The uneasy triangle
As the date for the transfer of power in Iraq approaches, US pressure on Iran over the nuclear issue grows more intense. Mustafa El-Labbad investigates the link
The ongoing Iraqi resistance against the US-led occupation highlights how regional crises remain as problematic as they were at the time of the fall of Baghdad one year ago. The victims it has claimed bear witness to Iraq's most crucial problem -- its loss of sovereignty, an issue that had been pushed into the background. Instead, emerging ideological and sectarian rivalries have dominated the mainstream media's coverage of the Iraqi scene.
Regardless of the conflicting views on the movement led by Al- Sayyid Muqtada Al-Sadr, there is little doubt that its impact has stretched well beyond Iraq's boundaries to affect, almost directly, the politics of neighbouring capitals. At the outset, resistance against the US-led occupation seems a purely Iraqi concern, just as the nuclear question seems purely an Iranian concern. But the two issues are intrinsically linked.
The Iraqi resistance and its toll on US occupation forces have been growing in tandem with international pressure on Iran over its alleged possession and production of weapons of mass destruction -- the latter in a concerted attempt to debilitate the Iranian leadership. Washington's strategy is simple: whenever the White House feels that developments in Iraq are not proceeding in its favour it steps up its campaign against Tehran through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Tehran, for its part, has proven itself highly adept at circumventing US pressures by capitalising on the American predicament in Iraq.
A landmark instance of this cycle occurred last November when Tehran reached an agreement with Paris, Berlin and London in accordance with which the three European capitals pledged to back Iran's position in the IAEA and help avert a possible United Nations Security Council resolution against it if Tehran signed the IAEA additional protocol permitting random inspections of its nuclear facilities and halted its uranium refinement programme. Although Iran succeeded in evading a diplomatic and legal siege for some time, subsequent international developments, along with the shift in positions in Paris and Berlin on the Greater Middle East Initiative, have deprived Tehran of its European diplomatic support within the IAEA. Thus, in January, Iran came under renewed assault within the IAEA, once again raising the prospect that its nuclear programme would be subject to a Security Council resolution that could, in theory, diminish the country's sovereignty and condemn it to a status similar to that imposed on Iraq following the invasion of Kuwait.
Nevertheless, decision makers in Tehran are aware that the US administration, which is readying itself for the November presidential elections, is not prepared to undertake a full-scale military operation against Iran. They also know that they have a margin of manoeuvrability so long as they avoid a direct confrontation with the US forces that surround Iran from all sides: from Afghanistan to Iraq, from the Gulf to Turkey, and from Pakistan to the Central Asian republics.
In Iraq, the Mahdi Army's actions are serving Iranian interests, at least in the short term, by diverting attention away from the Iranian nuclear issue. Seen against this background, one can understand in part why, in his Friday sermon two weeks ago, Hujjat Al- Islam Hashemi Rafsanjani described the movement as "heroic". Rafsanjani's pronouncement came only a few days after IAEA Director Mohamed El-Baradei declared that, "the patience of the international community towards the Iranian nuclear programme is nearing an end." At the same time, El-Baradei deferred his decision on the Iranian case until he delivered his report to the IAEA board of governors in May.
Although given a slight breathing space, Tehran still feels the weight of the IAEA's demands. Iranian authorities are divided over the IAEA's pressure between, on the one hand, the moderates represented by Gholam Riza Aqazadah -- director of the Iranian Energy Agency -- who has focussed on the technical aspects of the inspection process, and on the other, the hardliners represented by Hassan Rohani -- director of the Iranian National Security Council -- who had refused three times to comply with IAEA demands before backing down. Such divisions indicate that Iran does not possess a strategy for managing its nuclear crisis, apart from procrastination until June, when it hopes to have proven itself compliant enough to convince the IAEA to close the Iranian nuclear file.
Still, Washington refuses to back down from its allegations that Iran possesses nuclear weapons. It also accuses Iran of intervening in domestic Iraqi affairs. Indeed, one cannot help but note how closely the dates for the transfer of power to the Iraqis and the IAEA's decision on Iran coincide. If recent developments in Iraq -- notably the brutal bombardments of civilian areas by the occupation forces -- have belied the Bush administration's claim that it seeks to bring democracy to that country, they have also provided leaders in Tehran with a new card to play against their American adversary. However, in spite of their diplomatic agility, Iranian political leaders appear to lack a cohesive vision on how best to capitalise on this new card, and their policies are not proactive. Their regional strategy will have to remain defensive so long as the US has the final say in today's world order. Iran would be mistaken also to overestimate its significant cultural and ideological influence over neighbouring Iraq.
The tug-of-war between Tehran and Washington, however, has taken on new dimensions with the rise of the Mahdi movement. Iran, which was one of the first nations to recognise the Interim Governing Council (IGC) in Baghdad, nevertheless rejoices at every American setback. Perhaps, in Iranian political thinking, these setbacks may prove the opening to an understanding between the two adversaries, one that could be beneficial in the creation of a role for Iran in America's vision for a new Middle East, or at least ease American pressures on Tehran. Such considerations make it possible to understand the Iranian ambivalence towards the situation in Iraq. Contrary to the commonly held perception, which holds that Iranian conservatives are opposed to the IGC while reformers support it, Iranian foreign policy reflects a pragmatic reconciliation between these rival camps, on this issue at least.
Such pragmatism has rendered ideology a less important concern than foreign policy. That the army of Muqtada Al-Sadr regards Ayatollah Kazem Hairi rather than Al-Sayyid Ali Al-Khamaini as its source of inspiration supports this conclusion. Although the latter is, in fact, the official Iranian spiritual guide, this position for the present serves Iranian interests more, in light of IGC member Abdul-Aziz Al-Hakim's support for Al-Khamaini.
The US, meanwhile, remains consistently ideologically cynical in pursuit of its interests. It was Washington that originally furnished Iran with nuclear technology in the early 1970s, when Iran was ruled by the US-supported Shah. Today the same US -- self- appointed champion of democracy, human rights and the rule of law -- has singled Tehran out and has stepped up demands that it prove its innocence on the nuclear issue, contrary to the principle that the accused is innocent until proven otherwise.
Regardless of one's opinion on the events in Iraq, one must not lose sight of their impact on the rest of the region. The intrinsic link between the escalating Iraqi resistance and the Iranian nuclear issue, in particular, epitomises the dynamics of an international balance of power that is skewed so heavily in favour of the US, whose government has shown itself over and over again as completely contemptuous of international law and lacking in the moral prerequisites for world leadership.