The Problem with Confronting Iran

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U.S. Navy / AP

The USS John C. Stennis.

As if the Bush Administration didn't have a sufficiently tough challenge in securing Iraq in the face of insurgency and sectarian conflict, it has now added curbing Iran to its to-do list. Last week's raid in the Kurdish city of Erbil on a building claimed by Iran and the Kurds as a consular facility that saw the arrest of five Iranian officials signaled the onset of an aggressive push-back against Iranian influence in Iraq. And it's not only the Iranians that are unhappy about the new development.

President Bush's speech outlining a new approach to Iraq warned that it could not be stabilized without "addressing" Iran. But his plans to move aircraft carriers and missile defense batteries into the region signaled that by "address" he wasn't envisaging the sort of diplomatic engagement advocated by the Iraq Study Group. Bush and other officials have amplified their denunciations of Iranian "meddling" in Iraq, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice indicated that the President had signed an order authorizing a broad military campaign against Iranian networks operating inside Iraq. In an interview with TIME, Rice even said that she could not rule out the possibility that U.S. troops might cross the Iraq border into Iran in pursuit of Iranians suspected of moving weapons to Iraqi militias. > U.S. officials stress that the purpose here is simply protecting U.S. troops, but a number have reportedly said the purpose is to counter Iranian efforts to thwart the U.S. in Iraq — and, according to the New York Times, also to curb Iran's ambitions to strengthen its strategic influence in the region through its primacy in Iraq.

But did anybody ask the Iraqis? While U.S. officials commonly use terms such as "meddling" to describe Iranian involvement in Iraq — an accusation echoed by Sunni leaders inside Iraq and by the Sunni Arab regimes with which Secretary Rice has been meeting in recent days — the Shi'ite and Kurdish parties that lead Iraq's government don't share Washington's animus towards Tehran; in both cases they have close ties with Iran forged during years of exile and warfare.

So, it should have come as no surprise that the Kurds protested furiously at the U.S. raid on an Iranian facility on their turf. While U.S. officials talk about curbing meddling and say the men arrested were part of Iran's Revolutionary Guard armed forces, Kurdish leaders — including Iraq's foreign minister Hoyshar Zebari — have demanded the release of the arrested Iranians and slammed the U.S. for failing to check with them before launching the operation.

The reaction to the Erbil arrests could be a foretaste of things to come as the U.S. ramps up its operations against Iran inside Iraq. Tehran enjoys far warmer ties than Washington does with the Shi'ite ruling alliance in Iraq, ties that have been regularly affirmed by high-profile visits to Tehran by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani (a Kurd) and other key leaders such as recent White House guest Abdulaziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). As long as Washington's objective was to oust Saddam and enable the democracy that put the Shi'ites in power, there was no conflict for Iran's longtime Iraqi allies between cooperating with the Americans and maintaining close ties to Iran. Now, Washington looks to be changing the game.

Recent and past history offers little reason to believe the Kurds and Shi'ites will back U.S. moves against Iranian influence in Iraq. Not only are the main Shi'ite parties traditionally far closer to Iran than they are to Washington, but the Kurds add a pragmatic rationale for seeking good relations with the Islamic republic. As Foreign Minister Zebari explained to CNN on Sunday, Iraq's leaders know they will have to "live with" Iran next door — whereas Washington's presence in Iraq is temporary. President Talabani appeared to signal his independence from U.S. foreign policy on Sunday when he became the first Iraqi head of state in 30 years to meet his Syrian counterpart in Damascus, only days after President Bush had denounced Syria for enabling terrorism in Iraq.

Washington has made no secret of its frustration with successive democratically elected governments in Iraq over issues such as national reconciliation and going after sectarian militias. That frustration may only increase as the U.S. in Iraq turns up the heat on Iran.