Atul Aneja

Iran’s increasing influence in Iraq and Lebanon is part of a major political transformation in West Asia which has reached a decisive stage.

Within the space of one week in July, Iran recorded two major successes in West Asia. Through skilful diplomacy, it upstaged persistent efforts by Americans to consolidate their influence in two theatres of conflict — Iraq and Lebanon.

In Iraq, which shares a 1,458-km border with Iran, the government of Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki announced that American troops would not be stationed in the country permanently. Iran saw this momentous decision as a big strategic accomplishment. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 brought hostile American forces to Iran’s doorstep. This resulted in grave anxiety for Tehran as American troops were already positioned in Afghanistan. With the invasion of Iraq, the world’s best armed military force marked its presence along Tehran’s eastern and western borders.

However, by early July, Tehran had tangible reasons to conclude that it had achieved a stunning success. On July 7, Mr. Al Maliki told the region’s ambassadors in Abu Dhabi that Baghdad was not interested in an open-ended Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA) with the Americans. Such an arrangement, on the lines of post-World War-II U.S. agreements with Japan and Korea, would have meant a permanent American troop presence in Iraq.

On July 11, a new national unity government was formed in Lebanon, in which Iran’s allies, Hizbollah and Amal, acquired a position which insulated them against moves that could undermine their interests as well as those of their allies.

Elaborating Mr. Maliki’s remarks in Abu Dhabi, his National Security Adviser, Muwaffaq Al-Rubaie, said during a visit to Najaf on July 9: “We will not accept any memorandum of understanding [with the Americans] if it does not give a specific date for a complete withdrawal of foreign troops.” The government’s call had the sanction of the highly influential Ayatollah Ali Sistani, top Shia cleric in Iraq, who is a revered figure throughout the country. Why did the Maliki government defy the American script in Iraq?

It appears Iraqi nationalism and sectarian fears of being overwhelmed by the Sunni neighbours were some of the major factors that led to the move. However, astute and persistent Iranian diplomacy appears to have clinched the issue. Tehran relied on two major government factions — the Al Dawa party, to which Mr. Maliki belongs, and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) — to safeguard its interests. Iran had patiently cultivated the groups in a marathon effort that dates back several decades.

The tide was not necessarily flowing Iran’s way in Iraq during 2005-06. The former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, had worked hard to diminish Iranian influence in the country. The envoy specifically targeted the SIIC, which had acquired a high profile in Iraq’s security forces. The Interior Ministry, behind which the SIIC was the real force, was accused of using the state apparatus to achieve sectarian goals. The Ministry was blamed for operating torture chambers, where grave human rights abuses were perpetrated against Sunni groups.

After assuming that the SIIC had been chastened, the Americans invited the group’s leader, Abdulaziz Al Hakim, to Washington. In December 2006, he was feted in the White House by President George Bush. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met him again in November 2007.

During their meetings, the Iraqis reassured the Americans that they were restricting Iranian activity in Iraq. Mr. Maliki told the Americans that the Iranians had been persuaded to work on the Shia cleric Moqtada Al Sadr. This, according to him, was the key factor that led to the cleric declaring a ceasefire in August 2007. By November 2007, negotiations on stationing U.S. forces in Iraq began. In the next three months, American, British and Iraqi military forces planned a large-scale joint operation in Basra for summer 2008.

However, by March 7, the situation changed dramatically. The Americans sent the SoFA draft to the Iraqi government. The proposed agreement alarmed the Iraqis. There were glaring loopholes which raised suspicions about Washington’s real intentions in Iraq. For instance, the agreement did not provide Iraqis explicit security guarantees against a military attack. The omission aroused fears among Iraqis that they would be highly vulnerable to attacks by their Sunni neighbours, especially Turkey, Washington’s NATO ally. The Iraqis were also uncomfortable with the draft provision that excluded them from exercising any jurisdiction over American forces to be deployed following the accord. Besides, the clause that the Americans would control the Iraqi airspace was unacceptable. Both issues challenged Iraqi sovereignty and aroused deep nationalist feelings.

For the Iranians, the agreement crossed all “red lines” and was totally unacceptable. Tehran saw in the draft a U.S. plan to use Iraqi soil to implement the Americans’ “regime change” design. Iranian diplomacy, therefore, went into top gear once the Iraqis received the American draft.

A shift in Mr. Maliki’s position towards Americans now became visible. The first tangible sign came in March. Instead of waiting for the full-scale joint assault planned for summer, the Iraqi forces led an attack on Basra. The premature strike achieved two major objectives. It allowed the Sadirist forces to survive as Mr. Maliki’s forces were in no position to overwhelm them. More importantly, it opened the door for Iran’s emergence as the chief mediator in resolving intra-Shia disputes in Iraq. On the request of the Al Dawa and the SIIC, Iran negotiated for peace between Mr. Maliki’s government and the Sadirists.

The bonding between the government in Baghdad and the Iranians became transparent on other occasions as well. In late April, the Americans said the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, was preparing a document that would prove Iran’s complicity in fomenting “instability” in Iraq. The argument was that the weapons captured during the Basra operations and in Karbala bore Iranian hallmarks. The “international media,” according to the plan, would be taken to Karbala, where the weapons would be displayed. It was apparent that the document and the media circus that was to follow were part of a carefully choreographed exercise to drum up support against Iran, and weaken the sceptics in the U.S. Congress who were challenging the Bush administration’s version of events on Iraq.

However, Mr. Maliki’s government played a major role in foiling the U.S. plan. An Iraqi delegation which had just returned from Iran stated publicly that Tehran had another version that countered U.S. claims. On May 4, Mr. Maliki’s spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, told journalists that the Prime Minister was forming a Cabinet Committee that would probe Washington’s allegations on its own. As for the weapons, American experts who independently examined the cache in Karbala could not find any evidence that linked it to Iran.

The Iranians, who were now fully involved in intra-Shia confabulations, also helped Mr. Maliki’s government defuse tensions in the Sadirist stronghold of Sadr city in Baghdad. Aware that an all-out American assault on Sadr city was imminent, the Iranians encouraged the Iraqi government to hold talks with the Sadirists. The negotiations resulted in an accord that removed the raison d’etre for an American assault.

Like Iraq, Iran has registered substantial success in Lebanon. Its chief ally, the Lebanese Hizbollah, has grown from strength to strength in recent weeks. The Americans, with the help of the pro-western forces in the Lebanese establishment, stonewalled the Hizbollah’s efforts to translate its military achievements in the war against Israel in summer 2006 into concrete political accomplishments. The standoff between the Hizbollah and the pro-western March 14 forces, which reflected a larger rivalry between Iran and Syria vis-À-vis the U.S. and Israel, paralysed the functioning of the government in Beirut for over a year. The final showdown came in May when the government of Fouad Siniora decided to decommission the Hizbollah’s secure telecommunication network. The Hizbollah was also accused of monitoring flights from the Beirut airport. It retaliated aggressively against the move. Within hours, its forces had established physical control over Beirut and other key areas. The assertion of power by the Hizbollah finally forced a major policy change in the West. The Doha accord, which followed a month later, was a major achievement, as it allowed the formation of a new government in which the Hizbollah and its ally Amal were in a position to veto any major legislation. Following the formation of a new government, the Hizbollah successfully brought back from Israel all Lebanese prisoners and bodies of fighters who died in previous conflicts, as part of a swap with the Israelis.

Iran’s consolidation of influence in Iraq and Lebanon is part of a major political transformation West Asia is undergoing following the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the war the Hizbollah fought with Israel two years ago. With the established order in West Asia already unravelling due to the string of successes that Iran and its allies have registered, the political transition in the region has reached a decisive stage.