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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Iran, Iraq, and the United States: The New Triangle's Impact on Sectarianism and the Nuclear Threat

Iran, Iraq, and the United States: The New Triangle's Impact on Sectarianism and the Nuclear Threat - Cover

Authored by Dr. Sherifa D. Zuhur.

November 2006

88 Pages

Brief Synopsis

This monograph considers the issues of Iranian influence in Iraq, and its impact on continuing sectarian violence there. It also questions the claims that a Shi'a crescent of power is solidifying by examining the distinct features of Iraqi versus Iranian Shi'ism and political Islam. Iran and Iraq have historically influenced and threatened each other. Today, the situation has been further complicated by the post-2003 change in the Iraqi Shi'a community’s status, Iran's development of a nuclear program, and international efforts to contain that program. These issues are now influenced by a new pattern of Iraqi-Iranian, U.S.-Iraqi and Iranian-U.S. dynamics. This new triangle of state relations must also be considered in light of Iraq and Iran’s neighbors.


What is the best possible response to growing Iranian influence in Iraq? How does this issue relate to the crisis over Iran’s efforts to obtain nuclear capabilities? Can the United States leverage one issue against the other, offering Iran incentives to shift down its nuclear program and, at the same time, withhold judgment on that country’s influence in Iraq? Or are these concerns best dealt with separately from the American policy perspective? Beyond American foreign policy and policy analysis, European, Arab, Israeli, Russian, and Chinese interests are factors in the new equation.

Perhaps there is no optimal response to an Iran determined to acquire nuclear capabilities, nor to an Iraqi Shi’i revival fostered or enhanced by Iranian “soft power.” Still, to understand the dire predictions about the growth of Shi`a power, or to offer constructive advice about the trilateral relations of Iran, Iraq, and the United States, we must consider Iraqi-Iranian popular, religious, and state-level dynamics. If we appreciate the strongly varying interests and political experience of the Shi`a of Iraq and Iran, our fears of the dire scenarios predicted in the Arab world may diminish.

Iran and Iraq historically have influenced and threatened each other. However, the triangle of U.S.-Iraq-Iran relations outweighs the two Middle Eastern states’ bilateral history, their contrasting political aims, respective grievances, and competition. Now, Iran’s nuclear ambitions cast a shadow on the future of both countries, the Arabian Gulf states, Israel, and American forces and facilities in the region.

European efforts to extend incentives to Iran so that it would cease uranium enrichment contrasted with the American administration’s initial approach to the dilemma. The U.S. offer to join multistate negotiations with Iran in June 2006, breaking with 27 years of official silence, was conditional on Iran’s promise to give up uranium enrichment. Yet, European nations already had attempted negotiations with Iran in lieu of its compliance with International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) conditions.

Are these differing approaches to diplomacy the outcome or a reflection of varying responses to the war in Iraq? Does the American posture stem from longtime anger over the 1979 hostage crisis? Its projection for Iran in the “New Middle East”? European nations sometimes claim to be more knowledgeable about the Middle East than the United States due to their firsthand experiences in the colonial and Mandate eras and their lengthier tradition of Oriental studies. Possibly this could enhance their pragmatism, resignation, diplomatic skills, or policy approaches to Middle Eastern democratization, or the issue of proliferation. European nations also may be more sanguine about the potential for containing radical Islam in the region than the United States is.

When regime change in Iraq became a certainty, nearly all observers realized that the Shi`a of Iraq could only gain political influence in a new government organized on a representational basis. Leading figures in the Arab world, as well as some Westerners, sounded the alarm on Iran’s goals in a weakened Iraq. In some cases, their charges proceed from the claim that Shi`a influence or Iranian-style militant fundamentalism has increased throughout the region. The Shi`a, in Iraq as elsewhere in the Middle East and Central Asia, have been accused of being Iranian agents. But some believe, like Reuel Marc Gerecht, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, that Iraqi nationalism provides the best defense against undue Iranian influence. Or, that foreign nations have other reasons for calling “wolf” in Iraq, namely, their Iran policies.

One even hears that the Shi`a could be a positive force offsetting or detracting from radical Sunni salafism. This idea stands in stark contrast to the vision of Iraq as a future Islamic Republic, or at least, the breeding ground of a new Hizbullah. Some observers, like Thomas Friedman, foreign affairs columnist at the New York Times, urge others not to make too much of an Iranian bogeyman, pointing out that Iran had and will continue to have influence in Iraq, but that it is the Shi’i Iraqis whose status had been transformed.

In contrast, Iran’s political system has not changed, and there is probably little hope for encouraging reform from afar. In fact, Islamic revolutionary values are being reinvigorated by the new President, Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Has he become a lightening rod for populist sentiment in Iran, a catalyst for anti-American and anti-Western grievances? Under his leadership, and that of a young Iraqi government struggling with daily crises, how will these two very important situations play out and what sorts of resulting risks and threats may be anticipated in the future?

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