Here is what Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, had to say about Iranian influence in Iraq during the recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing:
“I think Prime Minister Maliki – I think he understands that he – his country cannot allow Iran to be able to conduct that kind of influence within his country, provide those kinds of weapons and basically undermine his government.
That’s what’s happening and I think he gets that message. But we’re going to have to continue to make sure that – that they take the right steps and I think Iran needs to understand that we’re going to be around awhile here, making very clear to them that we’re not – we’re not simply going to ignore what Iran is doing in – in Iraq.”
Once more, it seems, the United States government is pre-occupied with so-called “special groups” as the prime instrument of malign Iranian influence in Iraq. Kataib Hizbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haqq and the Promised Day Brigades are reckoned as the most dangerous pro-Iranian challenges to political stability in Iraq and have even been elevated to the status of an acronym (SG) in American military terminology – probably the safest possible indication that you are taken seriously in DC. Of course, some US analysts also include the mainline Sadrist movement on their lists of potential Iraqi troublemakers.
The problem with this approach to the subject of Iranian influence in Iraq is its myopic, one-sided character. It ignores at least two other key aspects of Iranian strategy: Maintaining a sectarian definition of politics and keeping de-Baathification as a key issue on the political agenda in Iraq. We can probably add a third aspect: A touch of “divide and rule” once a sectarian Shiite governing coalition had been safely put in place again in December 2010. This could include encouraging general state fragmentation, be it through federalism or consociational “power-sharing” with merely symbolic value.
The problem in Iraq is not so much that these aspects of Iranian grand strategy go undetected by Washington. The problem in Iraq is that Washington actively abets Iranian strategy in these areas. In 2010, during the run-up to the parliamentary elections, Ambassador Christopher Hill basically extended support to the process of ad hoc, illegal pre-election de-Baathification. Once the elections had been done with, Hill went on to endorse the sectarian idea that the next Iraqi premier “had to be a Shiite”. With this kind US support for most of its strategy in Iraq, Iran can afford to use the “special groups” as an auxiliary to its general approach, adjusting its force in a secondary cat and mouse game with what remains of US military forces there.
Alas, in the Middle Eastern region more broadly, there are worrying signs that the Americans are unable to comprehend what went so seriously wrong in Iraq. In a recent (20 September) New York Times article on Syria, an unnamed US official declared that “nobody wants another Iraq”. But the whole article suggested that precisely those same epistemological mistakes that derailed US policy in Iraq are still thriving in Washington. Here were quotes from Vali Nasr, talking as before about “Sunnis” and “Shiites” as if these constituted coherent monolithic communities. And the article author, Helene Cooper, remarked, “the United States has been exploring how to deal with the possibility of a civil war among the Allawite, Druse, Christian and Sunni sects in Syria” before adding that the US ambassador remains in the country “so he can maintain contact with opposition leaders and the leaders of Syria’s myriad sects and religious groups.”
In Iraq it was “mosaic”; maybe in Syria it will be “myriad”. It is a good thing that the US cannot seem to have the courage to intervene in Syria. Maybe it would be even better if Washington and the US mainstream media at large would simply shut up before they talk Syria to pieces exactly like they did with Iraq?
This is a companion article to a more analytical piece published in the Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel, titled “Religious Allegiances among Pro-Iranian Special Groups in Iraq”. The comments section is open for both articles below.