It has now become cliche to say that when President George W. Bush launched a war with Iraq in 2003, the expectation existed that a dictator would be toppled and somehow liberal democracy would emerge and flourish. It has also become cliche, at this point, to say that the result was something far worse - instead of peace and the spread of liberal values, we saw chaos, widespread sectarian violence, political corruption and a decrease in regional stability.
This much is obvious and well documented, and frankly, I think serious students of Middle Eastern history were not surprised by the results. This is not to say that Saddam Hussein was anything other than a brutal, inhuman dictator who was responsible for the torture and gruesome deaths of countless people - he was clearly that - but I do think that in retrospect the White House, State Department and others working on the ground following the invasion would have made more progress if they had tried to plant the seeds of civil society, instead of attempting to jump right into a fully functioning democratic form of government. By leapfrogging over this crucial step and attempting to elect and seat a representative government with haste, I believe that politicians were able to come into power who brought with them their own disastrously sectarian agendas, the net result of which was a further fracturing of Iraq, not only socially, but geographically.
There have been no shortage of terrible outcomes as a result of a weak central government in Baghdad, but the thing that worries me the most is the degree to which Iran has been able to take advantage of this instability to further its own agenda within the country. The spread of ISIS, the use of Iraqi soil as a training ground by terrorists who may return to the West, the persecution of Christians and other minorities - all of these things are fairly awful on their own, but in my mind, the greatest long term threat emerging out of this bedlam on the Euphrates is the rise of an increasingly expansionist Iran.
Kepel's assessment of the meddlesome role of Iran inside Iraq - published in 2008 - has only been validated by time. From the presence of Iranian agents inside the country, to Tehran's provision of Explosively Formed Penetrators and other advanced weapons to Iraqi militias, Iran has done nothing
in the context of negotiations with Iran over its pursuit of nuclear weapons, I would argue that those doing the talking should (and hopefully are) taking a holistic view, not only of the regime's actions when it comes to the pursuit of nuclear capabilities and its egregious record on human rights at home and abroad, but the ongoing role that Iranian leaders have played in the murder of coalition forces as well as the intensely disruptive role Tehran is playing in Iraq and across the region.
Yes, we should pursue all reasonable paths toward a diplomatic, peaceful resolution to the potential crisis of a nuclear Iran, but the American people and those elected and appointed to represent our interests on the world stage (not to mention our European allies) should also be clear-eyed when it comes to assessing Iranian sincerity on the matter of global stability and security. To expect that a regime which has engaged in a shadow war for over thirty years with the United States, Israel, and the west, often through its proxy Hezbollah, to suddenly emerge as an honest actor, beggars belief.
This is a tense moment in negotiations, with Congress and President Obama seemingly at odds over how best to proceed. Regardless of whatever strategy is proven correct, my hope is that the result will be not only the prevention of a nuclear Iran, but a curtailing of the regime's sponsorship of terror abroad and its political meddling inside Iraq - preventing the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Tehran is vital, but more than that, Iranian aggression needs to be checked more broadly on the international stage. If negotiators can succeed in this, they will have achieved a broad victory, not only limiting the proliferation of nuclear weapons, but striking a blow for peace in the region and beyond.
This is something that author Gilles Kepel noted in his 2008 book "Beyond Terror and Martyrdom, The Future of the Middle East," writing that:
"By delivering material to various armed bands in Iraq, both Shiite and Sunni, the Mullah's regime - and particularly the Pasdaran - turned America's peacekeeping efforts into mission impossible. Iran believed that once the United States was thoroughly mired in Iraq - regardless of which side of the insurgency brought this about - it would be forced to negotiate from a position of weakness and confirm the regional supremacy of the Islamic Republic." (Kepel, 52)
Author Matthew Levitt has also chronicled Iranian influence and intentions in Iraq, noting in his book "Hezbollah, The Global Footprint of Lebanon's Party of God," the degree to which Iran has exploited Iraqi chaos to further its agenda of attacking the United States, while limiting its visibility within Iraq. On this particular subject, Levitt writes of Iran, "Careful not to provoke a direct confrontation with US and coalition forces, Iran armed, trained, and funded a variety of Shi'a militias and insurgent groups in an effort to bog down coalition forces in an asymmetric war of attrition." (Levitt, 290)
Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015