt toward Israel and Iran under Kissinger and Nixon.Today, Right Zionists want to terminate the incumebent clerical regime, but they also want to enhance the regional power of Iran, relative to Arab regional dominance. Right Arabists, meanwhile, are willling to entertain the possibility of some kind of accord with the (weakened) incumbent clerical regime, especially if it prevents Right Zionists from winning US-Israeli-Iranian regional hegemony down the road.

As I have argued in a previous post, the question of Iranian nukes falls into this framework. Right Arabists, like Right Zionists, are hostile to the idea of Iranian nukes. But Right Arabists are hostile to Iranian nukes as such, not simply nuclear weapons in the hands of the current Iranian regime. Right Arabists were hostile to Iranian nukes in the 1970s under the Shah and would likely continue to oppose Iranian nukes long after the fall of the incumbent clerical regime. The issue is regional power. For the same reason–regional power–Right Zionists would welcome the exact opposite: Iranian nukes after the restoration of a pro-western regime in Iran.

Arab separatist rebellion within Iran also falls into this framework. Even though there is very little public chatter about US sponsorship of a separatist rebellion by Iran’s Arab minority, Right Zionists are already busy attacking the idea of regime change in Iran on the basis of Arab separatism.

The central issue here is the Iranian province of Khuzistan. In November 2005, AEI Right Zionist Michael Rubin was suffiently concerned about such plans that he published an “internal briefing” for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs that warned against any attempt by the US to undermine the Iranian regime through Arab minority rebellion. The briefing is entitled “Domestic Threats to Iranian Stability: Khuzistan and Baluchistan.”

Khuzistan has a long and rich heritage…Long populated predominantly by Arabs, the region was known throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as Arabistan – “land of the Arabs.” The region grew in strategic importance in the twentieth century, especially after the 1908 discovery of oil and the formation of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company the following year…After Reza Khan subdued the province, the Iranian foreign ministry changed the provincial name to Khuzistan. The oil boom and government efforts to dilute the Arab component of the population have caused the relative size of the ethnic Arab population to shrink. When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, Saddam Hussein sought to play the ethnic card. The Iraqi leader portrayed himself as the liberator of the Khuzistani Arabs.

Rubin doesn’t like the idea of the US playing the Arab ethnic card in Iran, even if (or precisely because) it might destabilize Iran. He certainly seems afraid that Right Arabists (so-called “realists”) are toying with the idea, however.

The Iranian regime is unpopular among the majority of its population…[T]he majority of Iran’s youth long for the freedom enjoyed in the West… When the Islamic Republic collapses, a strong unified Iran will be a force for stability and a regional bulwark against the Islamism under which the Iranian people now chafe. Neither Washington nor any other Western democracy should attempt to play the separatist card in Iran. To do so would not only backfire, but would trade ephemeral short-term gain for long-term strategic harm. The realists are wrong.

Why be so picky about the precise method of uprooting the clerical regime? Because Right Zionists like Rubin are playing a long-term, regional balance-of-power game, not merely a short-term militaristic offensive. Right Zionists are battling for Shiite Iraq and Iran, but targeting the Saudis. Hence, Rubin is already anticipating the benefits of a “strong unified Iran” after the counter-revolution. In the short term, Right Zionists can’t live with the incumbent clerical regime; in the long term they can’t live without non-Arab Iran.

The last thing Right Zionists want is to hand an oil-rich, strategic province of Iran to Arab forces–even if it means sacrificing a short-term opportunity to topple the incumbent Shiite revolutionary regime.

Funny how things work in the Gulf (and much of the former British Empire). Arabs sit atop Iranian oil and Shiite sit atop Saudi oil.

Right Zionists love separatist rebellion in Iraq; hate it in Iran. Right Arabists favor a strong unified Iraq; hate it in Iran.

In the most audacious version of the Right Zionist fantasy the Shia of Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province would secede in the name of a Shia Gulf (Iran, southern Iraq, and the Saudi Eastern Province). In the Khuzistan option (championed by unidentified “realists”) the Gulf Arabs would restore Sunni Arab control of Iraq and help the Arabs of oil-rich Khuzistan secede from Shiite-dominated Iran.

Smells like a regional war at every turn.

NB: there is no necessary or essential symmetry in the binary opposition Arab/Shiite. When ethnic rivalry is the issue, the more appropriate contrasts are between Arab and Persian (and/or Kurd, Turkman, etc.). When religious factionalism is the issue, the more appropriate terms are Sunni/Shiite Muslim.

Most Iraqi Shiites are Arab, not Persian.

In practice, however, Right Zionists seek to exploit something akin to Arab/Shiite rivalry in the Gulf. Hence, the centrality of their reliance on Iraq’s leading Persian cleric, Grand Ayatollah Sistani. Arab nationalists also seem happy to accept the bait. See, for example, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s recent accusation that Iraqi Shiites are more loyal to Shiite Iran than they are to pan-Arab power. Mubarak’s accusations, notwithstanding, the key obstacle to the full development of Arab/Shiite rivalry is the Arab nationalism of Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr.

Sistani & Iran

Posted by Cutler on May 02, 2006
Iran, Iraq / 12 Comments

Bush administration policy on Iran is a pretty complicated affair. I’m not yet prepared to post a full commentary on the flurry of rumors last week about a potential US nuke strike against Iran. Suffice it to say, for now, that I have my doubts that this is the neocon game plan. My reading is that neocons are not actually all that upset about the country of Iran having nukes–at least not as upset as say, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan. Neocons are, however, upset about the incumbent clerical regime in Iran having nukes.

The neocons want regime change in Iran.  They have in mind a popular rebellion, not a military strike.  The emphasis on regime change is actually all over Hersh’s New Yorker piece, but it gets second billing to the nuke attack. The only explicit connection Hersh makes between a military strike and regime change is one quote that suggests a nuke attack might lead to regime change–something like a “Falklands” scenario where military defeat leads to regime change. I have my doubts…

I find much more compelling the idea that neocons are not the ones who want to keep the Iranian nuke issue front and center; the key sources for Hersh’s articles were folks who favored coming to terms with the incumbent regime. They call it crazy and press Bush to go for a diplomatic solution.

Neocons don’t want any “accord” with the Iranian regime, but that is not the same as favoring a military attack. They favor a populist rebellion against a regime they think is quite unpopular. Moreover, my reading of neocon war strategies suggests that they think that the Iraqi clerical establishment–especially the good offices of Grand Ayatollah Sistani–might help undermine the Iranian clerical establishment.

This notion–that the US can exploit divisions between Najaf (Sistani’s base in Iraq) and Qom (the center of the Iranian clerical establishment)–may seem like the most far-fetched notion of all. (One comment by Kieran suggested that the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny would be similarly inclined to help bring down the Iranian regime).

I don’t really have a dog in this race. And I have no interest in defending neocons. But I also don’t like to underestimate my opponents. And I note, with great interest, that when Professor Juan Cole–far more of an expert on such matters than I–listed his Top Ten Myths about Iraq in 2005, number five was as follows:

5. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, born in Iran in 1930, is close to the Iranian regime in Tehran Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s majority Shiite community, is an almost lifetime expatriate. He came to Iraq late in 1951, and is far more Iraqi than Arnold Schwarzenegger is Californian. Sistani was a disciple of Grand Ayatollah Burujirdi in Iran, who argued against clerical involvement in day to day politics. Sistani rejects Khomeinism, and would be in jail if he were living in Iran, as a result. He has been implicitly critical of Iran’s poor human rights record, and has himself spoken eloquently in favor of democracy and pluralism. Ma’d Fayyad reported in Al-Sharq al-Awsat in August of 2004 that when Sistani had heart problems, an Iranian representative in Najaf visited him. He offered Sistani the best health care Tehran hospitals could provide, and asked if he could do anything for the grand ayatollah. Sistani is said to have responded that what Iran could do for Iraq was to avoid intervening in its internal affairs. And then Sistani flew off to London for his operation, an obvious slap in the face to Iran’s Supreme Jurisprudent Ali Khamenei.

I haven’t asked Professor Cole what he thinks about Neocon attempts to exploit this fissure between Sistani and the Iranian regime, but I’d sure be interested to know…

Dem Zionists? Biden & Gelb on Iraqi Partition

Posted by Cutler on May 02, 2006
Iran, Iraq / 4 Comments

Senator Joseph Biden–with Leslie Gelb–has published a NYT Op-Ed arguing for ethnic federalism in Iraq:

America must get beyond the present false choice between “staying the course” and “bringing the troops home now” and choose a third way… The idea, as in Bosnia, is to maintain a united Iraq by decentralizing it, giving each ethno-religious group — Kurd, Sunni Arab and Shiite Arab — room to run its own affairs, while leaving the central government in charge of common interests.

My ZNet article on Iraq focuses primarily on Republican strategic orientations, especially battles between Zionist and Arabist factions. Given the political dominance of the Republican party, there has been some urgency to mapping their views on Iraq. There are, however, parralel lines within the Democratic foreign policy establishment. The chief difference may be that Republican Zionists (so-called “neocons”) are still relatively rare within the foreign policy establishment. Not so with the Democrats. The challenge, within the Democratic party is to find any Arabists; Dem Zionists are quite plentiful.

Critics of the war in Iraq have often–and correctly–suggested that the neo-cons favor ethnic federalism in Iraq. After all, it was fear of ethnic federalism–and its regional consequences–that led Right Arabists to prop up Saddam’s rule at the end of the 1991 Gulf war and it was the Right Zionist embrace of this federalism within the administration of George W. Bush that guided the decision to end Sunni Baathist dominance of a centralized Iraq power structure. This issue has always been at the crux of the politics of war in Iraq.
There is nothing new about leading Democrats supporting plans for ethnic federalism. Back in 1991, when the first Bush administration indicated it was backing a military coup, rather than ethnic federalism and democracy, Democrats were quite critical:

“We should do what we can to encourage a democratic alternative to Saddam Hussein,” said Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “And above all, we should not accept the replacement of Saddam Hussein with another general … who will run yet one more authoritarian Iraqi regime.” (“U.S. Sees Successor to Saddam Coming From Military,” Associated Press, March 2, 1991)

Peter Galbraith, an aide to Senator Pell, went on to become a leading proponent of ethnic federalism. At the height of the 2004 Presidential campaign, he championed such a plan in the New York Review of Books.

The fundamental problem of Iraq is an absence of Iraqis… In my view, Iraq is not salvageable as a unitary state… The best hope for holding Iraq together—and thereby avoiding civil war—is to let each of its major constituent communities have, to the extent possible, the system each wants.

His proposal drew the support of Kerry’s chief foreign policy advisor, Richard Holbrooke, who indicated to the New York Times that Kerry himself was very enthusiastic about the Galbraith article.

If there is nothing particularly new about Democratic party foreign policy figures supporting such a plan, would the implementation of such a plan signify anything new in Iraq? Yes and no. On the one hand, Biden and Gelb acknowledge that their “third way” isn’t really much of a bold departure from events on the ground.

Decentralization is hardly as radical as it may seem: the Iraqi Constitution, in fact, already provides for a federal structure and a procedure for provinces to combine into regional governments… Besides, things are already heading toward partition… a breakup is already under way.

On the other hand, they may be quite right to signify a departure from current Bush administration policy. Although they represent their position as a break from Bush’s determination to “stay the course,” the truth is that the Bush administration has not stayed the course. As early as September 2003, the Bush administration began to retreat from a full embrace of ethnic federalism and began to favor Iraqi proxies–chiefly former Baathists like Iyad Allawi–who favor a restoration of something like Saddamism without Saddam. That policy has not managed to close pandora’s box; a breakup is already under way. But it is not currently US policy. As US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad never tires of repeating, the US favors a government of “national unity,” not ethnic federalism.

Biden and Gelb’s third way is, in fact, the first way. It is the way the Bush administration started the war.

Juan Cole provides a helpful clarification of the battle lines regarding the Biden/Gelb “Third Way”:

The Arab world would never forgive the United States if it broke up Iraq. You would never be able to convince them that it hadn’t been done primarily for the benefit of Israel. Iraq in the late 1970s was a comer as potentially the most powerful Arab country. To see it broken and in fragments, supine before imperial and regional powers, would be heartbreaking to Arabs and would certainly provoke anti-Western sentiments and attacks in retaliation.

Farewell to neo-cons; here come Dem Zionists.

Beyond Incompetence: Washington’s War in Iraq

Posted by Cutler on April 30, 2006
Iran, Iraq / 4 Comments

ZNet has published my article, Beyond Incompetence: Washington’s War in Iraq.” The article makes two central arguments.

1. Critics of the War should not underestimate the Realpolitik analysis behind the decision to invade Iraq and deliver power to the Shiite majority. It also tries to elaborate that Realpolitik primarily through a close reading of David Wurmser’s book, Tyranny’s Ally: America’s Failure to Defeat Saddam Hussein (AEI: 1999).

2. Within the US, there is an “intra-imperialist” battle over political outcomes in Iraq. Critics of the War who take one side or another in this intra-imperialist battle risk unintentionally aligning themselves with one side or another of an essentially imperialist debate.

Along the way, the article tries to make sense of Bush administration battles between neo-conservatives and realists. I propose that the factions are best defined as Right Zionists (so-called “neo-conservatives”) and Right Arabists (so-called “realists”).

Gulf Arabs v. Persian Gulf

Posted by Cutler on April 25, 2006
Iran, Iraq / No Comments

The decision by CBS to air a 60 Minutes report–CIA offical Tyler Drumheller’s accusations that the Bush administration ignored warnings about faulty intelligence used to justify the invasion of IRaq–appears to be an odd choice. The program wasn’t a re-run, but it sure felt like old news. Perhaps it was intended to serve as a link to the developing story of Mary McCarthy, the CIA analyst fired recently for leaking classified information to reporters.

The story was a reminder of the particularly vapid mode of criticism that has animated much of the political squabbling over Iraq. Drumheller’s criticism is that the Bush folks knowingly lied. But the Drumheller segment also ends with the CIA official blasting the decision to invade as one of the most significant policy mistakes of all time. End of interview. He never explains this accusation. Simply that the Bush administration made that mistake “knowingly.” Doesn’t that cry out for elaboration?

Let’s stipulate that the Bush administration lied about the intelligence it used to justify the invasion. Let’s be “shocked, shocked” to find that lies were told. Then let’s move on. Beyond the game of gotcha, isn’t it time for the follow-up question: if the threat of WMD was not actually the reason you were so determined to go to war–just the one for public consumption–then what were the private reasons that motivated the invasion? Not the “personal” reasons–to avenge the Father or the kill the Father. And not just the most general reasons–oil, no doubt. But the more specific reasons behind the extraordinary decisions to remake the Iraqi political order: the initial attempt to terminate Sunni minority rule in Iraq and empower the Iraqi Shia.

I have tried to make some sense of this in my article, “Beyond Incompetence: Washington’s War in Iraq.” One of the key issues raised there is the prospect that right Zionists (aka “neocons”) played the game in Iraq for very high stakes: reshaping the regional balance of power. The goal was to tilt power away from Sunni Arab dominance–the Gulf Arab states of Saudi Arabia and Sunni-dominated Iraq–in favor of a Shiite Gulf.

Earlier in April, Brian Lehrer of WNYC interviewed Salameh Nematt, Washington bureau chief of Al Hayat about Arab reaction to Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Worth a listen. Nematt spoke about Gulf Arab concerns that a nuclear Iran would enhance its regional power. These concerns were not limited to the current regime, but also the regional power of Iran as such. Nematt emphasized the continuity of Iranian regional ambitions–relative to the Gulf Arabs–under the Shah and the Revolutionary regime. Regime change in Iran or not, the Arab states do not want a nuclear Iran.

Lehrer also interviewed an Israeli diplomat about Iran’s nuclear program. Not surprisingly, the Israelis are quite hostile to the Iranian Revolutionary regime acquiring nuclear weapons. More surprising, however, is that unlike the Gulf Arabs, right Zionists seem quite willing to contemplate a nuclear Iran after the fall of the Revolutionary regime. In June 2005 Michael Rubin, a Right Zionist at the American Enterprise Institute who served in Iraq as part of the Coalition Provisional Authority, published an essay in The Forward entitled Washington Must Plan Today For Democratic Iran of Tomorrow.” In that essay, Rubin warns against the threat posed by the Iranian’s quest for nuclear weapons, but then comes to his central point:

A democratic Iran might not abandon its nuclear program, but neither would it sponsor anti-American terrorism, undercut the Middle East peace process or deny Israel’s right to exist. Democratization, therefore, can take the edge off the Iranian threat.

Right Zionists are hawkish about the current Iranian drive for nukes, but their preferred solution is not a direct military assault on Irans nuclear program.  They want populist regime change. Indeed, some understand that US efforts to repress Iranian nuclear ambitions incite popular nationalism and help stabilize an otherwise unpopular regime.

For Right Zionists, this is the preferred future regional balance of power: a nuclear Iran and a nuclear Israel (and a nuclear India?) aligned against Sunni Arab regional dominance (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan). Right Zionists do not like the Iranian Revolutionary regime, but unlike the Gulf Arabs they are far from hostile to Iranian regional power. Indeed, they cannot bring themselves to abandon the dream of restoring the Iranian-Israeli regional alliance the flourished under Nixon’s tilt toward the Shah. Right Arabists in the US (aka “realists”) howled against that regional shift during the 1970s and they have not stopped howling since the Bush administration started moving toward the invasion of Iraq.

For Right Zionists, the road to Tehran starts in Baghdad. First step: hand Iraq to the Shiite majority, under the leadership of Grand Ayatollah Sistani. Second step: join Sistani in sparking a Shiite-led populist rebellion against his clerical opponents in Iran. Third step: exploit Sunni-Shiite rivalry over control of the Gulf–is it a Persian Gulf or an Arab Gulf?–in order to rebuild the alliance between a “democratic Iran” and Israel. Fourth step: pry the US away from its dependence on Sunni Arab regimes deemed hostile to Israel and/or unreliable to the US.

With apologies to 60 Minutes and Tyler Drumheller, the fact that the Right Zionists lied about intelligence on the road to war is small potatoes. The stakes in this war are far greater. The truly significant issue is not the secret lies behind the invasion, but the open truth behind the lies.