Sunday, March 8, 2009

Rafsanjani Meets Sistani: Smooth Move in the Endless Chess Game

That Rafsanjani would meet with Sistani as Obama is announcing the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq nicely symbolizes the natural cultural proximity of Iraq and Iran, as opposed to the unnatural current closeness of U.S.-Iraqi ties. Current U.S.-Iraqi ties should be viewed as highly unstable. Force could perhaps maintain this situation for some time, but the default assumption should be that it is very temporary. In contrast, the default for Iranian-Iraqi relations is very close.

Note that I said "close," not friendly. The two societies are profoundly entangled; that does not prevent interstate rivalries.

A much more valid perspective would consider the triangular relationship between Shi'ite Iran, Sunni Saudi Arabia, and an Iraq split between the two. (No, we are NOT going to complicate this further by discussing the Kurds and bringing in Turkey.) Minority Sunni domination now being removed, the most obvious prediction for the future is instability, because Sunni-Shi'ite competition in Iraq will interact with Iranian-Saudi competition in the region in an endless crunching of contradictions.

Though simple enough, this picture already suggests a number of basic images that Washington decision-makers, not to mention glib U.S. talking heads urging U.S. interference in Mideast affairs, may have a hard time keeping in focus:

  • Both Sunni and Shi'ite factions in Iraq will constantly be tempted to invite Saudi and Iranian "interference" in Iraqi politics;
  • Both Iran and Saudi Arabia will constantly be tempted to interfere in Iraqi politics;
  • The presence of each will aggravate bilateral hostilities;
  • Iraqi nationalism will constantly be competing with pan-Shi'ite and pan-Sunni sentiments.
The above is a simple, "default" model. It says nothing about which tendencies may dominate at a particular moment. What, then, does this model do? It predicts instability. Washington will need to understand this fundamental sociopolitical context in order to remain an effective regional player.

It may be worth pointing out that the U.S. does not really seem to have any natural allies in this contest. Neither Saudi nor Iranian interests can ever be assumed to match American interests. These two statements seem utterly obvious and would hardly be worth putting into words were it not for the history of American confusion about Mideast realities. Unfortunately, American decision-makers cannot seem to resist superficial labels, calling countries "conservative" or "radical" and then blindly assuming that these words somehow distinguish "friend" from "foe." "Conservative" Saudi proselytizing of radical Salafi ideology throughout the Muslim world and "radical" Iran's highly pragmatic cooperation with the U.S. to stabilize newly conquered Afghanistan after 9/11 are cases in point.

Since American decision-makers obviously need Mideast realities simplified...but in some way that is accurate rather than misleading, it may be useful to build on Larijani's recent invitation for them to "play chess," but with a couple caveats. Rather than thinking of the chess game as a match between two players in an existential contest, equate the chess game with "international affairs." The chess pieces then represent countries, and checkmate never occurs in the game (though individual countries can of course be eliminated). Now, what is your objective as a decision-maker? Stay alive and take advantage where you can, which means bargaining constantly with every other piece on the board. Having found force to be a blunt instrument in this game, Washington now needs to conjure up the skills to interact on a level playing field with the locals, all of whom understand the game much better. Casting aside simplistic labels about "good" and "evil," "friend" and "foe" would do much to clarify Washington's vision.

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