Mirages Within Mirages
Christopher Dickey, Newsweek:
Mideastern leaders are afraid that Tehran has sophisticated designs for the area from the gulf to the Mediterranean. Washington cannot afford to ignore this Iranophobia.
Sheikh Zaidan al Awad of the Abu Jaber tribe, dressed in a traditional robe and checkered headdress, put on his reading glasses to check a text message. He comes from Iraq’s war-torn Anbar province, but when the sheikh met with me in Jordan last week, he was staying in touch with his people by cell phone. We’d been talking about the death of Al Qaeda’s Abu Musssab al Zarqawi, who murdered four of the sheikh’s cousins. (The sheikh said his men then killed 11 of Zarqawi’s followers.) And we talked about the U.S. occupation forces. (“Now Zarqawi is gone, what is their excuse?” he demanded.) The sheikh has plenty of room in his heart to hate both the late Abu Mussab and the Americans.
But now the sheikh paused. “What’s coming toward us - our real problem,” he said, “is Iran.” The dark eyes in his sun-lined face searched to see if he’d been understood. “Zarqawi is one person. The Americans are occupiers: they will come in today and leave tomorrow. But the Iranian project for Iraq is annexation.” He sipped a glass of juice. “The occupation of the Americans, the terror of Zarqawi, is better than the ‘bliss’ of Iranian rule.” READ MORE
Washington needs to keep the sheikh’s Iranophobia in mind as it prepares for the first high-level meetings with the mullahs since the overthrow of the Shah more than a quarter of a century ago. No date has been set, but if those talks do take place, they won’t just be about Iranian nukes. The future of the whole Middle East will be under discussion. And it’s not only Iraq’s Sunni sheikhs who worry that Washington will sell out to Iran and the Iraqi Shi’a factions it supports. Many of Washington’s old allies in Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia—who helped the United States isolate Iran in the past—worry that somehow they’ll be sold out, too.
Ugly as Saddam Hussein’s regime was, it had been the main counterbalance to Iranian power. When the Bush administration ousted the Butcher of Baghdad, the United States became the only force that could contain the ayatollahs’ ambitions. Now the Americans, bled white in Iraq over the last three years, look like they want out of this fight. And President George W. Bush’s grandstanding visit to Baghdad this afternoon won’t do much to reverse that impression.
As a senior Jordanian security official puts it, “The Iranians are touring the region telling everybody, ‘We are the major power here. We are stronger than the Americans—even in the Green Zone’” (the high-security enclave the U.S. has created for American and Iraqi officials in the heart of Baghdad). “Now Iran is the guardian of the Shi’a community in Iraq, and guardian of the Shi’a in the Gulf,” says the official. “It is the godfather of [President] Bashar al-Assad in Syria, the patron of Hizbullah [in Lebanon], the backer of external [Syrian-based] Hamas. We are witnessing the creation of a Farsi empire.”
Many American analysts think this is a self-serving fantasy. At a symposium on “The Emerging Shi’a Crescent” last week at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, influential academic Fouad Ajami made fun of the fear-mongers. “This idea of this Shi'a monster running away with Iraq is a legend,” said Ajami, who comes from a Lebanese Shi’a background and was an enthusiastic supporter of the 2003 Iraq invasion. “It’s legend.”
Ajami scoffed at warnings about Iranian imperialism from Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. “What does it mean when King Abdullah says ‘the Shi'a crescent?’ It means, ‘Help me. Invest in me, and I will be the praetorian guard of the Sunni order.’” Sure, said Ajami, “it shall be a bumpy ride for a while.” Yes, it will get bloody: “The idea that the Shi'a will make their claim on political power in the affairs of the Arab world and that it will be peaceful is not really tenable,” said Ajami, but “you just have to be willing to cede people claims to their own country.”
Well, King Abdullah might be forgiven for wanting to avoid another “bumpy ride” like the one going on right now in Iraq. And to be fair, the term “Shi’a crescent” was always an oversimplification of his concern. What the Jordanian monarch and his intelligence officers are warning about is a much more sophisticated Iranian design using overt, covert, economic, religious, propaganda and diplomatic penetration of an area from the gulf to the Mediterranean - with the specter of Iranian nukes now looming in the background. As the Jordanians see it, while Washington searches for the right notes to hit in the region (tapping out “Chopsticks”), Iran is playing a symphony.
Sectarian Shi’a politics are really just a single chord, and a muted one at that. Vali Nasr, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the symposium last week that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his supporter believe “the best way for Iran to assume the position of the regional great power is to divert attention away from sectarianism and to focus it on Israel and the United States.” Iran has exploited the issue of blasphemous cartoons, rhetoric about wiping Israel off the map and Holocaust denial, says Nasr, “because this creates a kind of Islamic unity that rises above the Shi'a-Sunni issue.”
When Zarqawi issued his infamous “fatwa” ordering his followers to kill the Shi’a “anywhere, anytime, anyhow,” as Nasr points out, the powerful deputy commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards gave a rare interview to declare “he didn’t believe there is such a thing as Zarqawi, [but] that these are Zionist agents that are sent to divide Muslims.”
Mirages within mirages. Jordanian security officials say that Zarqawi, the infamous slaughterer of the Shi’a, had a longstanding “relationship” with, you guessed it, Iran. When he was running an Al Qaeda-linked training camp near the Afghan city of Herat in 2001, he and his deputy “were going back and forth to Iran all the time,” according to a Jordanian security official. “After the fall of Kabul, Iran was Zarqawi’s first refuge.” In 2002, Iranian intelligence officers asked Zarqawi to go from Iran to the north of Iraq to join radicals there in the Kurdish mountains. Meanwhile, he got money from an Arab sheikh described by the Jordanians as “the financial sponsor of Al Qaeda” operating out of Iran.“After Zarqawi got more famous, Iran started using him to further its policies in Iraq,” said the same official. “Its whole aim was to use Zarqawi as a trump card against the Americans.” To play Zarqawi didn’t mean controlling him, only exploiting the fears he helped to create. The Bush administration would be mistrusted by the Sunnis for selling out to Iran, while the Shi’a would attack it for compromising with the Sunnis. “The Iranians, they have the time,” says another veteran of Jordan’s intelligence service. “They say, ‘Let the United States clear the way for us. The U.S. is taking all the blame. We are taking the apple when the apple is ripe.”
Yes, there is an element of paranoid fantasy in all this, but in the Middle East, where solid information is hard to come by, fear is a fact in itself. Fighting the Iranian enemy, real or imagined, the warriors of Anbar will continue to attack anyone who gets in their way. Sheikh Zaidan sipped his glass of juice. “The black days of the Americans are coming,” he said.