Note from Steve Clemons. My colleague and friend Nir Rosen who has been one of America’s most significant chroniclers of the Islamic dimensions of America’s war in the Middle East has just become a regular contributer to The Washington Note. Please welcome him. And as always, the views he expresses are exclusively his own and not those necessarily of The Washington Note or mine. — Steve Clemons
In June of 2003, two months after the United States conquered Iraq, I sat in on a briefing given by US Army intelligence officers in that most Sunni of Iraq’s cities, Tikrit, to a couple of officers visiting from Baghdad. One of the American intelligence officers based in Saddam’s famous hometown explained that they were worried about “Shiite fingers” from Iran “creeping” up to Tikrit to establish an Iranian style government.
At a time when the mostly Sunni Iraqi resistance had already established itself and its ability was improving, I was astounded by how stupid the notion of an Iranian threat in Tikrit was. I have remained shocked, like many journalists and academics familiar with the region and its languages, that the Americans have shown no improvement in their understanding of the Muslim world with which they are so deeply engaged militarily and as an imperial power.
We should expect little interest in understanding the outside world from an insular and isolated government whose leaders show open contempt for their own people. And we should expect diplomatic and military officials themselves required to maintain ideological purity to voice an equally unsophisticated world view.
But too often the so called experts are equally ignorant. Remarkably, their lack of background, expertise or language skills and their repeated errors have not diminished the credibility of people such as Fred Kagan of the far right American Enterprise Institute (a Russia expert!), or Kenneth Pollock of the Brookings Institute or their cohorts.
Ridiculously, Kagan and his wife, both of whom have only gone on official tours of Iraq with US Army babysitters, and neither of whom know Arabic, described the recent clashes in Basra as an operation initiated by the “legitimate Government of Iraq and its legally constituted security forces [against] illegal, foreign-backed, insurgent and criminal militias serving leaders who openly call for the defeat and humiliation of the United States and its allies in Iraq and throughout the region.”
Why anybody even hires or publishes Kagan on the Middle East is a mystery, but there is nothing legitimate in the government of Iraq, it provides none of the services we would associate with a government, not even the pretense of a monopoly on violence, it was established under an illegitimate foreign military occupation and it is entirely unrepresentative of the majority of Sunnis and Shiites who are opposed to the American occupation and despise the Iraqi government.
Moreover the dominant parties in the government and in those units of the security forces that battled their political rivals in Basra and elsewhere are the ones closest to Iran. The leadership of the Iraqi government regularly consults Iranian officials and is closer to Iran than any other element in Iraq today. Moreover, the Americans have always blamed their failures in Iraq on outsiders, Baathists, al Qaeda, Iranians, because they refuse to admit that the Iraqi people don’t want them. So Iran is a convenient scapegoat to explain the strength of the Sadrists, a strength actually resulting from the fact that they are a genuinely popular mass movement. Blaming Iran also lets the Americans maintain the illusion that the Mahdi Army’s ceasefire is still in effect.
I expect this from the Bush administration and the ideologues who back it. But when the American media, which, in the build up to the American attack on Iraq abdicated its duty to challenge those in power and inform the public, continues to demonstrate the same lack of skepticism, it is very distressing.
In April I testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to attempt to explain what was really happening in Iraq, where I have spent most of the last five years, so that they could better challenge General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker during their Senate testimony. But it made little difference.
As always, little interest was shown in the Iraqi people, and the fact that they were enduring a brutal foreign military occupation. Those who opposed the war did so because it was too expensive for American taxpayers, not even because American men and women were dying for absolutely nothing, and certainly not because anybody cares about Iraqis. But one of the main themes I heard repeated by the General and the Ambassador and by the senators who questioned them, was that Iran was the bad guy in Iraq these days. They accused Iran of supporting “Shiite extremists” and said that Muqtada al Sadr was one such extremist. They even managed to blame Iran for the Iran-Iraq war, which Iraq had initiated with US backing. Iran was the bad guy and the US was fighting a proxy war against it.
There has never been any evidence of this, save the accusations of a US regime that still hopes it can score a last minute war against Iran, but lack of evidence did not stop the Washington Post editorial page from declaring war against Iran on April 13th.
The Post talked about the “growing aggressiveness of Iran,” taking at face value the Senate testimony of two politicized US officials about “Iranian-backed militias” which are the largest threat to U.S. forces and the Iraqi government.” This “proxy war in Iraq is just one front in a much larger Iranian offensive,” said the Post, citing Gaza and Lebanon as well as examples of “Iran’s military adventurism,” and stating that military force would have to be used to counter this “growing menace.” The Post actually thinks there is a way to “nurture” a “popular backlash against Iran’s military adventurism” in the region.
In a region devoid of democracy a popular backlash would not matter anyway, but Hizballah and Hamas are popular in the region, the U.S. and its occupation of Iraq are not popular. Perhaps with enough payoffs, cajoling and threats the U.S. can nurture a backlash among the unpopular dictators it supports in the Middle East. But the backlash by the people of the region is against America’s military adventurism, not Iran’s. The Americans hope to persuade the skeptical people of the region that Iran is their real enemy. And it was clear the Prime Minister and President of Iraq clearly did not view Iran as a threat when they welcomed Mahmud Ahmedinajad to Baghdad like a dear friend.
The Post‘s writers focus on claims to progress in Iran’s nuclear power program that are exaggerated while denigrating the National Intelligence Estimate‘s own claim that Iran’s nuclear program is on hold. And producing a nuclear device is about more than just centrifuges, and Iran is nowhere near progress in other important technologies that essential for a nuclear weapon. Iran’s religious and political leaders have forsworn nuclear weapons, its supreme religious ruler has repudiated them.
We cannot at once condemn Iran for being a theocracy and then disregard the rulings of its theocrats. Though with an aggressive nuclear Israel and U.S regularly rattling their sabers who could blame Iran even if it did seek the security nuclear weapons seem to provide? Hillary Clinton recently threatened to “totally obliterate” Iran while John McCain sings about bombing Iran and president Bush called al Qaeda and Iran two of the greatest threats to America in the 21st century. This is slightly hyperbolic since al Qaeda’s only successful attack against the U.S. on September 11 ago was a strategic pinprick, not to mention a lucky shot, and Iran has no global ambitions and no interest in attacking the U.S. and in fact has never invaded another country (Iraq started the Iran-Iraq war).
The repeated accusations of American officials do not suffice, as the catastrophic war in Iraq should have taught journalists who are still all too gullible and too willing to venerate automaton mouth pieces, even those who should know better, such as former secretary of state Colin Powell who gave an ignominious speech in front of the United Nations that was hailed by the media.
The truth is, most allegations about Iran’s role in Iraq and the region are unfounded or dishonest. Iran was responsible for ending the recent fighting in Basra and calming the situation after Iraqi parliamentarians who backed Prime Minister Maliki approached it. The Iranians, never close to Muqtada or his family, were so annoyed with Muqtada and his presence that they reportedly ordered him out of Iran where he had been living in virtual house arrest anyway since arriving six months earlier. Iranian officials and the state media clearly supported Prime Minister Maliki and the Iraqi government against what they described as “illegal armed groups” in the recent conflict in Basra, which is not surprising given that their main proxy in Iraq, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council dominates the Iraqi state and is Maliki’s main backer.
The Supreme Council is of course also the main proxy for the US in Iraq and somehow in the Senate testimony it was forgotten that its large Badr militia was established in Iran and is actually the only Iraqi opposition group to have fought on the Iranian side against Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. Moreover, the Badr militia was a branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that is so demonized today, and Badr dominates the ministry of interior, if not most of Iraq at the higher echelons. But none of this openly available information made its way to the Post’s editorial writers or the dominant discourse in the US.
If militias are the main problem in Iraq, then the U.S. policy of creating new Sunni militias and empowering them to rule walled off fiefdoms does not bode well for the weak Iraqi government, especially when these Sunni militias view the Iraqi government as their main enemy. These Sunni militias, called “Awakening groups,” Concerned Local Citizens, Iraqi Security Volunteers, Critical Infrastructure Security Guards and Sons of Iraq are composed of former resistance fighters who collaborated with al Qaeda to fight Shiites and the Americans but put their fight against the Americans on hold so as to concentrate on fighting the Shiites in the next round of the civil war. Iraq’s Shiites are not thrilled that the Sunni militias who were slaughtering them are now resurgent. In August 2007 the Mahdi Army had declared a “freeze,” often mistranslated as a ceasefire. But the US military and the Maliki-Badr militia alliance continued to arrest and target the Sadrists and the Mahdi Army. If anything, they violated the ceasefire.
Salah al Ubaidi, Muqtada al Sadr’s spokesmen recently admitted that his movement was not getting along with Iran. Iran had helped them in the past but accounts of large Iranian arms shipments were “greatly exaggerated.” Muqtada refused to be a slave to Iran he said, implying that other Iraqi Shiite leaders were. In fact Mahdi Army members in Iraq have taken to blaming the actions of their more notorious members on Iran, adopting a position similar, if disingenuous, to that of Iraq’s Sunnis. Al Ubaidi also recently denounced Iran, accusing it of sharing control of Iraq with the Americans and criticizing Iran for not objecting to the long term security deal the Americans and Prime Minister Maliki are working on, to make the American military presence a permanent one.
There is no proxy war in Iraq, because the US and Iran share the same proxy and the US installed that proxy and empowered it. Today, to the extent that we can talk about an Iraqi “state,” it is dominated by the Supreme Council and its Badr militia. The Sadrist movement of which the Mahdi Army is a loose militia is also the largest humanitarian organization in Iraq, providing homes, security, rations, clothes and other services to hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. It is a complex movement and certainly is as guilty of crimes as all the other groups that took part in the Iraqi civil war, including the Americans.
But it is also the most popular and legitimate movement in Iraq, and the one sure to outlast the others, despite predictions by former Bush lackeys such as Dan Senor that it was losing ground. The American and Iraqi Army attacks only increased support for the Mahdi Army, justifying the feeling many poor Shiites have that they are marginalized and threatened. Now that they have walled off the Sadrist Shiite strong hold of Sadr City in Baghdad, the Americans are only increasing the feeling among Muqtada’s supporters that they are targeted just as they were under Saddam, who also besieged that area. The fact that the Americans are routinely killing civilians, including children, in Sadr City, will not win their Iraqi proxies any new supporters.
To the Post as to most establishment officials in the media and government, all social and political movements in the Middle East are either al Qaeda or Iranian plots, or for Senator McCain, a bit of both. These people are unable to see social and political movements in the Middle East as the collective action of poor and oppressed people. People in the region were anti-American before Islamism became the dominant trend, and they were battling American imperialism as secularists and nationalists. During the cold war every popular movement was blamed on a Soviet conspiracy. Now people in the region battle American imperialism as Islamists, but it is the fight that created the movements, not the other way around. And the fight continues.
Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice pressured Iraq’s Arab neighbors to shield Iraq from Iran’s “nefarious influence.” Perhaps she was unaware that her government had introduced that influence when they anointed the Dawa party and the Supreme Council as the official Shiite parties in 2003. The idea that the Sunni dominated states around Iraq, which dislike Shiites, and which warned Bush not to invade Iraq because they feared a Shiite dominated states, would now persuade Iraq’s Shiite leaders not to have a strong relationship with their Iranian friends shows some lack of understanding. Moreover, a recent University of Maryland poll shows that most Arabs do not view Iran as a major threat but that they are overwhelmingly hostile to the Unites States in fact.
Lebanese Hizballah is not part of an Iranian conspiracy, it is a massively popular political party with more legitimacy than most other movements in Lebanon, and it is the only serious political party in Lebanon that is not built around one personality, but rather around enduring institutions. It is also a successful resistance movement admired throughout the region for defeating the Israelis while defying the Americans and thwarting undemocratic Saudi and American plans for Lebanon. One could just as easily say that the sectarian Sunnis and former warlords who control the Lebanese government are paralyzing that state by refusing to allow a more representative and legitimate distribution of power that would include Hizballah and its Christian allies.
Sunnis in the region have a racist sort of habit of viewing all Shiite Arabs as Persian, Safavid, Iranian disloyal fifth columnists. Like the Americans, they ignore the Lebanese nationalism of Hizballah and the Iraqi nationalism of Muqtada al Sadr and the Mahdi Army. Both movements are local and not part of any Shiite crescent. And if Hamas’s militancy is a problem then perhaps the 60 years of Israeli occupation and Palestinian dispossession should finally be addressed. There has not been a Hamas “buildup” in Gaza, as the Post states. Like Hizballah, like the Mahdi Army, like other popular social movements, it is part of the people and their struggle.
This same American alliance with the so called “moderate” Sunni Arab countries, which are in fact dictatorships with gruesome human rights records, is backing Sunni militias in Lebanon and nearly succeeded in a coup attempt to overthrow the democratically elected Hamas in Palestine and install Fatah thugs in their place. Iran indeed has a strategic alliance with Hamas and Hizballah, groups that the United States condemns as terrorists but millions of others view as national liberation movements who also provide for and protect their people. Why assume that the Bush administration’s interests are more legitimate than those of the Iranian regime’s? What is wrong with Iraqi resistance groups that oppose a foreign military occupation that has killed and imprisoned thousands of innocent civilians while bringing only ruin an already tortured country?
It is true that some Iraqi militias use Iranian weapons, but they also use American weapons, Soviet bloc weapons, Austrian weapons and anything else they can purchase. And the Mahdi Army actually often uses weapons originating with the Americans and given to the Iraqi Army and Police. Mahdi Army men also purchased weapons originating in Iran from offices of the Supreme Council and Badr in southern Iraq. Iranian weapons are smuggled into Iraq. In a region with porous borders and rife with corruption this does not make it a state policy. Iraqis do not need arms, the country is awash in them, and they need little help in being violent, as we have seen.
Most of those who fight the Americans in Iraq do so not at the bidding of a foreign power but out of genuine and sincere opposition to the American occupation. The Americans never grasped this and always assumed it was about the money, or al Qaeda, and now part of a silly Iranian conspiracy. After at first siding with Iraq’s Shiites much to the consternation of America’s so called “moderate” Sunni allies, the Americans are now targeting Shiites and perhaps even Shiite Iran as Bush prepares for once last war on his path to the “New Middle East.” But without the help of an acquiescent media supplicating to Bush administration and US military officials they might not be able to go to war once again.
Secretary of State Rice’s claim that the US seeks to protect Iraq, a country it has destroyed and whose civilians it continues to kill in Sadr City and elsewhere is laughable, but more dangerously, Rice added fuel to the already combustible sectarian divide in the region, informing Iraq’s neighbors that “what they need to do is confirm and work for Iraq’s Arab identity.”
In a Sunni dominated Arab region that already views Arab Shiites as inferior and often as fifth columnists for Persian Iran, Rice is promoting racist notions that have increased since the American invasion of Iraq. “Arab” is often construed to mean “Sunni” in the region and hence a Shiite dominated Iraq is perceived to be less Arab and more Persian. Throughout the Sunni Arab world dictators, clerics and others warn of “Persian” or “Safavid” plots and conspiracies to take over the region fearing that Hizballah is an Iranian tool, or that the Sadrists are, and dismissing the Shiite government of Iraq as an “Iranian occupation.” Paranoid rumors spread throughout the Arab world of Sunnis converting to Shiism, feeding a fear of Shiite expansionism.
After initially backing Iraq’s Shiites at the expense of alienating their reliable Sunni dictator buddies in the region (also known as “the moderates”), the Americans are now attempting to court them by promoting anti-Shiite sectarianism. That was Zarqawi’s tactic too. It is also ironic because the US originally supported Kurdish efforts to de-Arabize Iraq’s identity. Vice President Cheney has also tried to persuade Gulf Arab countries to get on board the US war with Iran, though with limited success until now, because they know they can only lose from such a confrontation.
Rice also blamed Iran for the fighting in Basra. Secretary of Defense Gates warned that Iran is “is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons,” and that “the military option must be kept on the table, given the destabilizing policies of the regime and the risks inherent in a future Iranian nuclear threat.” He did not say what those risks were. Certainly they are less frightening than Sunni Pakistan possessing nuclear weapons, or the aggressive Israeli state possessing nuclear weapons, since it is Israel that invades or bombs Arab states every so often. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen also discussed “potential military courses of action” to deal with Iran’s “increasingly lethal and malign influence” in Iraq.
I believe that in fact Iran is a positive influence in Iraq, that it has a close relationship with the Kurds and the Shiites and that the Iranian regime, unlike its Sunni neighbors, is not sectarian and is very pragmatic. If Iraq’s Sunnis dislike Iran it is because Saddam Hussein initiated a war of aggression against Iran and succeeded in demonizing Shiites. Admiral Mullen was wrong when he said that Iran prefers “see a weak Iraq neighbor.” Iran and the former Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al Jaafari even discussed Iran training Iraq’s security forces. Iran has close relations with Sunni Islamist Hamas and its foreign policy is not a Shiite one at all. Iran does not seek to conquer or control its Arab neighbors but it also chooses not to be an American puppet or client regime, and that has always been the sin the American empire will never pardon.
Another non expert on the Middle East who sees fit to regularly comment on it is the Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon, recently turned cheerleader for the American “surge.” He agreed with General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker that “Iran is a regime with the blood of hundreds of Americans and thousands of Iraqis on its hands.” If he is referring to the American soldiers who died while occupying Iraq then perhaps he should blame the generals and politicians who sent them there rather than the Iraqis who are fighting to liberate their country or those who allegedly helped those Iraqis. O’Hanlon says that dialogue with Iran is naÃƒÂ¯ve because Iran is “ambitious, assertive and ruthless” and is “seeking to establish itself as the region’s hegemon, weaken the U.S. role throughout the broader Middle East and drive a stake through the heart of the Mideast peace process.”
It is not odd for the imperial power that props unpopular and anti democratic dictators in the region while opposing genuinely popular movements and fomenting conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and elsewhere to worry about somebody else moving in on its turf, but it is silly that O’Hanlon thinks the Bush administration is genuinely committed to a Mideast peace process.
Any actual expert on the region, or any sincere person with even passing familiarity with it would know that genuine peace has always been easy to achieve, it requires Israel to abandon all its settlements and occupied territories, allow for the return of the refugees and compensate them for their dispossession. It also means granting equal rights to the Palestinian citizens of Israel. The so called “peace process,” nothing of the sort, is merely a way to enshrine the dispossession of the Palestinians using unpopular but pliant and hand chosen collaborators like Mahmud Abbas.
Real peace requires dealing with Hamas, Hizballah and Syria. It requires a recognition that there is a hegemonic Zionist aggressor here, with Arab victims, not two equal sides. There can never be a Mideast peace process when the American secretary of state declares, as Rice did on April 29 that “I still remember my first time visiting Israel: It felt like coming home to a place that I had never been. And every time I return, as I look upon the land where Israelis have made the desert literally bloom, and as I drive past the aging hulks of Israeli tanks, which recall the dear cost that generations of Israeli patriots have paid for their nation’s survival, as I see all of these things, it is clear to me that a confident Israel can achieve things that many think impossible.” Can we imagine an American secretary of state paying tribute to the dear cost generations of Palestinian patriots paid for their nation’s survival while attempting to reclaim the homeland from which they were ethnically cleansed?
Anyway, O’Hanlon in the end calls for talks with Iran, not because they will produce any breakthroughs, he says, but because they are a prelude to violence. Talks will get more countries to support the new American war. “By trying to talk,” he writes, “we better position ourselves to get tough and have others join the effort.” Remarkably, he hopes the talks would fail. “Only by patiently trying to work with Iran, and consistently failing to make progress, will we gradually convince Bush-haters and U.S. doubters around the world that the real problem does not lie in Washington.”
Knowing that the propaganda war leading to the invasion of Iraq failed, O’Hanlon wants this war to be more efficient. He wants the US to work harder “to prove we are the reasonable ones” but he also wants Senator Barak Obama to use more “tough talk.” O’Hanlon calls for talks to help shed the image of “Texas cowboy foreign policymaking” but in the end it is only to further the same cowboy foreign policy, just maybe with a few more Tontos at the side of the Lone Ranger. Beware, the worst is yet to come.
– Nir Rosen