The Magazine

Countering Iran

How to deal with the clerics in Tehran.

May 19, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 34 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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The only real brake on Iranian complicity with Hezbollah and Hamas has been the fear that their aggression against Israel, if seen by Americans and Israelis as Tehran-directed, could increase the odds of a U.S. or Israeli military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities before the regime enriches sufficient uranium for a nuclear arsenal.

This nuclear concern is probably behind the North Korean-Syrian nuclear cooperation, which took a possibly lethal hit when the Israeli air force in September 2007 destroyed a breeder reactor under construction at Dayr az-Zawr in eastern Syria. Although it is possible that cash-strapped Syria on its own undertook to develop nuclear weapons, it is more likely that Iran supported this enterprise as a back-up to its own atom-bomb program. Israel's preemptive strike is a setback for Tehran, but its echo inside Iran appears to be limited, since neither the Israelis nor the Americans used it rhetorically to show what could happen to the mullahs' nuclear project.

Most important, Iran has pushed hard in Iraq, giving aid and military training to militant Shiites, whose targets have included Sunnis, Americans, and other Shiites. The mullahs and their Revolutionary Guards corps have become a small expeditionary force in Iraq and have clearly shown that they aren't peace-loving Persian uncles trying to bring stability and prosperity to their Shiite Arab nephews.

President Bush's surge caught the Iranians off-guard and turned what had been a winning situation for Iran in Iraq--multiple Shiite parties dependent upon Iranian aid and good will in a savage battle against Sunni insurgents and al Qaeda--into a potentially huge defeat for Tehran. Barring a strike by President Bush against Iran's nuclear sites before January 2009, Iraq is the only arena where the administration is capable of moving effectively against Tehran.

The Iranians have seriously overplayed their hand along the Tigris and Euphrates. In their love of the Hezbollah model, they have helped to build up Moktada al-Sadr, the scion of Iraq's most revered clerical family, who became a Shiite street hero for his defense of the Shia against Sunni insurgents and al Qaeda. Sadr's followers include the only Shiites willing and able to kill Americans--another hugely attractive factor to the leadership in Tehran, since wounding America in Iraq is as indispensable to the ruling elite's sense of purpose as raining Katyushas down on Israelis.

Yet Sadr's men are a hypercharged mix of Arabism and Islamism; as a rule, they are not terribly fond of Persians. They were inevitably going to clash with the followers of Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), a group founded in Tehran and which has maintained deep ties to many in Iran's religious establishment. The Sadrs and Hakims dislike each other. In the streets of Qom, Iran's most prestigious seat of clerical education, the representatives of the Sadr and Hakim families often throw shoes at each other. (Among clerics that is very bad.) Tehran should have known that it couldn't back both the Sadrists and the SIIC.

Although conscious of the fleeting loyalty of Iraqi Shiites who once took refuge in Iran from the wrath of Saddam Hussein and are now blessed with ever-larger Iraqi oil revenues, Tehran probably didn't anticipate how quickly Shiite sentiment in Iraq could change. The Iranians didn't see the rapid rise of the Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who has become the most popular ayatollah in Iran as well as the most powerful cleric in Iraq. Iranian and Iraqi clerical ties are old, complicated, intensely personal, and often quite affectionate--all of which now plays powerfully against the Iranian ruling elite's cynical politics in Mesopotamia.

It is a very good bet that Sistani and other prominent Iraqi clerics have remonstrated vociferously with their Iranian interlocutors in Qom against Iranian-fed violence among Iraqi Shiites. We can see the Iranian side of this in former president Mohammad Khatami's accusing Khamenei virtually by name of spilling Shiite blood in Iraq and turning Iran's Islamic revolutionary message into a call for violence and upheaval beyond its borders. Khatami's recent speech at Gilan University is an astonishing sermon from a man not known for boldness.