WASHINGTON - A State Department official's assertion in late December that Iran had exerted a restraining influence on Iraqi Shiite militia violence signaled a major divergence of views between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defence Robert Gates over how to portray Iran's role in Iraq.
In an interview with the Washington Post published Dec. 23, David Satterfield, a senior advisor to Rice and coordinator for Iraq, attributed to Iran a deliberate decision to help calm the situation in Iraq rather than to inflame it. Satterfield told the Washington Post that the decline in the number of attacks by Mahdi Army militiamen since August 'has to be attributed to an Iranian policy decision' and suggested that the policy decision had been made 'at the most senior level'.
Satterfield did not say that the new Iranian policy line was permanent, but he insisted that there had been such a 'consistent and sustained diminution in certain kinds of violence by certain kinds of folks' that it could not be explained solely on the basis of internal factors in Iraq.
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker also told the Post that 'the freeze on JAM [the Iraqi acronym for the Mahdi Army] operations that began four months ago would not exist without Iranian approval'.
Those positive descriptions of the recent Iranian role in Iraq came just after Defence Secretary Gates had refused to endorse such an assessment. At a press conference on Dec. 21, Gates was asked whether he had 'seen any additional or more current information to suggest maybe Iran is playing a more constructive role in trying to seal its border from arms shipments and so on?'
He replied, 'No, not yet.'
Significantly, however, Gates also passed up the opportunity to say that Iran was playing a 'destabilising role' in Iraq. Instead he said simply that the 'jury is out' on the issue.
Gates mentioned the success of military operations against the Mahdi Army as well as the 'ceasefire that has been put in place' as factors in the decline in attacks and said, '[W]e don't have a good feeling...or any confidence in terms of how to weigh these different things.'
These differing views on whether Iran has been playing a positive role in Iraq are the first clear evidence of a split between Gates and Rice over how to deal with Iran. Rice's State Department is now leaning toward treating Iran as something other than an outright enemy in regard to Iraq, whereas Gates is not ready to soften the administration's position of casting suspicion on Iranian intentions.
Gates was the last administration official to denounce Iran in harsh terms over Iraq, declaring in a speech at a Persian Gulf security conference in Bahrain Dec. 8, 'Everywhere you turn, it is the policy of Iran to foment instability and chaos, no matter the strategic value or cost in the blood of innocents.'
That rhetoric was almost certainly aimed, however, at avoiding a stampede away from the administration's efforts to pressure Iran on its uranium enrichment programme in the wake of the stunning publication of the national intelligence estimate's conclusion that Iran had abandoned covert nuclear weapons work in 2003.
Gates hinted in comments to reporters when he arrived in Bahrain that he was much less certain of the Iranian intention than his rhetoric at the conference would have suggested. He mentioned the call by Shiite Mahdi Army leader Muqtada al-Sadr for a ceasefire as a key factor in the improved security in the Baghdad area, along with the reduction in attacks by armour-piercing rounds which had long been blamed on Iran.
Gates appeared to suggest that he did not rule out an Iranian contribution to the improvement, saying it was 'too early to tell' whether the reduction in militia attacks since August was due to successful military efforts to disrupt Mahdi Army networks or 'what the Iranians may or may not be doing'.
The State Department's decision to acknowledge that Iran has contributed to the reduction in violence in Iraq has no doubt been influenced by Iranian political figures and officials who work closely with the U.S. Embassy to oppose the Mahdi Army and who have been insisting for months that Iran was helping to restrain Sadr.
Iraqi Islamic Council Chairman Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, whose party is the key Shiite political ally in the U.S. effort to weaken the Madhi Army, met with Rice Nov. 30 and told her that Iran plays a positive role in establishing security in Iraq, according to the Tehran Times. Al-Hakim was quoted as saying, 'There are documents proving that Iran has supported Iraq.'
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, who had argued both publicly and privately last fall that Iran was behind Sadr's Aug. 29 ceasefire, met with Rice two days before the Satterfield and Crocker interviews.
The implication of the advice of the anti-Sadr, pro-Iranian Iraqis is that the United States can use Iran to further weaken Sadr and the Madhi Army.
The State Department strategy recognises that the Madhi Army, which poses the main threat to the George W. Bush administration's plan to maintain an indefinite U.S. military presence in the country, is too strong to be suppressed by U.S. or Iraqi military forces. And it would seek an end to the accusations against Iran regarding Iraqi Shiite militias that have been issued regularly by U.S. civilian and military officials throughout 2007.
Crocker told the Post he was prepared to make the inference of a helpful Iranian role in the reduction of operations by the Shiite militias when he meets with Iran in the next round of talks.
The Defence Department's view of Iranian policy is influenced primarily by the perspective of the U.S. military command in Baghdad. Gen. David Petraeus also recognises that there must be a political strategy to weaken Sadr's forces.
However, he and his staff have been focusing more on the fact that the Madhi Army is continuing to attack U.S. and Iraqi security forces in the Shiite provinces of Qadisiyah, Babil and Dhi Qar, as stated in the latest Pentagon report.
The military command continues to insists that the 'Shi'a extremists and rogue elements' of the Mahdi Army are 'Iranian-backed'.
That analysis clearly implies that the United States should not back away from the accusations of Iranian export of weapons to and manipulation of Shiite militias that the U.S. command has been making for nearly a year.
Given President Bush's penchant for letting agencies with conflicting policies work things out themselves rather than impose a policy decision, the State and Defence Departments may continue to carry out their own policy lines on the subject of Iran's role in Iraq until a new development resolves the differences. That will introduce another layer of contradictions into an extraordinarily murky policy toward the Iran-Iraq complex of issues.
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.
© 2007 Inter Press Service