Thursday, October 11, 2007

They Don't Call It "Team Shiite" For Nothin'

A couple days back, Kevin Drum linked to Cernig's post which cited Stratfor's Iran-centric interpretation of the recent SIIC/Sadr truce, as discussed on this site here. From Stratfor:

Iran is feeling a sense of urgency in getting Iraq's Shiite house in order, particularly as the United States makes blatant efforts to band Iraq's Sunni factions together into a potentially formidable front against the Iranians. If Iran is to emerge as Iraq's kingmaker, therefore, it must find a way to overcome the fractious nature of Iraq's Shiite community and pull the main factions into one cohesive unit.

Sources in Iraq said in September that Al-Sadr had been in Iran, and it appears that this latest truce was signed in Tehran on Oct 3, when Al-Sadr was there to meet with al-Hakim. The Iranians have made clear to Al-Sadr that he must either cooperate and get his militia in line or face a massive purge led by Al-Hakim's Badr group. Al-Sadr appears to have complied.
Drum wondered whether, if true, this would suggest that it was the Iranians, not Sistani, who were behind the most recent attempt to create a Sadr/SIIC modus vivendi. But it doesn't have to be an either/or proposition - and likely isn't (a possibility that K-Drum considered as well). While Sistani and Iran's leadership don't see eye-to-eye on a number of matters, there is plenty of room for productive cooperation when it comes to supporting Shiite hegemony in Iraq. For both, that is the overriding, long term goal.

As mentioned by me in the earlier piece, and as suggested by Stratfor, one of the primary motivators for this latest truce was fear of the ever-increasing Sunni tilt by the Bush administration. The urgency created by pro-Sunni US maneuvering was no doubt felt by both Sistani and the Iranian leadership - not to mention Sadr and SIIC themselves (giving each corner of the deal an added incentive to act now).

Stratfor, to its credit, also accurately identifies the correct nature of Iran's ties/influence over various Iraqi Shiite groups (something the US media has been slow to pick up on):

Al-Hakim heads the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), Iraq's largest and most cohesive Shiite political faction, which has close ties to Iran. Al-Sadr leads his own political faction of al-Sadrites, a nationalist movement that historically has been wary of Tehran's influence in Iraq. The two leaders' militias-Al-Sadr's Mehdi Army and al-Hakim's Badr Organization-have been engaged in an intense and violent power struggle over Shiite control in the government and over oil resources in the South.

The Iranians are also heavily invested in al-Hakim's SIIC, which they view as the main vehicle to extend Iranian influence into Iraq. Iran has traditionally played Al-Sadr and al-Hakim's factions against one another to ensure that both depend on Tehran's good graces-but that policy has been more destructive than intended. Recognizing that Al-Sadr is a force to be reckoned with, Iran has decided it will be more worthwhile to co-opt him than to challenge him in the long run-though several obstacles will prevent Tehran from doing so.
This refreshing bit of insight runs counter to one of the preferred pro-war narratives: That Sadr is Iran's main proxy in Iraq. It's understandable that pro-war pundits would choose to target Sadr in this way. Such an association, however dubious, serves at least two purposes: First, since Sadr is the most vocally anti-occupation of the Shiite leaders, tying him to Iran helps to identify him as a radical force like Iran, and an enemy who is not acting on behalf of popular sentiment in Iraq. This makes for less "complex" storylines which are easier to sell to the public - and Rich Lowry.

Second, it would be exceedingly difficult for many on the pro-war side to rationalize a continued costly occupation in defense and support of an Iraqi government whose biggest ruling faction, SIIC, is the group with the closest ties to our putative enemy - Iran. That's the type of logical contortion that's been known to lead to spontaneous cranial combustion.

Stratfor is also correct to temper any conclusion that this month's version of the truce will last any longer than previous editions:
Whether this truce will last is another question, however. Al-Sadr's Mehdi Army is highly fragmented and is not nearly as disciplined as the Badr Organization. Though Al-Sadr has been making efforts to purge his militia of dissidents and has largely followed through on previous cease-fire calls during US military crackdowns, there is no guarantee he will be able to exert full control over his movement. Al-Sadr also is going to be more resistant to heeding Iran's demands on a number of issues, particularly those concerning the division of oil revenues.
However, with Sistani and Iran's leadership both pulling on the same end of the rope, and with the US making frightening overtures to Sunni elements, there is at least a fifty-fifty chance that the various Shiite factions can at least keep their competition in the south to manageable levels. Sustainable stability if you will.