Which is it: Are the Iranians extraordinarily clever, or are we extraordinarily dim? Certainly, when it comes to pursuing our respective interests in Iraq, they seem to be thinking and acting strategically, while we seem not to be.
A fascinating story in the April 21 New York Times by James Glanz and Alissa J. Rubin reveals that in the battle for Basra—the major port city of southern Iraq—the United States and Iran are on the same side. Yet the Bush administration is doing nothing to gain leverage from this convergence.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched his troop offensive in Basra province last month in an attempt to crush the militia of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr. President George W. Bush—who backed Maliki's move, first with air power, then with armor and special-operations forces—described Sadr's militia men as Iranian-backed thugs.
He might have been right about "thugs," though several analysts (including this one) noted at the time that the rival Shiite militia backing Maliki—known as the Badr Organization, whose men fought alongside the Iraqi army—had ties to Iran as well.
It is now clear that the Badr Organization's ties to Iran are not merely as close as Sadr's; they are much closer. In fact, as the Times reports, Iran's ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi Qumi, expressed full support for Maliki's offensive in Basra and denounced Sadr's fighters as "outlaws."
It is reasonable to ask what the hell is going on here. President Bush assisted Maliki's offensive as a campaign against Iranian-backed extremists. Now it turns out the Iranians are backing Maliki.
Much of the confusion is dispelled when you consider that the battle for Basra is not so much a military contest between the Iraqi government and outlaw rebels as a power struggle between rival Shiite mafias.
In this sense, Maliki is joined at the hip to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a political party that used to be known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The Badr Organization is this party's militia. (It is integrating itself with the Iraqi army, but it's unclear whether this means that the militia is becoming more like a national army or that the national army is becoming more like a militia.)
The leaders of SCIRI, now ISCI, are tied to Iran in two ways. First, during Saddam Hussein's reign, they spent many years exiled in Iran. Second, and more to the point, their political agenda—whether by design or coincidence—dovetails with Iran's.
ISCI advocates the creation of a semiautonomous super-region incorporating all nine provinces of oil-rich southern Iraq—a Shiite enclave similar to the Kurdish enclave in Iraq's three northern provinces. Iran's leaders also like this idea because they think that such a large, ethnically homogenous region would give them the best chance to influence and possibly control the southern territories, Iraq's Shiite politics, and, therefore—by dint of the country's Shiite majority—Iraqi politics generally.
Muqtada Sadr, on the other hand, rejects the idea of a super-region. He has grander ambitions to control all of Iraq from a central government—a vaster, more turbulent entity, which the Iranians would have a harder time handling. (They probably wouldn't have such an easy time manipulating a southern super-region, either, but at least they'd have an entry point.)
What may well have prompted last month's offensive is that Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, is gaining strength in Basra. As a result, it is widely believed that Sadr's party might win there in this fall's provincial elections—a development that would deal a crushing blow to ISCI, weaken Maliki's standing in Iraq's second-largest city, and, perhaps, put an end to the dream of a southern super-region.
Hence the desire to crush Sadr's gangs in Basra, and thus the base of his political support there, before it's too late.
Maliki managed to pull Bush into the conflict because Sadr vociferously opposes any continued U.S. military presence in Iraq, and—until last year, when he declared a cease-fire—his militiamen have devoted a lot of effort to killing American soldiers. By contrast, ISCI's fighters have not posed a direct threat.
Since the start of the offensive in Basra, Sadr's Mahdi Army has resumed shooting at American soldiers in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad—and, interestingly, in that fight, the Iranians are supporting Sadr.
In other words, we find ourselves lassoed into an armed intra-Shiite power struggle on two fronts—and the Iranians are positioned to benefit from one or both contests, no matter whether the side we're backing wins or loses.
So, again: Are they really good at this game, or are we simply out of our element?
One thing is for sure: It is time to start talking with the Iranians. First, they control too many of the pieces for us not to engage them diplomatically. Second, it turns out that we do have some common interests (for instance, crushing Sadr in Basra). Might it be possible to leverage those interests to induce cooperation, or extract concessions, in other realms where we have differences? Third, Maliki clearly has no qualms about talking with the Iranians when it suits his purposes. Why should we?
Finally, there is so much to discuss with Iran that unless we're at war with each other (and nobody has suggested that we are), it's stupid—unfathomably self-destructive—not to make a serious effort.