Iran's crucial role in shaping the future of Iraq was conveyed in a subtle threat made this week by the country's key power broker, former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
The United States is "stuck in the mud in Iraq, and they know that if Iran wanted to, it could make their problems even worse," Rafsanjani said in an interview with the Tehran daily Kayhan. He coyly opened the door to a Washington-Tehran dialogue about Iraq and other issues, saying, "For me, talking is not a problem."
The hard-line mullahs in Tehran are sitting pretty these days: America has toppled their historical foe, Saddam Hussein, and is struggling with a nasty postwar insurgency. Meanwhile, an Iranian-born Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has emerged as the dominant figure in the new Iraq.
Sistani this month forced U.S. occupation czar L. Paul Bremer to abandon his plan for regional caucuses to select a transitional government. The cleric said yesterday he would accept an interim government if elections were held by the end of this year. But his statement cautioned that the interim government shouldn't make "binding" decisions, which could prevent it from approving a future U.S. military role in Iraq -- as American officials had hoped.
The Iranian mullahs have consolidated political control at home, too. Determined to crush opposition, they simply vetoed reform candidates from running in the recent parliamentary elections. It was a naked power grab, and it worked.
Anyone in the White House who imagines that the Iranians are running scared because more than 100,000 U.S. troops are bivouacked next door hasn't been reading the papers. From Iran's standpoint, the United States is pinned down and vulnerable. And because of Tehran's overt and covert influence among Iraq's Shiite majority, the mullahs may actually be in a position to shape the terms and timing of America's departure.
"To have America in a difficult but not impossible situation in Iraq is good for Iran," says Olivier Roy, a French professor who is a leading analyst of Iranian affairs. "They are absolutely convinced that America will not try for a regime change in Iran now. They think it's too late for that."
Tehran wants to keep the pot boiling in Iraq rather than allow a smooth transition to a pro-Western democracy. "They don't want to see a strong Iraq return, even if it's headed by Shiite Muslims," explains Roy, whose new book, "Globalized Islam," will be published this year.
Iran has an array of tools to influence Iraq. Revolutionary Guards and Iranian intelligence officers have been operating in Iraq for years, and they have deep and durable networks. If nothing else, these Iranian agents can get tens of thousands of Iraqi Shiites on the streets to protest the U.S. occupation.
The hotheaded young Iraqi mullah Moqtada Sadr is also useful to Tehran. U.S. officials had hoped to break the back of Sadr's movement with a crackdown on his followers late last year. They were even thinking of arresting him for complicity in the murder of pro-Western Shiite cleric Abdel Majid Khoei, who was killed in Najaf on April 10. But the arrest hasn't happened, perhaps because of fears it would upset Iraqi Shiites.
A more benign friend of Tehran is Iraqi opposition leader Ahmed Chalabi, who serves on the Governing Council and has allied himself in recent weeks with Sistani. Though he has long been the Pentagon's favorite Iraqi politician, Chalabi has cultivated good relations with Tehran, visiting there before and after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Indeed, some of the Shiite militiamen Chalabi brought with him to Iraq last April are said to have been trained in Iran.
"Our cooperation with Iran is very good. One can argue that Iran has cooperated with us more than any other neighbor," Chalabi told the Iranian Student News Agency in December, according to the online newsletter Stratfor.
Finally, there is the bearded figure of Ayatollah Sistani. His Web site, at www.sistani.org, certainly is focused on religious issues, rather than politics. The site answers questions on everything from sex to gambling. (For his explicit advice, consult the site.) Sistani's supporters stress that his "quietist" version of Shiite Islam is the opposite of the Iranian model of clerical rule.
By successfully defying Bremer, Sistani is now Iraq's key political personality. Western liberals fear he will create a Shiite-dominated Iraq that imposes sharia, or religious, law and curtails human rights. The main check on this consolidation of Iraqi Shiite power, strange as it sounds, may be Tehran.
For now, the Iranians don't seem to have an interest in a stable Iraq, no matter who leads it. But as Rafsanjani's comment suggests, they may be ready to bargain.