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Irritable over Iran and Iraq

An "unintended consequence" is a "side effect" of an action that was not intended by the actor. Whether we refer to these effects as "externalities" or the more pernicious, "blowback," one thing is clear: An unintended consequence is not necessarily something that is unforeseeable, as I have maintained here.

The brutal Hussein regime benefited from US complicity in its war with Iran back in the 1980s. Desperate to "even the score" with the Iranian Ayatollahs, who dumped the US-backed Shah and held Americans hostage until Inaugural Day, 1981, the US stood by while Hussein assaulted Iran.

Well, yesterday's pals become today's enemies, and, lo and behold, yesterday's enemies might become tomorrow's friends. Is this what the US intended when it toppled the Hussein regime? The NY Times reports:

In a move that is likely to inflame further Sunni Arab resentments, the Iraqi government publicly acknowledged for the first time on Thursday that Iraq was the aggressor in 1980 when it touched off a bloody eight-year war with Iran. In a joint statement at the end of a three-day visit by the Iranian foreign minister, Kamal Kharazi, the new Shiite-led Iraqi government said that Saddam Hussein, the overthrown Iraqi leader, and other officials in his government must be put on trial for committing "military aggression against the people of Iraq, Iran and Kuwait," as well as crimes against humanity and war crimes. It was an effort to bring to a close the bitter legacy of the war in which nearly a million people were estimated to have died and tens of thousands more were displaced as refugees.

Well, okay. But while the foreign ministry in Iraq argues that this is merely a way of "lay[ing] the responsibility for the war squarely on Mr. Hussein and other leaders of his government," the pronouncement carries with it other implications. A "gesture of warmth toward Iran" is a sign of "how the political landscape ... has shifted, with Iraqi Shiites, many of whom spent years in exile in Iran, now running the [Iraqi] government." A majoritarian Shi'ite regime in Iraq is much more likely to bolster its ties to the Shi'ite Muslims running the Iranian theocracy. This might be very good for Iran-Iraq relations, but I don't see how the consolidation of theocratic forces serves the cause of freedom.

The Sunni Arabs, who also have little interest in the cause of freedom, are none too pleased. While the Sunnis' former leader lounges about in his underwear (those photos don't quite rise to the level of a "crime against humanity," but don't push me...), the Iranians are cozying up to "the [Shi'ite] religious leadership in Iraq." The Times continues:

In another sign of just how far the relationship between Iraq and Iran has progressed since the administration of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari was sworn in, the communiqué said Iran had agreed to open consulates in Basra and Karbala, Shiite-dominated cities in southern and south central Iraq. For its part, Iraq will open consulates in Kermanshah and Khorramshahr, cities in western Iran near the Iraqi border.

I shudder to think of the potential implications among the Shi'ites in Iraq, whom the US has emboldened, should the US decide to invade Iran. If US administrators think that the way to reduce US troops in Iraq is to endorse an exit strategy through Iran, would it be too much to ask that they contemplate, even briefly, the potential unintended consequences of such action?

Comments welcome. Also noted at L&P and LOR


??? -- Iran is the largest Shi'i country in the Islamic world. The most sacred Shi'i sites are in southern Iraq. The latter is a Shi'i majority country. Shi'is on both side of the political frontier have had cordial relations over the centuries for obvious reasons. What is new is that a Shi'i regime rules in Baghdad for the first time in all those centuries. But the political thinking of Baghdad & Teheran are quite distinct -- see Ali Sistani's ideas vs the Iranian ayatollahs. Juan Cole is very good here; also see Bernard Lewis on the uniqueness & comparative newnwss of Shi'i political ideas in Iran.

Thanks for your comments, Sudha. I've read Juan Cole on this, and Lewis as well. I do agree that there are distinctions between the Shi'ites on either side of the border on the issue of the mixing of politics and religion. Al-Sistani seems much less likely to call for a theocratic order in Iraq.

Still, what concerns me here is that there are very real tendencies to merge politics and religion in Shia doctrine. Cole himself recognizes this. He quotes Phillip Kennicott of the Washington Post (see http://www.antiwar.com/cole/?articleid=4888):

"While American leaders emphasize that Sistani isn't like the clerics of Iran, others point out that the Shi'ite tradition leaves Sistani little wiggle room on fundamental topics, including women's rights. 'It is important to keep in mind that there are certain issues in the Shi'ite community about which no ayatollah, however progressive, can afford to deviate in his deliberations and final ruling,' Abdulaziz A. Sachedina writes in an e-mail from Iran. A professor of Islamic studies at the University of Virginia, Sachedina met with Sistani several times in the 1990s, and on one occasion Sistani criticized his writings and issued a ruling against Sachedina's public comments on matters of faith. Sachedina was undaunted and says he carries 'no grudge' against Sistani. Nonetheless, Sachedina's inside view of Sistani and Sistani's organization lead him to consider the ayatollah more conservative than do other observers. Sistani's views on women 'are restrictive and in his personal communication to me in 1998 he made it very clear that he abides by the age-old opinions regarding women's inequality with men, and that he regards their testimony, as extrapolated from the Qu'ran, half of a man's testimony in value,' the scholar writes."

Sistani may appreciate the value of "popular sovereignty and parliamentary elections," as Cole puts it---but he can afford to appreciate that value, considering that the Shia constitute a majority in Iraq, and that majoritarian voting will provide them with the political "legitimacy" to rule the Iraqi state.

There is one further point that is implicit in my post here: The US administration has long considered Iran to be a member of the "axis of evil"--and yet, its actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, quite apart from their legitimacy (or illegitimacy), have had the effect of making Iran the most potent geopolitical force in the region. A closer relationship between Iran and Iraq can only embolden Iran further; I can't imagine for a moment that this is what the US administration intended.

1. In his comments before/just after the Iraq election, Juan Cole showed that Ali Sistani _opposed_ the merger between Shia 'clerics' & politics in Iran. He felt that religious leaders should hold aloof. Also, Bernard Lewis has shown that the Irani situation is very, very recent & quite new in Islamic history.

2. Of course, Sistani is an Islamic cleric & as such, anti-women. The real question is, how far such views can influence actual Parliamentary legislation. All factions in Iraq (including especially the Kurds) have to hold together to exploit oil revenues -- so Islamic traditionalists _may_ not have it all their way.

I forgot to add:

3. Iran has always been an impt player in the region. They opposed the Taliban -- on religious grounds; & with the fact of the Shi'i majority in Iraq, Iran was bound to have a significant influence. They did give shelter & support to Shi'i opponents of Saddam's regime. There is also an impt Shi'i ?minority? -- it may now be a majority -- in Lebanon. And Iran already supported Shi'i political groups there. So the _explicit_ emergence of Iranian influence was simply waiting to happen. It could not have been postponed indefinitely. American intervention simply gave an additional -- & very strong -- stir to the pot.

(Of course, _within_ America, the notion that American policy did it all by itself -- everyone else was simply background -- is the easiest to grasp.)

Sudha, thanks much again, as always, for your comments here.

In truth, I agree with much of what you say.

Cole is right about Sistani; Sistani is certainly no al-Sadr, and, at least up till this point, he has shown much more "practicality" on these questions---which is why the US has viewed him as a force for moderation. Insofar as the political, ethnic, and religious factions in Iraq will have to compromise in Parliamentary procedures (as they navigate among their differences), there is a much lower probability of any fundamentalist theocracy establishing itself on Iraqi soil. (Of course, there is also a possibility that the factions won't get together long enough to establish Parliamentary procedures, and an insurgency-led civil war eats away at the fabric of an emerging democracy.)

You are, of course, completely correct that Iran has been an important player in the Middle East, and a countervailing force to the Taliban and the Hussein regime. US intervention, however, has eliminated those anti-Iranian countervailing forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, and despite its opposition to the Iranian regime, it has, in my view, emboldened that regime thereby.

In my view, US intervention contributed to the rise of that fundamentalist regime in the first place; its continued intervention is liable to strengthen that regime, rather than the forces for democracy within Iran. I therefore agree fundamentally with you that the US "gave an additional -- & very strong -- stir to the pot."