Yesterday’s post about recent U.S. and Iranian restraint opening the door to possible engagement might have been premature to the extent that it downplayed the rhetoric now coming out of Washington about Iran’s involvement with Iraqi militias. In particular, the events in Basra are now being used to demonstrate the amount of material and training Iran has supplied to the Sadrist militia, both “special” (ie. rogue) factions and those loyal to Moqtada. Future conflicts will certainly bring to light the operational links that Iran has established with other Shiite militias as well, including those that are integrated into Iraq’s national security apparatus.
The Bush administration is portraying this influence as “malign”, and insomuch as it works in opposition to our stated goals (solidifying Iraqi sovereignty) and our unstated goals (liquidating the most prominent Iraqi figure — al-Sadr — that isn’t willing to reach a working arrangement with us), it is. But it’s important to remember how arbitrary (or subjective) our definition of terms really is: we’ve identified the incarnation of Iraqi sovereignty as those willing to cooperate with us, from which it necessarily follows that al-Sadr — who might very well be the most nationalist of Shiites — and the support Tehran provides him become part of the problem. Food for thought for the next phase of intra-Shiite power consolidation: if we defined anyone who received support from Tehran as an enemy, we’d have no Shiite allies left.
What’s also significant is the degree to which our Sunni policy perfectly mirrors Iran’s Shiite policy, both in practice (supplying non-state militias fighting against foreign forces) and effect (undermining the government’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force). For the time being, Sunnis have identified al-Qaida Iraq as their principle foreign enemy. But with AQI’s strength dwindling, it’s only a matter of time before they turn their attention to another foreign power with a significant presence in Iraq.
When that time comes, the Sunnis will have a choice between the two foreign powers left in Iraq: the U.S. and Iran. In the first case, we’ll find the second front re-opened, in the second we’ll find ourselves on the field as the full-scale Iraqi civil war breaks out. In either case, the role of guarantor of Iraqi sovereignty seems almost certain to be even less attractive than it is now.