And the winner is - drum roll, please - Iran!
That's at least one surprising answer to the question of who is coming out on top in the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Everything has gone very well for the Iranians," says Juan Cole, a professor specializing in Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan, a view echoed by many others who study the region.
"They had two major geopolitical enemies on the region. One was the Taliban and the other was Saddam Hussein," Cole says. "So from their point of view, the United States has very helpfully removed their major problems.
"And not only has it removed those major problems, it has installed regimes that have strong traditional alliances with the Iranians," he says.
It can certainly be assumed that it was not the intention of the Bush administration when it embarked on these military adventures to aid a member of the so-called "axis of evil." Bush put Iran on that axis, along with Saddam Hussein's Iraq and North Korea.
But that's the way it has worked out.
"It's a very odd outcome," says Shibley Telhami, professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, College Park. "I don't think the administration ever thought we would be where we are today."
Where we are is not only were Iran's enemies vanquished by the U.S.-led forces, but the government now in power in Baghdad has longstanding ties to Iran, turning those former enemies into potentially strong allies.
"Iraq was the major competitor with Iran in the Persian Gulf," Telhami says. "The intentional strategy of the United States for decades was to maintain that balance of power, not to allow one of them to dominate, to use one against the other.
"What you have now is Iraq really disappearing as a strategic player in the gulf for the foreseeable future," he says. "It will not be able to threaten anyone militarily. And that leaves Iran as the sole power in the gulf, except for the American military presence."
Iran certainly does not dismiss that, especially with Washington's threatening denunciations of Iran's nuclear program. But for now, U.S. forces are tied down by the insurgency in Iraq and probably not able to take on any more military adventures.
That is the fine line Iran must walk: taking steps that will get the U.S. troops out of the region, but not freeing those troops up so they could be used against Iran.
Part of walking that line will be to try to insure that the new government in Iraq would not support its country being a launching pad for an invasion of Iran. Given the close ties between the two, that seems unlikely.
To emphasize those ties, two days after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Iraq this month, Iran's Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi took his own historic trip to Baghdad, the capital of the country that waged a protracted, gruesome war with his country two decades ago.
Kharazzi visited with Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, President Jalal Talabani and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. That new Iraqi government cleared up a major source of contention between the two countries, acknowledging that Iraq was the aggressor in the eight-year war that killed an estimated 1 million people, one of Hussein's major misadventures.
Wherever Kharazzi looked in the Iraqi government offices, he was likely to see familiar faces as many of the winners in Iraq's Jan. 30 election were people who had spent their exile years, not in London talking to the Pentagon, but in Tehran talking to the mullahs.
The post of interior minister, a powerful one since it controls internal security, went to a member of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a group founded in Tehran and backed by the Iranian government. The Iranians even have a good relationship with Kurdish leader Talabani.
"These people spent long years of exile in Iran," says Shaul Bakhash, a professor of history at George Mason University. "You spend 15 to 20 years somewhere, you send your children to school, you intermarry, certain ties and links are established ... that are not easily brushed away."
Bakhash, an Iranian who has been in the United States for 25 years, says that Iran has skillfully used these ties, providing modest financial support, building schools, clinics, nurseries and mosques.
"The Iranians have influence," he says. "Not the same kind of influence that the United States, with 130,000 troops and billions of dollars, has. The Iranian financial commitment is more modest, but there is this other more personal skein of relationships that does give Iran influence with the Shiite leadership."
No one contends that the religious and cultural ties trump nationalistic sentiments.
"You have to be very careful about assuming that someone who speaks Arabic with a Persian accent or has a past connection to Iran or even someone who follows some of the same theological ideas are Iranian stooges," says Rashid Khalidi, professor of Arab studies at Columbia University. "Iranians are Iranians and Iraqis are Iraqis. ... Iranian national sentiment and Iraqi national sentiment are not to be underestimated."
Still, from Iran's point of view, the elections finished the job that the U.S. invasion started, installing a government dominated by religious-oriented Shias, the same group that controls Iran, making them a natural ally.
In the initial Bush administration vision, once Hussein was toppled, he was to have been replaced by secular leaders, probably chosen from among the London-based political exiles - someone like one-time Pentagon ally Ahmad Chalabi.
When it turned out that those types had little popular support in Iraq, the U.S. authorities installed another secular Shia, Ayad Allawi, as president. But his party won few votes in the election that was dominated by the more religious parties.
"You go back to December and January, and Bush was saying very menacing things about Iran, dismissing the European diplomatic track" that was trying to deal with the nuclear issue, Cole says.
"All of a sudden in February, after the elections, Bush was praising the European diplomacy," he says. "I think if they had gotten Allawi back in, then they could have hoped that Allawi could control Iraq while they did something about Iran.
"But since he did not get back in, indeed he was repudiated, if the United States did something dramatic in Iran, the danger is there would be very substantial blowback in Iraq," Cole says.
And that blowback would be led by the government in Baghdad put there only because coalition forces fought and died for free elections in Iraq.
A more conciliatory Bush approach was underscored last week when the World Trade Organization agreed to start membership talks with Iran after the United States dropped its longstanding veto.
One additional irony is that the U.S. administration had a falling out with Chalabi and accused him of selling secrets to Iran. But this apparently only raised his status in Iraq. He ended up as deputy prime minister and acting oil minister in the new government.
On the other side of Iran, the United States did the Iranian bidding by removing the Taliban from control in Afghanistan.
"They were thrilled to see the Taliban fall," says Khalidi. "The Taliban were violently anti-Shia."
And Taliban rule meant that Afghanistan was oriented toward its neighbor to the east, Pakistan.
"Iran is very, very happy," says Cole of the new U.S.-installed government in Afghanistan. "Afghanistan is now again in the Iranian sphere of influence rather than Pakistan's."
Iran made several friendly gestures toward the United States as the war in Afghanistan began and most credit it with helping to keep the situation in western Afghanistan stable as the Taliban crumbled.
Lee Strickland, a former CIA senior official who is now director of the Center for Information Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park says that was not the original reaction of Iran to the invasion of Iraq.
"I think they viewed themselves very much as the next target of the United States," he says. "There are a lot of indications that they were behind a lot of the turmoil in Iraq, keeping the U.S. troops off balance, and making life difficult for them."
But Strickland says that changed as the shape of the new Iraq emerged. "Their interest may be in getting the United States out as quickly as possible and that probably translates into minimizing the violence and establishing working relationships with the new Iraqi government."
He sees Iran now playing a moderating role, helping to keep radical Shiites like Muqtada al-Sadr in the political process while urging the Shiite-dominated government to come to terms with the Sunnis, thought to be behind the insurrection.
That is because one thing the Iranians do not want is a chaotic country on their border.
"Ultimately, the Iranians do not want Iraq breaking up," says Tariq Karim, former ambassador to Iran from Bangladesh. "They have a very big stake in the Kurds not breaking apart and going off on their own tangent. They have probably the second largest Kurdish population outside of Iraq apart from Turkey, so that would trigger its own consequences within Iran.
"No country in its right senses wants chaos in its immediate vicinity," he adds. "Borders tends to be porous and chaos seems to take advantage of the osmotic process."
Karim, now senior adviser at the Institutional Reform and the Information Sector (IRIS) Center at the University of Maryland, College Park says that if handled correctly, the Iranians could help bring peace to Iraq. What they are asking for, he says, is a little respect.
"I hear Iranian leaders saying, 'We can be a force for stabilizing the region, insuring security," Karim says. "But I also hear aggrieved egos. I hear them saying, 'Why does the world judge us to be irresponsible? Can you prove we are acting irresponsibly?'
"If you were to place yourself in their shoes, their arguments have a logic of their own that is undeniable," he says.
© 2005 Baltimore Sun