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.