In the spring of 2003, shortly after US-led forces captured Baghdad with surprising speed, more than a few western analysts began to foretell winds of change blowing toward Tehran. Reconsider the possibilities: Iraq’s burgeoning (secular) democracy would serve as a model for Iran, or perhaps inspire envious Iranians to rise up against their anti-democratic mullahs; Baghdad’s fall and the subsequent envelopment of Iran by US troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Persian Gulf sheikhdoms would frighten Tehran’s ruling mullahs into improving their behavior; Iran’s most respected Shiite scholars and clerics–the majority of whom are opposed to Khomeini-style theocratic rule (velayat-e faqih)–would take flight from Qom to Najaf, where they could freely criticize the Islamic Republic’s religious legitimacy and potentially incite ! the masses. For those familiar with the depth of popular discontent in Iran, such scenarios did not appear outside the realm of possibility.
Such scenarios, however, assumed a smooth post-war execution in Iraq. While Bush administration officials talked of how success in Iraq would change the political culture of the Middle East, few seemed to contemplate the regional repercussions for Washington if the post-war did not go as planned. In the case of Iran, the chaotic state of post-war Iraq has served not to intimidate Tehran’s mullahs but rather to embolden them. Today, nearly 17 months after the fall of Baghdad, Iran’s Islamic regime appears more entrenched than it has been in over a decade.
According to many analysts, US post-war difficulties in Iraq are due in large part to Iranian meddling. While on its own this explanation is overly facile, there is certainly some truth to it. Given that various Bush administration officials and advisors intimated that Tehran should be next after Baghdad, it is logical that Iran would do its best to make sure that the post-war transition in Iraq was anything but smooth. At the same time, however, Tehran’s leadership has been cognizant of the fact that a civil war in Iraq–with the potential to spill over the Iranian border–is not in its interest either. Hence Iran’s de-facto policy of "contained chaos": generate enough unrest in Iraq to dissuade the US from contemplating regime change in Iran, but refrain from supporting a full-fledged insurrection.
Rather than put its money on one specific horse, Iran has diversified its Iraqi portfolio. Both Moqtada Sadr, the radical young Shiite cleric who advocates an Islamic Republic of Iraq, and Ahmad Chalabi, the secular Shiite ex-pat with close ties to Bush administration officials, have links to Tehran. Above all, however, Iran seems to support the will of the seemingly moderate, respected Iran-born cleric Ayatollah Sistani. Given a one-person, one-vote democratic election in Iraq, it is widely assumed that those aligned with Sistani would emerge victorious. And given Sistani’s religious and cultural ties to Iran, Tehran is confident that a Sistani victory would ensure that its influence in Iraq exceeds that of Washington. For this reason, the idea of a democratically elected Iraqi government seems cause for greater concern in Washington than Tehran.
Iran has displayed a similar combination of duplicity and cunning with regard to its nuclear strategy. Despite US and Israeli threats and the risk of European condemnation, Tehran has shown little sign of retreat. Iranian officials–from Khatami to Khamenei to Rafsanjani–have consistently insisted that Iran is not interested in pursuing a nuclear weapons program. "We are ready to do everything necessary to give guarantees that we won’t seek nuclear weapons," Khatami said recently. "As Muslims, we can’t use nuclear weapons. One who can’t use nuclear weapons won’t produce them." Given Iran’s dubious track record with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), however, few are convinced. "What they’re doing is the equivalent of buying a $25,000 ball point pen," one nuclear analyst familiar with Iran’s program told me. "If their sole interest is to build a civilian nuclear energy program, they’re doing far more than what’s necessary."
In addition to its nuclear ambitions, the vacuum caused by the US removal of Saddam Hussein allows Tehran to be open about its ambitions for regional hegemony. Former head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Mohsen Rezaii succinctly summed up Tehran’s aspirations. "Why shouldn’t Iran be the flag-bearer of peace, justice, development and democracy in the region? The region cannot have stability and security in the absence of Iran and all nations need Iran’s presence, even the Americans." After years of putting intangible Islamic interests ahead of national interests, Iran’s ascendant conservatives have ironically begun to use the same rhetoric once used by Mohammed Reza Shah three decades prior. Then as now, Iran’s neighbors are likely to view Tehran’s self-anointed role as policeman of the Gulf with a certain degree of wariness.
But while Iran’s hand seems to have been temporarily strengthened, it is still far too early to tell the ultimate reverberations of the Iraq war. Just as Iraq’s future hangs in the balance, so does that of its neighbors. So far, however, Tehran’s ruling mullahs have far more reason to be smiling than their counterparts in Washington. Rather than extinguish Iran’s Islamic regime, the Iraq war seems to have given it new life.