Admiral Mike Mullen made a blunt and truthful statement which has not been well received in Tehran. The only thing at all wrong with the admiral's remarks was their tardy nature. It is not inaccurate to characterize the chairman's accusation of Iranian complicity in the uptick of attacks on Americans in Iraq as yesterday's news.
With or without the active participation (or even the presence in country) of Moqtada al-Sadr, the famed anti-American Shiite paramilitary leader and part-time student of Islam, the ayatollahs and their goons of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps have pursued national interest in Iraq. The view from Tehran is simply that religion trumps national identity or, if that isn't enough motivation, the Iraqi Shiites have decades of scores to settle against the minority Sunnis who ran the place from the time of the British Mandate through the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
The ready presence of the Shiite fighters of the Sadrists seemed to underscore the accuracy of the Iranian calculations. The enigmatic and illusive figure of Moqtada al-Sadr confused the picture to some extent--in the estimates of both American and Iranian decision makers. Sadr played two cards with equal skill: Confessional loyalty and nationalism. As he switched between the two, his eyes remained firmly on the prize he sought. Not surprisingly, the prize was and remains power.
Sadr has no desire to sit on the throne. He knows all too well that not only is the head which wears the crown likely to sleep uneasily but in Iraq for some time to come crown wearers are quite likely to lose both crown and the head under it. Sadr wanted and wants to be the ultimate power behind the throne. In pursuit of this end, the crafty cleric is willing to use Iranian assistance--if it is low profile enough.
He has been careful, very careful to keep daylight between himself and the theocrats of Tehran as well as the current crop of Shiite terrorists. He understands quite well that the old Iraqi proverb holding that no fruit tastes as good as the product of one's own orchard applies today among Iraqis of all stripes. To be seen as a tool or proxy of the Ayatollahs would be fatal to Sadr's ambitions. All the more since he has achieved the long coveted status of Grey Eminence following his agreement to support al-Maliki--a promise of support which has become increasingly important as Maliki has lost popularity generally.
Sadr's hand will be strengthened by the completion of the American withdrawal. His highest public priority has been that of seeing the last American posterior hitting the Kuwaiti border at year's end. Ironically, accomplishment of this much desired result is being compromised by the Iranian uptick of direct support for the Shiite insurgents who have been attacking Americans as well as Iraqis.
The Deep Thinkers of Tehran apparently have convinced themselves that the infliction of fatalities on US personnel is the best way of assuring the American withdrawal. The take in Tehran is simple: Neither the American president nor the American people have the stomach for more death.
In this assessment the Deep Thinkers in Tehran may be correct. We the People want no more of our own killed in Iraq. The current administration and congress would like very much to see an end to our Great Adventure in Regime Change. But, the view inside Baghdad is different. So is the perspective from the Pentagon.
The Pentagon is afraid, very afraid that any final American withdrawal would now be seen by not only the Iranians but promoters of violent political Islam everywhere as having been forced upon us by the efforts of the jihadists. Such a conclusion might be totally wrong, but it will be drawn nonetheless. A previous generation of advocates of violent political Islam including Osama bin Laden wrongly concluded that it was the efforts of the "Arab fighters," the "martyrdom seekers," who defeated the Red Army in Afghanistan. This work of fiction would be emulated next January if the US withdraws according to the current Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraq.
It is to preclude this possibility and the evils which would flow from it (among other reasons) which has propelled the Defense Department to seek a modification of the SOFA. Even a small (10,000) man package of combat capable personnel would prevent the false claim of military victory on the part of the Islamists.
The politicians of Baghdad along with many in the Iraqi military establishment favor a continued, low footprint American presence. The leaders of the Kurds strongly support the idea. Within the beleaguered Sunni areas of Anbar province, the support is both wide and deep. Only Sadr is opposed.
Despite his opposition, there is very little probability that Sadr would seek to veto the idea should it be strongly and evidently favored by the other elements of Iraqi politics. To do so would be to put himself publicly in league with the Iranians. This would undercut his power in Iraq. Not a good idea from the Sadr perspective.
It would be best for Sadr if he could convince his Iranian comrades to call off their private war. By doing so, the American desire to stay lest they appear to have been defeated would be eroded. By lowering the climate of fear, the badly divided Iraqi political structure would be fragmented so that no unified support for a modification in the SOFA would develop. And, it would make Sadr even more of a critical broker of power.
It is highly unlikely that Tehran would listen to Sadr even should he make the outlined argument. Considering the dynamic in Syria there is real anxiety that Tehran is about to lose their only Arab state ally. This implies that Iraq looms larger today than in the past as an Iranian Shiite outpost in the Arab world. Tehran knows perfectly well that any American presence reduces greatly their hopes of turning Baghdad into a replacement for Damascus.
The strongest probability is that Tehran will not only continue but increase its support for the Shiite groups which have been carrying out the attacks. This is a calculated risk. The ayatollahs must believe that when push comes to shove, Sadr will carry Tehran's water within the circles of the Maliki government. Or, even better, Sadr will whistle up the supposedly disarmed Sadrist militias. Whether the Deep Thinkers of Tehran are right or not depends on Sadr's commitment to his faith: does his identity as a Shiite outweigh or not his identity as an Iraqi?
Sadr probably does not even know his own mind here. His actions and words over the past nine years have been those of a man quite confused about his identity much as he knows his priorities. Often he has tried to ride the horse of religion and that of nationalism simultaneously. Inevitably, he has fallen one way or the other. His recurrent prolonged trips to "study" in Qom show the crisis of conscious which results each time he falls to the side of nationalism at the expense of Shia.
Perhaps his thinking would be clarified if someone were to whisper in his ear, "Iraqis are more likely to trust a fellow Iraqi with power than an Iranian in Iraqi costume." That is a sentiment one can take to the bank in Iraq.