WASHINGTON - As U.S. and Iranian diplomats met in Baghdad Tuesday for a second round of talks on Iraq, the domestic U.S. political climate appears decidedly more supportive of an aggressive U.S. posture toward Iran than just a few months ago, reflecting the apparent triumph the George W. Bush administration's narrative on Iran's role in Iraq.That new narrative threatens to obscure the bigger picture of Iranian policy toward Iraq, widely recognised by regional specialists. Iran's strategic interests in Iraq are far more compatible with those of the United States than those of the Sunni regimes in the region with which the United States has aligned itself.
Contrary to the official narrative, Iranian support for Shiites is not aimed at destabilising the country but does serve a rational Iranian desire to maximise its alliances with Iraqi Shiite factions, in the view of specialists on Iranian policy and on the security of the Persian Gulf region.
Symptomatic of the toughening attitude in Congress toward Iran was the 97-0 vote in the Senate last week for a resolution drafted by its leading proponent of war against Iran, Sen. Joe Lieberman, stating that "the murder of members of the United States Armed Forces by a foreign government or its agents is an intolerable act of hostility against the United States." The resolution demanded that the government of Iran "take immediate action" to end all forms of support it is providing to Iraqi militias and insurgents.
That vote followed several months of intensive administration propaganda charging that Iran is arming Shiite militias in Iraq, and characterising Iranian financial support and training for Shiite militias as an aggressive effort to target U.S. troops and to destabilise Iraq.
But this administration line ignores the fact that Iran's primary ties in Iraq have always been with those groups who have supported the Nouri al Maliki government, including the SCIRI and Dawa parties and their paramilitary arm, the Badr Corps, rather than with anti-government militias. That indicates that Iran's fundamental interest is to see the government stabilise the situation in the country, according to Prof. Mohsen Milani of Florida International University, a specialist on Iran's national security policies.
Milani argues that Iran's interests are more closely aligned with those of the United States than any other state in the region. "I can't think of two other countries in the region who want the Iraqi government to succeed," says Milani.
He believes the Iranians are so upset with the efforts by the Saudis to undermine the Shiite-dominated government that they may try to use the talks with the United States on the security of Iraq to introduce intelligence they have gathered on Saudi support for al Qaeda and Sunni insurgents.
Trita Parsi, author of a new book on Iranian-Israeli security relations, agrees that Iran's support for the Maliki government stands in contrast to the attitude of the leading U.S. Sunni ally in Middle East, Saudi Arabia. "Look at what the Saudis are calling the Maliki government -- a puppet government," he observes. "You're not hearing that from Iran."
Dr. James A. Russell, a lecturer in National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and a specialist on security affairs in the Gulf region, agrees that the two countries do indeed share common strategic interests in Iraq, at least in terms of rational, realist definitions of strategic interest.
The problem, Russell says, is that the history of the relationship and domestic political constituencies pose serious obstacles to realising those common interests. Two such obstacles are "the very powerful political constituency for attacking Iran" and support for Israel, says Russell.
James Dobbins, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and director of the Rand Corporation's International Security and Defence Policy Centre, agrees that Iran is not trying to destabilise Iraq. "They have been supportive of the government and hope it prevails," he says. As for the chief source of instability in Iraq, the Sunni-Shiite conflict, Dobbins notes that "Iranians don't see anything to be gained by Sunni-Shi'a conflict in Iraq".
Contrary to the impression conveyed by the Bush administration, Iran's ties to Shiite militias do not represent a new development. They have been a constant in Iranian policy since the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime opened the way for Shiite militias to return from Iran in 2003.
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In August 2005 a Time magazine story reported that Iranians were providing support to what were then called "Shiite insurgents" but quoted Western diplomats as saying that they "appear to be acting defensively rather than offensively". Those sources noted that the Iranian assistance to Shiite militias was "dwarfed by the amount of money and materiel flowing in from Iraq's Arab neighbors to Sunni insurgents".
Iran specialists and regional analysts agree that Iran's ties with militias who attack U.S. and British forces as well as government targets is essentially a way of ensuring that Iran will be on good terms with any future regime in Baghdad. "They're trying to hedge their bets," says Dobbins, "because they're not sure who's going to prevail."
Russell agrees that Iranian support for militias is not aimed at to destabilising Iraq but to establish good relations with every Shiite faction. "This is a logical step to protect their interests," he says.
The U.S. military presence is an obvious point of U.S.-Iranian contention over Iraq. Iran has shown a relatively high level of tolerance for the U.S. occupation in the past but has grown increasingly critical of that presence over the past year. Speaking at the World Economic Forum in May, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki charged that the U.S. military presence was a cause of instability rather than a solution for it.
"We believe that sooner or later they have to decide to withdraw their troops from Iraq because that is the cause for the continuation of terrorist activities," he said.
The changing Iranian posture toward the U.S. presence may reflect the relative weakening of the al-Maliki government and the emergence of the fiercely nationalist Moqtada al-Sadr as a major political force. Sadr has brought the demand for a timetable for U.S. withdrawal to the centre of his political strategy in recent months.
Given the uncertain political future of the country and the growing demand by Shiite militias -- including those which have been affiliated with Sadr's Mahdi Army -- for support for armed activities against the occupation, Iran probably felt that it had little choice but to respond positively.
Although the spokesman for U.S. command recently suggested that Iran has been supporting "rogue elements" fighting against coalition forces, last November U.S. intelligence officials confirmed that Mahdi Army units were being trained by Iranian ally Hezbollah in Lebanon with Sadr's knowledge.
But Iran may also share the interest of the al-Maliki government in having continued U.S. support for the development of Shiite security forces. "Tehran is not necessarily in favour of a complete pull-out," says Russell.
The actual degree of convergence between U.S. and Iranian interests on Iraq could still be a factor in the bilateral talks on the subject, despite the determination of the still powerful Vice President Dick Cheney to make sure they fail.
Gareth Porter is an historian and national security policy analyst. His latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in June 2005.
Copyright © 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service