Monday, February 26, 2007

The Sunnis, our Friends

No doubt understanding the ethnic and sectarian splits that divide the nations of the Middle East is a formidable task. Understanding who our friends and enemies are is complicated, and has only grown more difficult to resolve since the invasion of Iraq. First our enemy was the Sunni Al Qaeda, and their clients the Taliban. Then came the invasion of Iraq, followed by a largely Sunni insurgency, aided by Sunni foreign jihadists, opposed to the Shiite dominated government we helped to create. But Iran's influence has only grown for our troubles, and now our largely Shiite government in Iraq finds itself divided between it's affinity for Iran, and it's loyalty to us for having put it in place and arming it. Now our soliders take to the streets of Baghdad, anticipating possible conflict with Shiite militias reminiscent of 2004. Meanwhile, as Seymour Hersh reveals to us, our government is now working hand-in-hand with the Sunni ruling families of Saudi Arabia to counter Iran's influence, by funding Sunni militants to wage a proxy struggle throughout the Middle East with Iran and it's Shiite proxies:

To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the Administration has coƶperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran. The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.

Martin Indyk, a senior State Department official in the Clinton Administration who also served as Ambassador to Israel, said that “the Middle East is heading into a serious Sunni-Shiite Cold War.” Indyk, who is the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, added that, in his opinion, it was not clear whether the White House was fully aware of the strategic implications of its new policy. “The White House is not just doubling the bet in Iraq,” he said. “It’s doubling the bet across the region. This could get very complicated. Everything is upside down."

This desperate (for that's what it is) effort to counter Iranian influence, comes with ever more provocative acts aimed at the country:

President George W. Bush, in a speech on January 10th, partially spelled out this approach. “These two regimes”—Iran and Syria—“are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq,” Bush said. “Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We’ll interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.”

In the following weeks, there was a wave of allegations from the Administration about Iranian involvement in the Iraq war. On February 11th, reporters were shown sophisticated explosive devices, captured in Iraq, that the Administration claimed had come from Iran. The Administration’s message was, in essence, that the bleak situation in Iraq was the result not of its own failures of planning and execution but of Iran’s interference.

The U.S. military also has arrested and interrogated hundreds of Iranians in Iraq. “The word went out last August for the military to snatch as many Iranians in Iraq as they can,” a former senior intelligence official said. “They had five hundred locked up at one time. We’re working these guys and getting information from them. The White House goal is to build a case that the Iranians have been fomenting the insurgency and they’ve been doing it all along—that Iran is, in fact, supporting the killing of Americans.” The Pentagon consultant confirmed that hundreds of Iranians have been captured by American forces in recent months. But he told me that that total includes many Iranian humanitarian and aid workers who “get scooped up and released in a short time,” after they have been interrogated.

The Administration’s concern about Iran’s role in Iraq is coupled with its long-standing alarm over Iran’s nuclear program. On Fox News on January 14th, Cheney warned of the possibility, in a few years, “of a nuclear-armed Iran, astride the world’s supply of oil, able to affect adversely the global economy, prepared to use terrorist organizations and/or their nuclear weapons to threaten their neighbors and others around the world.” He also said, “If you go and talk with the Gulf states or if you talk with the Saudis or if you talk with the Israelis or the Jordanians, the entire region is worried. . . . The threat Iran represents is growing.”

Does that sort of talk sound familiar? It should. Again, I have to say that as little as three months ago I didn't believe that this administration had the stomach and the stupidity to pick a fight with Iran. The "surge" has convinced me that I was utterly wrong in my assessment. A President that is willing to send tens of thousands more soldiers into a war that most American repudiated at the polls in November, is a President who will not back away from a fight with Iran. I for one no longer trust this administration to operate with even a minimum of rationality; the national security apparatus is broken, and remains under the sway of Dick Cheney, the one person easily identifiable as being the most wrong about Iraq.

Our options as to Iran are woefully limited. Around 150,000 American soldiers sit across a border with Iran, and yet Iran exercises more influence in the Middle East than at anytime since 1979. Their proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, waged war with and held off the IDF last summer. Iran pursues a nuclear weapons program that it is unlikely we will have th power to stop.

Still, in the spirit of Vlahos, it would do well to see these circumstances for what they are. Our credibility and influence is damaged, but not destroyed. Iran will grow more powerful, but they can be reasoned with (and threatened.) Yes, we can live with an Iranian nuclear weapon (and the Israelis may have to, whether they wish to or not.) At this point our only long-term strategy is to attempt some sort of stable, and relatively peaceful relationship with Iran. But the only possible way we can do this is to stop the headlong rush to war with Iran that some in this administration seem determined to lead us into. I cannot emphasize enough that the only way to do this is to force Democrats to threaten any and all political consequences if such an attack takes place, including impeachment. We must make them make the Bush administration understand, for the sake of our country.

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