In 1998, neo-conservative theorist Robert Kagan enunciated what would become a foundational belief of Bush Administration policy. He asserted that "a successful intervention in Iraq would revolutionize the strategic situation in the Middle East, in ways both tangible and intangible, and all to the benefit of American interests."
Now, over two years after Baghdad fell and the American occupation of Iraq began, Kagan's prediction appears to have been fulfilled -- in reverse. The chief beneficiary of the occupation and the chaos it produced has not been the Bush administration, but Iran, the most populous and powerful member of the "Axis of Evil," and the chief American competitor for dominance in the oil-rich region. As diplomatic historian Gabriel Kolko commented: "By destroying a united Iraq under [Saddam] Hussein…the U.S. removed the main barrier to Iran's eventual triumph."
The Road to Tehran Is Mined
At first, events looked to be moving in quite a different direction. Lost in the obscure pages of the early coverage of the Iraq War was a moment when, it seemed, the clerical regime in Iran flinched. Soon after Saddam fled and Baghdad became an American town, Iran suddenly entered into negotiations with Great Britain, France, and Germany on ending its nuclear program, the most public point of friction with the U.S. After all, it was Saddam's supposed nuclear program that had been the casus belli for the American invasion, and Bush administration neoconservatives had been hammering away at the Iranian program in a similar fashion.
Two developments ended this brief moment of seeming triumph for Washington. As a start, American officials, feeling their oats, balked at the tentative terms negotiated by the Europeans because they did not involve regime change in Iran. This hard-line American stance gave the Iranian leadership no room to maneuver and stiffened their negotiating posture.
At the time, in the wake of its successful three-week war in Iraq, the Bush Administration seemed ready, even eager, to apply extreme military pressure to Iran. According to Washington Post columnist William Arkin, the official U.S. strategic plan (formally known as CONPLAN 8022-02) completed in November 2003 authorized "a preemptive and offensive strike capability against Iran and North Korea." An administration pre-invasion quip (reported by Newsweek on August 19, 2002) caught perfectly the post-invasion mood ascendant in Washington: "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran."
A second key development neutralized the American ability to turn its military might in an Iranian direction: the rise of the Iraqi resistance. During the several months after the fall of Baghdad, the Saddamist loyalists who had initially resisted the U.S. occupation were augmented by a broader and more resilient insurgency. As the character of the occupation made itself known, small groups of guerrillas began defending their neighborhoods from U.S. military patrols. These patrols were seeking out suspected "regime loyalists" from the Baathist era by knocking down doors, shooting whomever resisted, and arresting all men of "military age" in the household. As the resistance spread, its various factions became more aggressive and resourceful. Over the next year, it blossomed into a formidable and complex enemy that the U.S. Army -- to the surprise of American officials in Washington and Baghdad -- did not have the resources to defeat. It was, then, the swiftly growing Iraqi resistance that, by preventing the consolidation of an American Iraq, forced an Iranian campaign off the table and back into the shadows where it has remained to this day.
The Nuclear Conundrum
The rise of the Iraqi resistance drastically changed the equation for the Iranian leadership. The threat of an imminent U.S. assault had reduced the long- term Iranian nuclear option to near pointlessness, which was why the Iranian leadership was willing to negotiate it away in exchange for a guarantee of safety from attack. Once the prospect of a protracted guerrilla war in neighboring Iraq arose, however, the Iranian leadership suddenly found itself with an extended time horizon for tactical and strategic planning. Becoming (or at least continually threatening to become) a nuclear power again became a promising path of deterrence against future American threats -- at least if the North Korean experience was any guide. So the Iranians began pushing ahead with their nuclear program; and while no one could be sure whether their work was aimed at the development of peaceful nuclear energy (their claim) or nuclear weapons (as the Bush administration insisted), their moves made it conceivable that they might actually be capable of building a bomb in the many years that it would take -- it now became clear -- for the U.S. to have any chance of pacifying Iraq.
The increasingly destructive, devolving American occupation in Iraq also deflected the anger of an Iranian population that had been growing restless under the harsh clerical hand of Iran's political leaders. At the time of the invasion, opinion surveys in Iran indicated both "widespread discontent within the Islamic Republic" and a generally positive attitude toward the United States. ("[T]he average Iranian does not bear ill will against America.") American officials interpreted this to mean that "the clerics may have lost the upper hand" in Iran. However, this widespread discontent quickly dissipated under the pressure of regional events; and two years later, Iranians elected as president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a fundamentalist militant and electoral underdog, who eliminated the U.S. favored "moderate" in the first round of voting and then, in a runoff round, soundly defeated a less radical representative of the Iranian establishment. Moreover, he ran on a platform that advocated making Iran's nuclear program -- then at a halt while negotiations were once again underway with the Europeans -- a priority. Unlike his defeated opponent, who said he would "work to improve relations" with the U.S., Ahmadinejad claimed "he would not seek rapprochement."
In other words, instead of deterring or ending the Iranian nuclear effort, the U.S. invasion and botched occupation encouraged and accelerated it, lending it national prestige and rallying Iranian public opinion to the cause.
The China Connection
Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran stand one-two-three in global estimated oil and natural gas reserves. The Iraq invasion, which unsettled world energy politics in unpredictable ways, set in motion portentous activities in China, an undisputed future U.S. economic competitor. China's leaders, in search of energy sources for their burgeoning economy long before the American invasion of Iraq, had already in 1997 negotiated a $1.3 billion contract with Saddam Hussein to develop the Al-Ahdab oil field in central Iraq. By 2001, they were negotiating for rights to develop the much larger Halfayah field. Between them, the two fields might have accounted for almost 400,000 barrels per day, or 13% of China's oil consumption in 2003. However, like Iraq's other oil customers (including Russia, Germany, and France), China was prevented from activating these deals by the UN sanctions then in place, which prohibited all Iraqi oil exports except for emergency sales authorized under the UN's Oil for Food program. Ironically, therefore, China and other potential oil customers had a great stake in the renewed UN inspections that were interrupted by the American invasion. A finding of no WMDs might have allowed for sanctions to be lifted and the lucrative oil deals activated.
When "regime change" in Iraq left the Bush administration in charge in Baghdad, its newly implanted Coalition Provisional Authority declared all pre-existing contracts and promises null and void, wiping out the Chinese stake in that country's oil fields. As Peter S. Goodman reported in the Washington Post, this prompted "Beijing to intensify its search for new sources" of oil and natural gas elsewhere. That burst of activity led, in the next two years, to new import agreements with 15 countries. One of the most important of these was a $70 billion contract to import Iranian oil, negotiated only after it became clear that a U.S. military threat was no longer imminent.
This agreement (Iran's largest since 1996) severely undermined, according to Goodman, "efforts by the United States and Europe to isolate Teheran and force it to give up plans for nuclear weapons." On this point, an adviser to the Chinese government told Goodman: "Whether Iran would have nuclear weapons or not is not our business. America cares, but Iran is not our neighbor. Anyone who helps China with energy is a friend." This suggested that China might be willing to use its UN veto to protect its new ally from any attempt by the U.S. or the Europeans to impose UN sanctions designed to frustrate its nuclear designs, an impression reinforced in November of 2004, when Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing told Iranian President Mohammed Khatami that "Beijing would indeed consider vetoing any American effort to sanction Iran at the Security Council"
The long-term oil relationship between China and Iran, sparked in part by the American occupation of neighboring Iraq, would soon be complemented by a host of other economic ties, including an $836 million contract for China to build the first stage of the Tehran subway system, an expanding Chinese auto manufacturing presence in Iran, and negotiations around a host of other transportation and energy projects. In 2004, China sought to deepen political ties between the two countries by linking Iran to the Shanghai Cooperative Organization (SCO), a political alliance composed of China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. China and Russia soon began shipping Iran advanced missile systems, a decision that generated angry protests from the Bush Administration. According to Asia Times correspondent Jephraim P. Gundzik, these protests made good sense, since the systems shipped were a direct threat to U.S. military operations in the Middle East:
"Iran can target US troop positions throughout the Middle East and strike US Navy ships. Iran can also use its weapons to blockade the Straits of Hormuz through which one-third of the world's traded oil is shipped. With the help of Beijing and Moscow, Teheran is becoming an increasingly unappealing military target for the U.S."
At the June 2005 meeting of the SCO, after guest Iran was invited into full membership, the group called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from member states, and particularly from the large base in Uzbekistan that was a key staging area for American troops in the Afghanistan War. The SCO thus became the first international body of any sort to call for a rollback of U.S. bases anywhere in the world. A month later Uzbekistan made the demand on its own behalf. The Associated Press noted: "The alliance's move appeared to be an attempt to push the United States out of a region that Moscow regards as historically part of its sphere of influence and in which China seeks a dominant role because of its extensive energy resources." Not long afterward, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami ended his first summit conference with Chinese President Jiang Zemin with a joint statement opposing "interference in the internal affairs of other countries by any country under the pretext of human rights," a declaration reported by the Iran Press Service to be a "direct criticism of Washington."
In other words, the war in Iraq -- and the resistance that it triggered -- played a key role in creating a potentially powerful alliance between Iran and China.
The Rise of Pro-Iranian Politics in Iraq
The combination of a thoroughly incompetent American occupation and a growing guerrilla war also set in motion a seemingly inexorable drift of Iraq's Shia leadership -- many of whom had lived in exile in Iran or already had close ties to Iran's Shia clerics -- toward an ever more multifaceted relationship with the neighboring power.
The first (unintended) American nurturing of these ties occurred just after the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, when U.S. military forces demobilized the Iraqi army and police, and focused their military attention on tracking down "regime remnants." The resulting absence of a police presence produced a wave of looting and street crime that engulfed many cities. The Coalition Provisional Authority found a remedy to the situation by tacitly supporting the formation of local militias to deal with the problem.
Three pre-existing groups with strong ties to Iran quickly established their primacy in the major Shia areas of Iraq. The Sadrists, centered largely in Baghdad's enormous Shia slum, now known Sadr City, had historically been the most visible leadership of internal Shia resistance to Saddam and were accused by the Hussein government of accepting all manner of clandestine support from the Iranian government. The Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and Da'wa, on the other hand, had organized military and terrorist attacks inside Iraq, working from bases in Iran. Both had long been openly associated with the Iranians and were committed to an Iraqi version of Iranian-style Islamist governance. Once Saddam fell, all three groups immediately sought leadership within Iraqi Shia communities, and dramatically increased their standing by recruiting large numbers of unemployed young men into their militias and assigning them to maintain order in their local communities. The Sadrists, with their Mahdi's army militia, also became the backbone of Shia resistance to the occupation, leading two major revolts in Najaf in April and August of 2004, and highly visible non-violent protests at other places and times. SCIRI and Da'wa took a more moderate stance, following the lead of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and working, however cautiously, with the occupation authorities. At the same time, all three groups provided much of the actual local governance in southern Iraq, including establishing offices where citizens could ask for individual and collective help, and adjudicate local disputes.
As the occupation's military forces either withdrew to their bases in many cities in the South or became completely occupied in countering an increasingly resourceful and widespread armed revolt (mostly in the Sunni areas of central Iraq), the militias became increasingly important parts of local life, only adding to the ascendancy of the organizations they represented in Iraqi civil society. Given their historical connections to Iran, this ascendancy cemented a sort of fraternal relationship between the emerging Shia leadership and Tehran's clerical government.
As the economic situation in Iraq deteriorated under the weight of corrupt reconstruction politics and the pressure of the resistance, Iran became an ever more promising source of economic sustenance. Saddam Hussein had forbidden Iranian pilgrimages to Iraqi Shia holy sites in the twin cities of Karbala and Najaf, so the toppling of the Baathist regime opened the way for a huge influx of pilgrims and cash. Iranian entrepreneurs began to negotiate building projects for hotels and other tourist-oriented facilities in the holy cities. Iranian financiers offered to support the construction of a modern airport in Najaf to facilitate tourism.
From this foundation other economic ties developed, though the hostility of the American-run Coalition Provisional Authority and its appointed Iraqi-run successor limited formal relationships. Nonetheless, a bustling cross-border trade involved hundreds of trucks a day carrying a variety of goods in both directions. These relatively unimpeded highways became even more crowded as the escalating insurgency began to threaten, or actually close, routes to Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Lebanon. When a combination of security and infrastructural problems shut down the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr in 2004, Iraqi merchants began using the nearby Iranian port of Bandar Khomeini to receive shipments of Australian wheat. In one ironic twist, according to persistent rumors, regular shipments of Johnny Walker Red and other imported American liquor brands were being smuggled across the border into prohibitionist Iran to feed an illegal market at bargain basement prices (as low as $10 per liter).
The Iranian-Iraqi Relationship Blossoms
The Iraqi elections in January 2005 and their aftermath made the growing symbiosis between the two neighboring areas fully visible. Though the Sadrists officially boycotted the election, the SCIRI and Da'wa parties, having asserted leadership within Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani's Unified Iraqi Coalition, won a majority of the seats in the new parliament. The prime minister they selected, Da'wa leader Ibrahim al-Jaafari, had spent nine years in exile in Iran.
More open and formal relationships followed as soon as the new government took office. As Juan Cole, perhaps the foremost academic observer of Middle Eastern politics, put it: "The two governments went into a tizzy of wheeling and dealing of a sort not seen since Texas oil millionaires found out about Saudi Arabia." Beyond facilitating pilgrimages in both directions across the border and formalizing plans for the Najaf airport, the new government facilitated connections that affected almost every economic realm in depressed Iraq. Among the many projects settled upon were substantial improvements in Iraq's transportation system; agreements for the exchange of products ranging from detergents to construction materials and carpets; a shift of Iraqi imports of flour from the U.S. to Iran; the Iranian refining of Iraqi crude oil pumped from its southern fields; and a billion dollar credit line to be used for the Iraqi purchase of Iranian "technical and engineering services."
Though the Bush Administration, with its control over both the purse strings and the armed forces of the new Iraqi government, undoubtedly had the power to nullify these unwelcome agreements, circumstances on the ground made it difficult for its officials to intervene. Any overt interventions in matters that touched on Iraqi economic sovereignty would surely have triggered loud (and perhaps violent) protests from at least the Sadrists, who might well have been joined by the governing parties in the regime the U.S. had just installed. The most spectacular agreement, a proposed mutual defense pact between Iraq and Iran, was indeed abrogated under apparent pressure from the Bush administration, but American officials said nothing when "the Iraqi government did give Tehran assurances that they would not allow Iraqi territory to be used in any attack on Iran -- presumably a reference to the United States."
The increasingly desperate circumstances that constrained Bush administration actions when it came to the developing Iranian-Iraqi relationship were addressed by Middle East scholar Ervand Abrahamian, who pointed to a similarly precarious American situation in Afghanistan. He concluded that the U.S. could not afford a military confrontation with Iran, since the Iranians were in a position to trigger armed revolts in the Shia areas of both countries: "If there's a confrontation, military confrontation, there would be no reason for them to cooperate with United States. They would do exactly what would be in their interests, which would be to destroy the U.S. position in those two countries."
A "senior international envoy" quoted by Christopher Dickey in NewsweekOnline, offered an almost identical opinion: "Look at what they can do in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Lebanon. They can turn the whole Middle East into a ball of fire, and [American officials] know that."
In light of all these developments, Juan Cole commented: "In a historic irony, Iran's most dangerous enemy of all, the United States, invaded Iran's neighbor with an eye to eventually toppling the Tehran regime -- but succeeded only in defeating itself."
The Ironies of Conquest
In a memorable insight, Rebecca Solnit has suggested that the successes of social movements should often be measured not by their accomplishments, but by the disasters they prevent:
"What the larger movements have achieved is largely one of careers undestroyed, ideas uncensored, violence and intimidation uncommitted, injustices unperpetrated, rivers unpoisoned and undammed, bombs undropped, radiation unleaked, poisons unsprayed, wildernesses unviolated, countryside undeveloped, resources unextracted, species unexterminated."
The Iraqi resistance, one of the least expected and most powerful social movements of recent times, can lay claim to few positive results. In two years of excruciating (if escalating) fighting, the insurgents have seen their country progressively reduced to an ungovernable jungle of violence, disease, and hunger. But maybe, as Solnit suggests, their real achievement lies in what didn't happen. Despite the deepest desires of the Bush administration, to this day Iran remains uninvaded -- the horrors of devolving Iraq have, so far, prevented the unleashing of the plagues of war on its neighbor.
Not only will that "success" be small consolation for most Iraqis, but such a negative victory might in itself only be temporary. Reading the geopolitical tea leaves is always a perilous task, especially in the case of Bush administration intentions (and capabilities) toward Iran. While there are signs that some American officials in Washington and Baghdad may be accepting the defeat of administration plans for "regime change" in Iran; other signs remind us that a number of top officials remain as committed as ever to a military confrontation of some sort -- and that frustration with a roiling defeat in Iraq, which has, until now, constrained war plans, could well set them off in the end.
Among signs that a major military strike against Iran may not be in the offing are increasingly visible fault lines within the Bush administration itself. This can be seen most politely in various calls for accommodation with Iran from high-profile former Bush Administration officials like Richard Haass. The Director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff from 2001 to 2003, Haass published his appeal in Foreign Affairs, a magazine sponsored by the influential Council for Foreign Relations. More tangible signs of a surfacing accomodationist streak can be found in modest gestures made by the administration, including the withdrawal of a longstanding U.S. veto of Iran's petition for membership in the World Trade Organization. Beyond this, one would have to note the rather pointed leaking of crucial secret documents, including the Military Quadrennial Report, in which top commanders gave a negative assessment of U.S. readiness to fight two wars simultaneously, and a National Intelligence Estimate -- the first comprehensive review of intelligence about Iran since 2001 -- which evidently declared Iran about than ten years away from obtaining "the key ingredient for a nuclear weapon." And, finally, the Bush administration endorsed a European- sponsored nuclear treaty with Iran that was almost identical to one it had opposed two years earlier.
But perhaps the most striking sign that some acceptance of regional realities and limitations is afoot can be found in the strident complaints by various neoconservatives about Bush Administration failures in Iran. Michael Rubin, a key figure in the development of Iraq policy, spoke for many when he complained in an American Enterprise Institute commentary that the Bush Administration showed "little inclination to work toward" regime change there. He followed this claim with a catalogue of missed opportunities, policy shifts, and other symptoms of a lack of will to confront the Iranians.
On the other hand, as military analyst Michael Klare reports, the Bush Administration has never ceased its search for an on-the-cheap, few-boots-on-the-ground military solution to its Iranian dilemma. While the U.S. military (like any modern military) develops contingency plans for all manner of battles and campaigns, and while most such plans are never executed, their existence and persistence give credence to the claims that an attack on Iran is still possible.
Most of the extant contingency plans evidently take into account the "immense stress now being placed on US ground forces in Iraq" and therefore seek "some combination of airstrikes and the use of proxy [non-American ground] forces." One plan, for example, evidently envisions several brigades of American trained Iranian exiles entering Iran from Afghanistan. Other plans involve simultaneous land and sea assaults, coordinated with precision bombing of various military sites currently being charted by manned and unmanned aerial invasions of Iranian airspace.
Ominously, the Bush Administration appears to recognize that these sorts of assaults would not even fully destroy Iranian nuclear facilities, no less topple the Iranian regime itself, and that an added ingredient might be needed. Since 2004, therefore, contingency plans authorized by the Department of Defense have mandated that the use nuclear weapons be an integral part of the overall strategy. Washington Post reporter William Arkin, citing the already adopted CONPLAN 8022, mentions "a nuclear weapons option" specifically tailored for use against underground Iranian nuclear plants: "a specially configured earth-penetrating bomb to destroy deeply buried facilities." Such a nuclear attack would -- at least on paper -- be coordinated with a variety of other measures to insure that the Iranian government was replaced with one acceptable to the Bush Administration.
Recently, former CIA official Philip Giraldi asserted in the American Conservative magazine that, as of late summer 2005, the Pentagon, "under instructions from Vice President Dick Cheney's office," was "drawing up a contingency plan to be employed in response to another 9/11-type terrorist attack on the United States. The plan mandates a large-scale air assault on Iran employing both conventional and tactical nuclear weapons…. As in the case of Iraq, the response is not conditional on Iran actually being involved in the act of terrorism directed against the United States." The breadth and depth of the assault, according to Giraldi's Air Force sources, would be quite striking: "Within Iran there are more than 450 major strategic targets, including numerous suspected nuclear-weapons-program development sites. Many of the targets are hardened or are deep underground and could not be taken out by conventional weapons, hence the nuclear option." Since many targets are in populated areas, the havoc and destruction following such an attack would, in all likelihood, be unrivaled by anything since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
After escaping the Cold War specter of nuclear holocaust, it seems unimaginable that the world would be forced to endure the horror of nuclear war in a regional dispute. However, the record of Bush administration belligerence makes it difficult to imagine America's top leadership giving up the ambition of toppling the Islamic regime in Iran. And yet, given that the conquest of Iraq led the administration unexpectedly down strange Iranian paths, who knows where future Washington plans and dreams are likely to lead -- perhaps to destruction, certainly to bitter ironies of every sort.
Michael Schwartz, Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, has written extensively on popular protest and insurgency, and on American business and government dynamics. His work on Iraq has appeared on the internet at numerous sites, including TomDispatch, Asia Times, MotherJones, Antiwar.com, and ZNet; and in print at Contexts, Against the Current, and Z Magazine. His books include Radical Politics and Social Structure, The Power Structure of American Business (with Beth Mintz), and Social Policy and the Conservative Agenda (edited, with Clarence Lo).
© 2005 Michael Schwartz