The Magazine

Dangerous Illusions

Peace-processing our way to disaster.

Jun 11, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 37 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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An assumption of the Iraq Study Group was that the clerical regime wants stability next door in Iraq. Hence it might be willing to work with Americans. Yet Iran has benefited enormously from Iraqi instability. Traditional, moderate clerics like Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who have been willing to work with Americans, have been battered and bruised by the violence. The radical Moktada al-Sadr, a little-known and little-admired scion of a famous clerical family, skyrocketed to prominence because of the strife and thanks to critical Iranian aid to him. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and its more radical military wing, the Badr Organization, has also benefited enormously from the violence. SCIRI is a key Iraqi player that has received substantial assistance from Tehran. What is particularly regrettable about SCIRI is that the bloodletting has made life more difficult for moderates within the organization. And the violence has made it harder for SCIRI to pull away from Iranian patronage.

Does Iran want to stop this process? Iraq's Arab Sunni community--detested by the Iranians--has been routed from much of Baghdad, badly bloodied, and put to flight by the hundreds of thousands. This is a bad thing in the eyes of Tehran? Where does Iran have the most influence in Iraq? In Basra, where Shiite-versus-Shiite violence is at its worst. This is not a coincidence. Tehran has benefited massively from Iraqi Shiite division and internecine strife. What the United States should expect from Iran is that it will continue to ship its deadly explosives to Iraq and, through violence, feed the radicalization of the Shiite community. Success through Hezbollah in civil-war-torn Lebanon is the model to remember. Until now, it's been Iran's only successful foray abroad. "Stability" in Iraq means only one thing to Tehran: an American success.

It should be clear that the clerical regime now believes it can move rapidly forward with its nuclear program without much fear of American preventive military strikes. The once palpable fear of George W. Bush seems to have dissipated as America has floundered in Mesopotamia. Everyone can see that Washington, not Tehran, was more desirous of the recent meeting (NSC spokesmen clearly signaled that we wanted this meeting because U.S. troops were dying in Iraq). Even the most inept power politician in Tehran saw that America was weak and on the run. What once provoked anxiety (American troops in Iraq) now whets the appetite. The failure of the United States to respond more forcefully to Iranian arms shipments to Iraq has reinforced the message. Ditto the low-volume response to the kidnapping of American citizens in Iran.

The only good news here is that it will be difficult for the clerical regime to continue talks with the United States even though doing so is manifestly in its interest. When Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently said, "Those who imagine that the Islamic Republic of Iran will change its established, logical and defendable policy of forswearing negotiations and relations with the United States are seriously in error," he was being understated. It wouldn't be the first time that clerical Iran had refrained from doing what was in its best interests. But it probably wouldn't take much to tie America up in negotiations--or the hope of negotiations--with Iran over Iraq. And the more America is wedded to talks, the smaller the possibility that it will effectively counter Iran's nuclear-weapons program--the ultimate objective guiding the mullahs' foreign policy. What Tehran would surely like to do is convert its discussions with the European Union over its nuclear program from negotiations about stopping the enrichment of uranium to negotiations about managing an actual nuclear-weapons capacity. Iranians know the North Korean model well. It's a good one. Keep America talking on Iraq, and press ahead for the nuclear prize.

Does President Bush understand all this? Probably. Does his administration? The wish to disbelieve the obvious remains great, particularly as Iraq becomes more violent, which will happen this summer even if the surge is working. And although some might still want to put faith in the CIA's estimate that Iran will make a nuclear bomb in 10 years, it's a better bet that Iranians are significantly increasing centrifuge production because they have figured out how to make it work. Most likely, the time for diplomacy and sanctions is shrinking fast. Since the alternatives aren't easy--blockading Iranian oil exports through the Gulf or preventive military strikes--the Bush administration will be tempted to believe in the illusion of negotiations. We can raise the white flag, and call it victory.

--Reuel Marc Gerecht, for the Editors