In a sense, it doesn’t matter whether Americans think Iran has too much influence in Iraq. Sunnis, in both Iraq and the larger region, increasingly think Iran has too much influence there — and that’s what matters to developments on the ground. Iraqi Sunnis have friends in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but they are also a natural recruiting ground for al-Qaeda. A Sunni revolt against Iranian influence will not be carried out in the Iraqi editorial pages.
The pace of events has accelerated in the last two weeks. Iraq has been without a governing coalition since March, but on October 1, radical Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr — who has lived in Iran since 2007, studying with the country’s most senior clerics — announced his backing of Nouri al-Maliki, the incumbent prime minister and head of the caretaker government. The U.S. has asked Maliki to distance himself from Sadr as a condition of continued American support. But things aren’t that simple, primarily because President Obama has made it so clear that American support to an Iraqi government doesn’t mean what it meant two years ago. Obama has declared combat “over” in Iraq and is withdrawing troops as he promised. To function independently, however, what Maliki needs is the guarantee of active U.S. force at his back — and that is precisely what Obama is busy removing.
The UK Guardian has a remarkably detailed article from the weekend outlining the collusion of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah in the Maliki-Sadr hook-up. (See companion piece here.) I’m routinely somewhat skeptical of Guardian stories, but in addition to its extensive detail, this one is bolstered by echoes in the Arabic press of the energetic shuttle diplomacy by the principal actors. The reaction from the region’s loose Sunni coalition certainly seems to validate the Guardian’s facts; as outlined by the Al-Ahram piece linked at the top, Iraqi Sunnis have kicked into overdrive a campaign for support from the Sunni nations (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey).
It’s against this background that the defection to al-Qaeda of the “Anbar Awakening” Sunnis must be understood. Almost every nation in the Middle East is trying to “fix” the outcome in Iraq — a reality that is largely invisible to Americans, but is one of the two main factors in the Sunni defection. The other is the perception that Obama’s America is inert and irrelevant to the power competition in Iraq. Meanwhile, Iran has launched an aggressive, activist phase in its regional policy, a trend amplified by Ahmadinejad’s triumphal visit to Lebanon last week. The U.S. could have averted the visit; that it did not has reinforced our Obama-era image of feckless passivity at the worst possible times.
According to the Guardian, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s condition for supporting the Maliki-Sadr coalition is a guarantee that all U.S. troops will leave Iraq in 2011. In the absence of clear, assertive U.S. policy, we will find ourselves increasingly boxed in by the plans of opponents who want to make our policy for us. In many cases, the opponents will be terrorists.