Talisman Gate

Monday, May 12, 2008

Iran's Shifting Strategy

Iran’s Shifting Strategy

By NIBRAS KAZIMI May 12, 2008

The healing in Iraq and the deterioration in Lebanon are not unrelated. In fact, Iraq will serve as both cause and effect to Lebanon’s misfortunes. Iran, eclipsed in Sadr City, had decided to allow its sectarian acolytes to put on a show of strength in Beirut. And the jihadists of Al Qaeda’s ilk, soon to be eclipsed in Mosul, will migrate to Beirut to meet Iran’s challenge.

Five years ago, there was a hope that held Iraq as a would-be beacon for democracy throughout the Middle East, but that vision had too many determined enemies both inside and outside Iraq. Yet as the situation there darkened through the actions of these regressive forces, the spontaneous outpouring of liberty demonstrated by the Lebanese people seemed to validate the notion that democracy and liberty would take in the region, and that the hope for what Iraq may portend was not misplaced. But the Cedar Revolution, as the March 2005 events of Beirut are remembered, also had too many internal and external enemies determined to spoil the elation.

Two countries that were dead-set against Iraq succeeding were Syria and Iran. These are also the two countries most responsible for fomenting political paralysis and chaos in Lebanon.

In Iraq, the Iranians and the Syrians began a joint-partnership aimed at harnessing the disruptive energies of the Mahdi Army as a weapon by which to retaliate against America should either of them get attacked, as well as acting as a force keeping Iraq in a state of permanent disorder.

Syria’s influence on the Sadrist movement from which the Mahdi Army springs is often overlooked: Damascus was a refuge for many prominent Sadrists during the latter years of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, and the Syrian Baathists brokered the initial rapprochement between the Sadrist old guard and Iran. Many of these Sadrist apparatchiks were openly hostile to the Iranians and Iran’s preferred acolytes in Iraq such as the Hakim family, long-standing rivals of the Muqtada al-Sadr’s father, the man who founded the Sadrist movement. Actually, many of them continue secretly to believe that Saddam’s regime had nothing to do with their leader’s murder in early 1999 and lay the blame solely on the Hakims and Iran.

However, after the first major confrontation between the Sadrists and American troops in the spring of 2004, the Iranians saw potential in Sadr’s thugs at around the same time as they were becoming increasingly disappointed with the Badr Corps, the Iranian-trained militia under the leadership of the Hakim family. The Hakims had become too invested in, and integrated within, the Iraqi state — their revenues from contracts and trade earned inside Iraq exceeded the overall budget of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which had funded them previously — and could not be counted on to act as Iran’s agents of disorder. Whereas the Hakim turned independent as they didn’t need Iran anymore, the Sadrists were desperate for arms and training, and Iran was more than willing to accommodate them with the Syrians acting as go-betweens.

It was in this vein that the first batch of Iranian-administered training was supposed to take place in Damascus during November 2004. It was geared towards turning ten of the top Mahdi Army field commanders into the security chiefs of a parallel intelligence agency working on behalf of the Iranians. The seminar did not take place on time, and it is unclear whether it ever subsequently took place in Damascus.

But other training, on security matters and terrorism, did take place in a camp near Tehran, according to captured Mahdi Army commanders in Iraq, and it was administered by instructors from Lebanese Hezbollah. It should also be noted that the political channel through which the Syrian leadership maintains its relationship with Hezbollah — primarily through General Muhammad Nassif, ostensibly the Syrian prime minister’s deputy on security matters — is the very same channel through which the Syrians communicate with the Sadrists.

Thus, the Iranians and the Syrians were hoping to turn the rag-tag elements of the Mahdi Army into an Iraqi version of Hezbollah, with both a political wing represented by Mr. Sadr and a military wing that they called the majamee’ alkhasa, or “Special Groups,” a name chosen in Tehran and not a technical term invented by American commanders as so many Iraq-watchers seem to think.

And boy, was that a mistake: the Mahdi Army as a whole and the Special Groups in particular have collapsed after seven weeks of fighting against a confident and capable Iraqi Army that was bolstered by American air cover and logistical support. On Thursday, the Sadrists effectively offered their surrender to Prime Minister Maliki, who had earlier put them on notice that he would smash into their redoubts, especially Baghdad’s slum of Sadr City, if they continued to act as saboteurs. Mr. Maliki was prepared to go all the away, including displacing hundreds of thousands of refugees from Sadr City and arresting Sadrist parliamentarians.

Iran had lost and the leaders in Tehran needed to save face fast. Iran needed to show that it could create mischief around the region for that has always been one of Tehran’s strategic strengths. That is why they pushed Hezbollah to overreact when given a juicy provocation by the American-backed cabinet of Fouad al-Siniora. The Lebanese government has done and said many provocative things in the past but Hezbollah chose this particular provocation to throw a theatric and violent tantrum.

The situation in Lebanon is immensely complex and there are too many factors to list as to why it had been so messy, yet it was a manageable mess that never seemed to boil over — that is, until Hezbollah decided to rampage through Beirut and humiliate the Siniora government and the March 14 coalition that supports it; showing them up as weak and feckless, and in turn embarrassing America and Saudi Arabia for being unable to do anything to help their allies. This was no coup or deft move aimed at breaking the political stalemate: Iran was simply flexing its muscles in Beirut through Hezbollah because Iran’s other pawns were shown-up as feckless and weak in Sadr City.

That too was a major mistake. The Iranians and the Syrians may have concluded that they have passed the worst of the Sunni-Shia tensions that were roiling the Middle East over the last couple of years. In particular, the ruling Alawites of Syria, a Shia-offshoot minority, were worried about internal fall-out should the majority Sunni Syrians get exposed to headlines blaring sectarians strife in Lebanon next door. However, recent polling from the Middle East seemed to indicate that being virulently anti-American and anti-Israeli was enough to offset the stigma of being a Shia or an Alawite among Sunni audiences, and this may have emboldened the Syrians to go along with Iran’s plan.

But there was no escaping the potent imagery of armed Shia gangsters, under orders from Hezbollah and its affiliates, seemingly emasculating Beirut’s Sunnis and wounding their pride, especially given the rising sectarian temperatures in Lebanon that had never abated. Suddenly, the Sunnis of Lebanon felt exposed and no longer able to trust their established communal leaders, such as the Hariri family, to protect them. That is why they may look elsewhere for muscle, and that’s why jihadist internet forums have lighted up with giddy expectations of taking the jihad against the Shias from the streets of Baghdad to the streets of Beirut.

Mr. Maliki has just ordered the launch of a much-anticipated military campaign to rid Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city, of whatever significant vestige of Al Qaeda’s remaining in Iraq. The inevitable jihadist collapse there will push more and more jihadists to re-establish their efforts elsewhere, and nowhere looks more promising than Lebanon.

Mr. Kazimi is a contributing editor to The New York Sun.