Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Iraqi-Iranian Detente: Opportunity or Danger?

If Tehran and the Shi’ite regime in Baghdad are in the process of establishing a closely coordinated relationship, this creates both a long-term opportunity and a long-term danger for the Mideast. The opportunity is to be a middleman for regional compromise. The danger is that this may provoke Iraqi civil war.

An Iraq with close ties to Iran and a government that represents Iraqi Sunnis in a way that Sunnis find more-or-less to their satisfaction would constitute an historic bridge. If, after all the ethnic conflict and government–sponsored discrimination ever since British colonial days in the 1920’s, Iraqi Sunnis and Shi’a can learn how to work together, then why not Arabs and Iranians? The existence of a unified, peaceful, independent Iraq would be the ultimate proof that Shi’a and Sunni throughout the region can live together. That, of course, is a lot of “ifs:” it is not clear exactly how close Iraqi-Iranian ties really are or what it will take to build an Iraqi government dominated by Shi’a but acceptable to Sunni.

The long-term danger is that the closer the Shi’a-dominated regime in Baghdad gets to Iran, the less acceptable it may be to Iraqi Sunni, due to some combination of Sunni nervousness and lessening Shi’ite willingness to give consideration to Sunni desires. Were ethnic conflict in Iraq to intensify significantly, many regional actors would be tempted to intervene, al Qua’ida would be more than happy to pour whatever gasoline it could on the fire, and it would be hard to imagine an effective way of putting such a fire out.

It does not take much ingenuity to conclude that the regional political situation is far from equilibrium. Figuring out which way things will go is rather more difficult. One clue to watch for is balance between Iranian ties with Iraq and Iranian ties with the Sunni Gulf states. Another whole set of clues will be domestic: Baghdad’s treatment of Sunnis, Sunni attitudes toward the Iraqi regime, etc.

It would be more than worth the effort to conduct a detailed scenario analysis of these two alternative paths foreward to lay out exactly how Iraq might, in the near future, turn out to be either an opportunity or a danger for the Mideast.

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