On Tuesday, the third international summit to tackle Iraq’s security will be held in Kuwait. Washington is pushing for Arab countries to take a more active role in Iraq by opening embassies and providing financial assistance. To that end, Secretary Rice held a closed-door meeting in Bahrain on Monday with Arab foreign ministers, asking them for increased diplomatic and financial support for Baghdad, but it does not appear she had much success.
The subtext of both meetings is Tehran’s role in Iraq. Barring Tehran and its surrogates in the Iraqi government, there is universal agreement among all other participants that the regime in Iran is playing an increasingly destructive role in Iraq. But that’s where the agreement ends.
As evident by its diplomatic pitch in recent Congressional hearings and Secretary Rice’s comments in Bahrain, Washington is portraying Nuri al-Maliki’s government as a part of the solution. In contrast, almost all Arab capitals, particularly Riyadh and Cairo, see it as a part of the problem.
American diplomats cite Maliki’s decision to take on the Tehran-controlled Shiite militants in Basra in late March as a sign of his independence from Tehran’s ayatollahs and of his determination to end the sectarian bloodshed in Iraq. This pitch completely misses the mark on Maliki’s deep roots in Iran’s security and intelligence establishment. Not surprisingly, Arab capitals are unconvinced, particularly in light of mounting evidence of increasingly symbiotic ties between Tehran and the dominant Shiite block in Maliki’s government. If Washington sticks to this line, it will have its work cut out for it.
Washington is also missing the mark by framing the reluctance of Arab capitals to pursue diplomatic relations with Baghdad as Sunni governments vs. Shiite governments. This misses the core issue. Arab countries for the most part have difficulty with Damascus, a Sunni, albeit secular, regime and a close ally of Tehran. Furthermore, they see Tehran not as a Shiite power per se, but as a terrorist-sponsoring expansionist regime with long-held hegemonic ambitions to install an Islamic empire modeled after its own in the Middle East. And they know that in pursuit of its regional agenda, Tehran crisscrosses between religious divides, simultaneously supporting the Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Sunni Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine.
Today, most of the Iranian ambassadors in Middle Eastern embassies are members of the Qods Force, the elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). In the few embassies that are not led by a Qods Force officer, the unit has a presence with at least two or three members on the embassy staff whose job is to recruit locals and ensure that the ambassador strictly follows the IRGC line.
In Iraq, Arabs leaders are anxious and distrustful about the tremendous sway Tehran has over the political and security policies of the Maliki government, not the fact that it is run by a Shiite majority. Arab capitals have learned from the hard lessons of the past three decades. Since 1979, Tehran has waged a relentless campaign to subvert their governments and foment instability in the region. They see Tehran’s role in Iraq as deceitful and sinister, and remember the experience of Egypt, which as a show of good will, dispatched an ambassador to Iraq following the fall of previous regime, only to watch as he was later assassinated by terrorists.
Washington would have a lot more success in persuading Arab capitals to follow its lead, if the US took meaningful and practical measures to improve the political and security climate of Iraq by targeting Tehran’s subversive tentacles. While welcoming the tough warnings uttered in recent weeks by President Bush and his top national security deputies against the ayatollahs’ meddling in Iraq, many Arab leaders have opted for a wait-and-see approach, seeking specific actions.
The campaign to convince Iraq’s Arab neighbors would also stand a better chance if the US stepped up the arrest of Tehran’s agents in Iraq; cut off smuggling routes for weapons, explosives and funds; disarmed the Shiite militias, including the Badr Corp and the Mahdi Army; and purged the Iraqi government of Tehran's surrogates — essentially dismantling Iran's network in Iraq.
At the political level, Washington should realize that ultimately the loyalties of Maliki and the Shiite block he represents remain with the ayatollahs in Iran, and not with a unified, democratic Iraq. The administration must work instead, and provide better security for, the non-sectarian, independent Iraqis, empowering them to form a national unity government. For their part, Arab capitals must throw their diplomatic and political weight behind these patriotic Iraqi political leaders, regardless of their religious beliefs or ethnic backgrounds.
Alireza Jafarzadeh is the author of The Iran Threat: President Ahmadinejad and the Coming Nuclear Crisis (Palgrave: February 2008).
Jafarzadeh has revealed Iran's terrorist network in Iraq and its terror training camps since 2003. He first disclosed the existence of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility and the Arak heavy water facility in August 2002.
Until August 2003, Jafarzadeh acted for a dozen years as the chief congressional liaison and media spokesman for the U.S. representative office of Iran's parliament in exile, the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
Alireza Jafarzadeh, the deputy director of the Washington office of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, is credited with exposing Iranian nuclear sites in Natanz and Arak in 2002, triggering International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. He is the author of "The Iran Threat" (Palgrave MacMillan: 2008). His email is Jafarzadeh@ncrius.org, and is on twitter @A_Jafarzadeh.