The Magazine

Bush's Great Middle East Gamble

The best hope for Iran is winning in Iraq.

Nov 14, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 09 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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It's a good bet that the Sunni clergy will in the end make their peace with the new Shiite-led order. With very rare exceptions, Sunni clerics have not been nihilists. There is no love lost between them and the Shiite ulama, and one still waits to see Sunni clerics reciprocate the outreach efforts of the Shiite ulama towards them. Yet slowly a Shiite Iraqi military presence is building up in the Sunni triangle. The original American effort to build up an Iraqi army and security services with a sizable Sunni component, especially in the officer corps, appears to be over. It's difficult to say there was ever actually an American plan to do this since American military officers directly involved in the training of the new Iraqi armed forces have never seemed to know the percentages of Shiites and Sunnis among the rank and file. (They apparently had some idea among the officer corps, but even here American attention to this detail was not, it appears, particularly acute.)

But it was certainly a plan of former Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi, a Shiite and a former Baathist who has always been fairly comfortable in the company of Sunni Baathists, and his CIA backers. Allawi, and a good slice of the American government that still listens to and admires him, wants to seduce/bribe former Sunni Baathist officers back into the military as a means of gutting the insurgency. There is probably now, however, no single factor that will drive the Sunnis more to compromise than the growing presence of armed Shiites in their midst. Undoubtedly, this is a high-wire act. Shiite militias rolled very quickly into the new Iraqi army, and the new security services have engaged occasionally in brutal retaliation against Sunni Arabs who are not actively engaged in the insurgency. If the new Shiite army develops a reputation and thirst for revenge killings, then the political center on the Shiite side--the key to any new democratic Iraq--let alone on the Sunni side, will collapse and we will have civil war.

We are going to test, slowly and painfully, General John Abizaid's contention that it is better to have a lighter American footprint in this conflict and a heavier Iraqi one, even if it's predominantly Shiite. General Abizaid probably would have preferred to have a stronger Sunni component in the new Iraqi army, but that was never going to happen once the democratic process began in earnest. To see real progress in Iraq, the Sunni Arabs have to know in their hearts that they are going to lose in this insurgency, that, mutatis mutandis, what happened to the rebellious Shia in 1920 is what eventually will happen to them. They must know that the Arab Shia are not going to let them Lebanonize Iraq--that is, distribute power on the basis of creed and ethnic identity, rather than on democratic principles.

Sunni Arab states will likely work strenuously to encourage America to back the Lebanese approach. The Bush administration would be wise to resist this appeal since it would actually fuel the insurgency and alienate the Shia. Such a sectarian policy would likely kill off democracy in Iraq--one of the reasons Sunni Arab regimes like the idea--since the diminution of the democratic ethic on the national level would likely reverberate through each of the major communities. The beginnings of this can already be seen amongst the Kurds, the most clannish of Iraq's peoples: The two principal Kurdish parties--Masoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic party and Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan--like Kurdish bloc voting since it discourages the growth of Kurdish competitors. We want to see Kurdish groups reaching out to Sunni and Shiite Arab political alliances--this may already be happening in a small way with the independent, religiously oriented Kurdistan Islamic Union--to batter the KDP's and PUK's long-standing monopoly of power.

Slowly but surely, the Shia are sending stronger signals to the Sunnis that they are not going to allow the Sunnis to win anything through terror and guerrilla warfare. This is not an easy thing for the Shia to do, as they do not have the reflexes of a proud, dominant community. A decent bet is that a majority of Shia today still believe that the Arab Sunnis could beat them in a military confrontation. The old division of labor between dominant Sunni and submissive Shiite is not easily overcome by either party. Rest assured that as long as the Shia see themselves as more on the receiving end of power and violence, the Sunnis, too, will see them that way, and the insurgency will remain undiminished. The building of the new Iraqi army under American guidance is now the psychological key to destroying old reflexes and instilling new ones that have a chance of working in a democratic Iraq.

Many American officials have been slow to realize what should have been obvious when Abrams tanks crossed the Kuwaiti-Iraqi border: The United States is engaged in a revolution in Mesopotamia. Too many Americans believed the well-meaning and highly Westernized Iraqi exiles--particularly the Sunni exiles--who spoke about the triviality of the Sunni-Shiite divide. Americans who thought Iraq was fertile ground for a new liberal secular order particularly downplayed the extreme indigestion, recalcitrance, and rejection that was inevitable, at least initially, on the Sunni Arab side. There is reason to hope now that the Bush administration better understands the dynamic among the Sunnis--if for no other reason than that America's lot is cast with the new Iraqi army, which will be, as it should be, overwhelmingly Shiite. Military facts on the ground should keep the bad instincts of the State Department and the CIA--the Sunni Stockholm Syndrome--in check.

Iran may try hard to mess things up, but it can probably only do so if the Arab Sunnis scare the Iraqi Shia into Tehran's arms. This still could happen. There is no love lost between the Shia of Iraq and Iran (the antipathy between the two can arise at any time in conversations). But the former will retreat into the protection of the latter if they believe the Sunni Arabs have again got the upper hand and intend to kill them. As long as Grand Ayatollah Sistani lives and is free to speak his mind, the political center in Iraq will survive (which is why the rumors of Iranian agents' buying property around Sistani's house in the holy city of Najaf are serious cause for concern). Iraq's Shiites are potentially a highly fractious lot with considerable internecine animosity. (It would be hard to overstate the distaste that exists, for example, between the clerically prominent and influential al-Sadr and al-Hakim families.) Grand Ayatollah Sistani and fear of the hard-core Sunni Arabs are perhaps the only things that most Shiites can agree on. In such an environment, Iran's ruling clergy can certainly find fertile ground. Tehran's influence in Iraq appears to be growing, and probably will continue to increase until Iraq's Shiite parties actually become national Shiite parties with deeper Iraqi roots, which is why neither the followers of the radical cleric Moktada al-Sadr nor the Dawa party is probably the best stalking horse for the Iranians. Both groups, however radical many of their members, are well rooted in Iraqi society.

The Iraqi nationalist-Shiite marriage is authentic, if at times wild. (Followers of the Dawa and Sadr have both taunted Sistani about his Persian birth and blood; the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq never does.) SCIRI may be where the Iranians have their best bet since the organization is in a real predicament: It owes its birth to Iranian patronage, and it is financially dependent upon Tehran. This dependency is most worrisome in the south, where the Iranians appear to be investing heavily, and where the countervailing influence of Iraq's traditional clergy is relatively weak. Yet the Supreme Council is unlikely to gain and hold the allegiance of most of Iraq's Shiites unless it distances itself from Tehran. The Sunni jihadists and insurgents have thus done SCIRI a favor and a disservice by making Iranian support seem like a legitimate refuge for a Shiite community under siege from Sunni Arabs who've lost their minds. Nevertheless, we should not fear the Iranians in Iraq. And the Bush administration would be wise not to listen too attentively to the Sunni Arabs, Ayad Allawi, and the secularized, very liberal Iraqi Shiites who constantly see clandestine Iranian hordes coming over the border. The Iraqi Shia are not fifth columnists for the Persians. Nationalism among the Iraqi (and Iranian) Shia is a very solid thing. The Iraqis are actually more sincerely faithful and observant than their Iranian revolutionary cousins. The two sides both literally and spiritually speak different languages.

Success, nonetheless, will come slowly in Iraq. We will learn how slowly by watching the actions and words (especially the Friday sermons) of the Sunni clergy. They are probably going to play an enormous political role among the Arab Sunnis. Long deprived by Saddam and the Baath, the clergy are back. When they start to compromise, we'll know we've won. (And the odds of their compromising are much better in an Iraq deeply influenced by religiously faithful and sensitive Shiites than in one where liberal Shiites and Sunni secularists dominate.) We will also know we're winning when we see a significant increase in Sunni-on-Sunni violence. (It will be fascinating to watch the Middle East's Sunni Arab satellite television networks, which have depicted the Sunni insurgents usually as the good guys, handle this issue.) We can excoriate the Bush administration--especially the American military and civilian occupation forces--until we're breathless for all the missteps made in Iraq, but the fact remains the administration has handled the country sufficiently well to keep the democratic experiment moving forward. Given the fatal errors we could have made--given how enormously difficult the enterprise is--this is an achievement not to be belittled.

Iran: Iraq may actually be a bright spot in the Bush administration's foreign policy, compared with Iran. With Iraq, a hard-nosed, historically sensitive person can have considerable, well-founded hope. With clerical Iran--still the greater nightmare for the United States--it's difficult to sustain any optimism. A knowledgeable observer would have to conclude that the clerical regime--which, properly understood, is a somewhat more conservative, cautious variation on the Sunni holy warriorism that struck us on 9/11--is going to get the Bomb despite the Bush administration's limited efforts to stop it. And again, contrary to the accepted wisdom in Washington, restraint in responding to clerical Iran's quest for nuclear weapons is much more likely to cause problems in Iraq than a muscular approach to countering Tehran's ambitions.

In Iranian eyes, the American-backed European Union's nuclear negotiations with the mullahs are not serious enough to be frightening. The EU-3--the British, the Germans, and the French--have in their own words gone as far as they can go in their soft-power negotiations with Iran's ruling clergy. The resurgence of Iran's hottest revolutionary sentiments under President Ahmadinejad and the recall of prominent "moderate" Iranian ambassadors from Europe is unlikely to change Europe's philosophy and tactics for dealing with the Iranian nuclear problem. The EU-3--at least for certain the French and the Germans--want Washington to introduce massive incentives--the dictionary definition of this is "appeasement"--to continue the West's "dialogue" with the mullahs.

The administration's response, understandably, has so far been silence. But continuous quiet reflection is not a policy, even when the CIA's analysts self-defensively throw up their hands and announce that they have no idea when Tehran is going to get nuclear weapons. (Unless Langley gets lucky with an Iranian "walk-in" who volunteers detailed, critical information about Tehran's weapons program, the CIA will probably only know the mullahs have the Bomb after they detonate it.) It is easy to appreciate the administration's predicament with the Islamic Republic: Counterproliferation does not lend itself to soft power. But the State Department, with Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns in the lead, now controls Iran policy. The decision by the administration to embrace the EU-3 negotiations was an interesting experiment in post-Iraq war transatlantic relations: We would let the Europeans de facto own our Iran policy. By giving them this responsibility, so the appealing theory goes, we would encourage their maturity and their greater willingness to implement severe sanctions against the Islamic Republic if it didn't relent in developing its nuclear energy/weapons program. (To the EU-3's credit, it's very hard to find a participant in this affair who actually believes the Iranians aren't trying to develop nuclear weapons.)

The theory hasn't worked, of course. And it's pretty hard to blame the Europeans since they've been forthright from the beginning: They have never said they would be willing to impose tough sanctions on Iran for its nuclear misbehavior. The Europeans are also quick to point out, quite correctly, that the Americans have never really discussed sanctions either, since both sides know any biting sanction would touch Iran's oil industry. Sanctioning the Islamic Republic with the price of oil at $60 a barrel would require a certain fortitude, which neither side has (the Europeans, again, are at least honest in saying this). Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is obviously fearful of taking Iran to the United Nations Security Council since we will surely lose a vote there. Russia and China will not cooperate. The Germans might not, either. The idea of creating another sanctions regime confined to the G-7 industrial nations--an idea now circulating in Washington--is also a pipe dream since the Europeans have already made it crystal clear that they won't even embargo automobile parts to the Islamic Republic, let alone anything that might bring greater and more immediate pain.

The Bush administration has quite understandably allowed this game to go on. The policy alternatives are onerous: preventively bomb the nuclear-related facilities and implement an aggressive containment and pro-democracy strategy, or implement the difficult containment/democracy strategy without bombing the nuclear facilities. It is impossible to overstate the U.S. government's--particularly the CIA's--unpreparedness to start finding, encouraging, and materially backing the internal Iranian opposition to the ruling clergy. No doubt the Bush administration would like to punt the problem back into European hands. The Europeans don't want it, however, unless the United States gives them more goodies to dangle in front of the revolutionary clergy's eyes. (E.U. diplomacy naturally assumes that everyone is, or ought to be, avariciously pragmatic.)

Washington isn't going to do this, even if the clerical regime decides again, as it appears to be doing, to suggest some flexibility in its negotiating positions. (Opening up the Parchin military facility to inspections would be an example of a not particularly meaningful "softening" in the regime's position.) Some in the administration, especially in the Near East Bureau of the State Department, may want to try more incentives. The Iran policy paper recently leaked to the Wall Street Journal certainly shows a desire, strongest in the Department of State, to appease Iran further since the alternatives are convulsive. But the culture, politics, and history of the clerical regime in Tehran make this a difficult sell.

Just imagine an American diplomat actually promising security guarantees to an Iranian counterpart: "We hereby promise to leave Afghanistan and Iraq--installing in each a government to your liking--and to quit Central Asia. And we double promise never ever to talk about democracy in Iran again, and no more personal insults to the Spiritual Leader Ali Khamenei, which we know you find very offensive." Then imagine the same scenario with generous financial goodies attached up front, as the clerics would certainly demand. It is difficult to conceive of even a President John Kerry or a President Hillary Clinton handing over billions of dollars to clerics and Revolutionary Guardsmen, like the current Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who have a long record of supporting anti-American terrorism, not to mention other nefarious causes. In a pre-9/11 world, when so-called moderate Iranian clerics were our interlocutors, this didn't seem culturally, intellectually, politically, or strategically plausible. Now, it just seems surreal.

Ahmadinejad, who is an unvarnished revolutionary, makes even the Europeans blanch (they still won't support sanctions, but they do blanch). The Iranian president's recently expressed desire to wipe Israel off the map was a vivid reminder that Iran's ruling elite are still, on the important issues, faithful children of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Ahmadinejad is, of course, fundamentally no different from former President Mohammad Khatami, who loathed Israel as only a very left-wing cleric can, or Iran's leader, Ali Khamenei, who often gives the impression that he's memorized every single line of the Persian edition of the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is in the West probably the most misunderstood cleric in the Islamic Republic. For the Europeans, and some in the Bush administration, Rafsanjani was the white-turbaned hope, the realpolitician-pragmatist who would save the West from a showdown over Iran's nuclear-weapons program. In reality, he is the true father of Iran's nuclear-bomb program, an overlord for the Iranian terrorism that struck Europe in the 1980s and '90s, and quite possibly one of the dark princes behind the domestic assassination campaign of Iranian liberals that began in the late 1990s. Concerning Israel, Rafsanjani has never given any indication that he differs with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a group Rafsanjani has always supported: Israelis are best when dead.

Which brings us back to where we were two years ago: Are we willing to use military force to back up a nuclear counterproliferation regime against a state with a long record in terrorism, whose ruling elite is probably the most anti-American on earth? If we are not, then nuclear counterproliferation is effectively over. Iran's ruling clergy has enormous tenacity and a sixth sense for weakness (that's how they downed the shah). Unfortunately, the EU-3 negotiations have left us looking increasingly weak. This could change if the EU-3 could at least bluff the clerical regime into believing that they might consider draconian sanctions--but this seems very unlikely. The only real bright spot on the horizon is Grand Ayatollah Sistani and the possibility of a Shiite-led democracy just across the border. Ahmadinejad's election appears to have shaken Tehran's establishment. The new president, unlike the old, appears to be an unreconstructed socialist, who might actually make Iran's dirigiste economy even worse. This is no mean achievement with oil prices sky-high--we should, of course, wish him well.

The only way Iran is going to get better is for it to get a lot worse--and Ahmadinejad may just possibly be the man to galvanize a broad-based opposition to the regime. Right now, he and Sistani are the only hopes we've got for convulsions and evolution inside Iran's clerical class. If the Bush administration were wise, it would start to speak about religious freedom in Iran and the ruling clergy's oppression of the more traditional clerics of the holy cities of Qom and Mashhad. If the Bush administration were serious, it would batter the CIA until it began the slow and difficult process of trying to make contact with the anti-Khamenei forces among Iran's mullahs. In all probability, irreversible evolution or regime crackup will be driven by clerical dissent, not by Iranian liberals, progressives, or others with whom counterrevolutionary American-Iranian expatriates are comfortable.

Tyranny and Democratization: Progress here looks encouraging compared with the Bush administration's efforts on Iran. However, the central animating idea of President Bush's foreign policy--the democratization of the Greater Middle East--isn't going well outside Iraq. President Bush should get enormous credit for eliminating a debilitating anomaly in U.S. foreign policy whereby Washington exempted the Muslim Middle East from any pro-democracy rhetoric and censure. But the administration is having considerable philosophical and practical difficulty in moving beyond the president's inspiring speeches.

It's probably fair to say that the dictators and kings of the Middle East, whose dysfunctional autocratic rule has done so much to foster ever more virulent forms of Sunni Islamic extremism, feel American pressure less acutely today than they did 12 months ago. This trend can be reversed. American efforts to nudge and pressure Ilham Aliyev, the leader in the Republic of Azerbaijan, to open up the country's politics have been commendable if not always consistent. (The U.S. embassy's efforts to get Aliyev to accept inked fingers as a means to stop voting fraud is a significant achievement; the Bush administration's outreach to Senator John McCain, who is going to visit Azerbaijan during its upcoming elections, was also the right thing to do at just the right time.) On the ground in Baku, Azeri dissidents are quick to compliment America's helping hand. At this writing, Aliyev's ruling party looks primed to cheat in the November 6 parliamentary elections, but the Bush administration is at least trying to do a better job in the Caucasus than in Egypt, where it did virtually nothing to support democratic dissidents and censure President Hosni Mubarak for stealing the recent presidential election. (American ambassador Frank Ricciardone's praise of Mubarak after he got 88 percent of the vote was shameful.)

We are moving in the direction of what might be called an Atatürkist approach to democratization: With American nudging, dictators will see the light and advance their societies to a more liberal order. There are, however, two enormous problems with this approach: No one currently ruling in the Middle East, with the possible exception of Aliyev, remotely resembles Atatürk, who recognized quite openly European civilization as the ideal (and Atatürk didn't exclude fascism from that ideal). And Arab history since World War II strongly inclines one to believe that dictatorships in the Arab Middle East don't tend to ameliorate over time. In most cases, they've gotten worse.

The Bush administration has not yet had the great internal debate over whether really to push Arab dictatorships, especially Egypt's, to democratize, knowing that Islamic activists are likely to do well in any free election. Secularism, long wedded to ever-worsening dictatorships, has developed a very dirty name in much of the Middle East. Talk in the administration about "generational" change is an intellectual dodge: There is no such thing as a 25-year plan to bring democracy to Egypt. (Egypt's ruling elite would, however, welcome such a thing as eminently sensible.) Until the Bush administration holds this debate--and there are certainly signs it is beginning--and decides whether its policy will embrace some sustained fiscal, strategic, and rhetorical coercion, then America's democratization program in the Arab world will remain stalled.

The Bush administration needs to focus: Through rhetoric and aid, Washington can certainly push more aggressively Egypt and Jordan, two Arab countries that have probably the best chance of quickly making the transition to democracy. The administration should want to pressure Jordan's Hashemite monarch King Abdullah to move in this direction since it's probable that the Palestinian problem will never be solved until the West Bank of the Jordan river is reunited with the East. Since the majority of Jordan's population is Palestinian and is much less infected with the Palestine Liberation Organization's marriage of terrorism and nationalism, a democratic Jordan would give nonviolent Palestinians on the West Bank, if not in Gaza, better odds of politically triumphing over the anti-Israeli hard core. Non-Palestinian Jordanians know the division between the two Palestinian peoples isn't sufficient to sustain two Palestinian states. Jordan's King Hussein, who held on as long as he could to his titular and religious authority over East Jerusalem, knew this, too. The Bush administration's frustrating efforts to fine-tune Fatah, the dominant group within the Palestine Liberation Organization, are unlikely to lead to anything except the continuing implosion of West Bank Palestinian politics. Fatah is a hopelessly corrupt mafia-like organization that can make its militant Islamic opposition look appealing, even to Muslims who do not believe in permanent holy war with Israel.

President Bush deserves considerable praise for his consistent unwillingness to pressure Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon to make more concessions in the face of continuing terrorism. The concessionary, Clintonian impulse is alive and well in the State Department, particularly within the Near East bureau, but it's quite clear the president will not surrender to it. The only workable policy with the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation is patience, and the hope the Palestinian polity will eventually expunge terrorism from its national identity. This is going to be brutally difficult, given the damage done by Yasser Arafat and the Islamic martyrdom psychology now deeply embedded among so many young Palestinian men. Historically, in both medieval and modern times, this passion dies a violent death; it does not pass away through negotiations conducted by old men like Abu Mazen. And it does appear to be weakening--increasingly suicide bombers seem to be young men and women who are in some fashion coerced into death. The administration should keep demanding political opening, fairness, and accountability within the Palestinian authority. It should not forget, however, that without democracy in Jordan, the odds of lasting Palestinian progress on the West Bank are slim.

Elsewhere we should not divert too much of our energy from Egypt and Jordan to Saudi Arabia and Syria. We should keep the pressure on Damascus, but we should not fool ourselves about how vicious the ruling Alawite clan will be in its attempt to retain power. We should, however, make up for lost time and improve our understanding of those inside Syria who oppose the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Supporting dissidents inside Syria will be difficult and dangerous, but we should earnestly start this process now, knowing it will take time for us to develop a plausibly workable anti-Assad program and for a viable Syrian opposition to form.

The same is true in Saudi Arabia, the Arab country that did the most to nurture 9/11. Simply put, the Saudis have too much money. All we can use against them is pro-democratic rhetoric aimed specifically at the royal family, and a more vigorous campaign to make them check their virulently anti-American Wahhabi missionary activity. At a minimum, we should force the CIA to become much more competent in tracking Wahhabi funding enterprises, both those sanctioned by Riyadh and those not. Down the road, we can then start to aid Muslims who want to fight the Wahhabi missionary money machine. This isn't a lot, but it would be a beginning.

Remember the Cold War, where we threw money and manpower at left-wingers of many stripes, including those who were not particularly fond of capitalist America. The objective now is not to find and encourage pro-American Muslims; the aim is to find Muslims who are appalled by the tradition-crushing, culture-obliterating, holy-war-generating modern Wahhabi creed. In this internal Muslim struggle, hating America may well be a good starting point for anti-Wahhabi propaganda. This may be a difficult thing for the public-diplomacy folks under Karen Hughes to digest, let alone use, but it ought not be an insurmountable problem for the CIA, which must carry much more of the weight in the battle of ideas. Odds are, many faithful Muslims, who will likely dislike the United States and would reject overt assistence from Washington, will be more than willing to accept clandestine anti-Wahhabi/Saudi aid from Uncle Sam.

Which brings us back to Iraq. Saddam Hussein's downfall has accelerated democratic discussion throughout the entire Middle East--even in Saudi Arabia. This would not have happened without George W. Bush. The positive possibilities that flow from it are enormous, even if President Bush is unlikely to get much credit from Middle Easterners or, perhaps, from many Americans. But cross our fingers: Success in Iraq may possibly, eventually, solve our Iranian nuclear problem. Clerically supported democracy--of the kind that may emerge under Iraq's new constitution, backed by the Shiite clerics in Najaf, and ultimately even Sunni Arab clerics too--is a lethal threat to Tehran. It's a good thing this is so, for without favorable developments in Iraq, it would appear Tehran's clerics have won. Of course, if John Kerry had been president, Iran's clerics certainly would have nothing to fear. In a Machtpolitik world, only President Bush still has the power to dissuade and encourage.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.