U.S. and Iran – Basra Team-Up?
Noah Schachtman notes the irony that the U.S. now finds itself on the same “team” with the Iranian government.
For more than a year, America’s political and military leaders have been angrily accusing Iran of fueling the violence in Iraq. But, in the battle for Basra, the U.S. suddenly finds itself in the odd position of being, in effect, Tehran’s ally against a common foe.
Basra has become the epicenter of a fight between Shi’ite factions. On one side, there’s Moktada al-Sadr, the homegrown firebrand and long-time thorn in the side of American forces. On the other, there’s the team of Da’wa (the party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki) and the former Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (which runs most of the country’s security services). Both SCIRI and Da’wa have decades-deep connections to Iran. “Shiite rivals, particularly the party loyal to the cleric Moktada al-Sadr, regularly accuse the Supreme Council of being a tool of the Iranian intelligence service. The party’s top officials, including its leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, lived in Iran for decades and still frequently return,” the Times observes.
“SCIRI was essentially created by Iran, and its militia, the Badr Brigade, was trained and equipped by the Revolutionary Guards,” Council on Foreign Relations Iran scholar Ray Takeyh notes in the current Middle East Journal.
It’s an interesting argument but one that masks a complicated reality. The Iranian government naturally wants a Shiite state next door. At the same time, however, it clearly wants the al-Maliki government — and the U.S. mission in Iraq, more generally — to fail. And, goodness, they’ve sheltered al-Sadr for long periods during the current crisis.
Noah’s, right, though, that Sadr is widely perceived to be a more staunch Iraqi nationalist than Maliki, who is considered more friendly to a wider Shiite alliance. But even that’s not cut-and-dried, as his post acknowledges.
That’s not to say Sadr has no ties to Tehran. As with all politics in the Middle East, the relationships are complex. In 2006, Sadr pledged to defend Iran, if it was attacked by the Americans. Many believe Iranian weapons have been funneled to elements of Sadr’s Mahdi Army. “But unlike their relations with SCIRI and Da’wa, Iran’s ties to Sadr are more opportunistic, as they find his sporadic Arab nationalist rhetoric and erratic behavior problematic,” Takeyh observes. “At a time when Sadr is being granted an audience by the Arab leaders and dignitaries across the region, it would be astonishing if Iran did not seek some kind of a relationship with the Shi’ite firebrand.”
But, ultimately, “the Sadrist movement has always been about Iraq for the Iraqis,” Bartle Bull writes. “They might accept help from Iran – and I saw Iranian supplies in their compounds in Najaf in 2004 – but the movement is not for sale. Mr. Sadr gets his strength from the street. And the Arabs of the Iraqi street have no time for Persian bosses.”
Regardless, this isn’t an old Western movie; there’s nobody in this mess that are obviously “good guys” or purely “bad guys.” We’re supporting Maliki’s government because it was the one that got elected. Sadr and his forces decided to sit the process out.