Tehran Has Won Nothing

Friday, July 2, 2010

Did the fall of Saddam Hussein and the violent birth of Iraqi democracy really empower Iran?

That assertion might have passed for conventional wisdom in the short term during the chaotic Iraqi insurrection, but it is not an accurate assessment over the longer haul—as we are beginning to see, seven years after the Iraq war began.

In the past year, Iranians have taken to mass civil disobedience, as when nearly a million people hit the streets to protest last summer’s rigged elections. There is unrest in Iraq as well, and myriad conflicting interests, but the tension is of a completely opposite sort. While in Iran an unpopular government uses violence to squelch a majority that seeks free elections, in Iraq a legitimately elected government enjoys public support against occasional attacks from small cadres of terrorist extremists. Thus in an Iran supposedly at peace, more died voting than in an Iraq purportedly at war.

The use of Saddam Hussein to balance Iran was always an atrocious idea—and it is bizarre to hear critics of the Iraq war cite post facto his genocidal, obscene government as a once-necessary check on the Iranian theocracy. And while the present democratic government of Iraq is dominated by Shiites—logically, given demographic realities—it is not accurate to view them all as pro-Iranian Muslims who have forfeited their Iraqi identities. In time, a stable democratic Iraq may be one of the very few mechanisms by which Iranian regional influence can be checked.

That is why Iran for the past five years has done its best to destroy Iraqi democracy, supplying money and weapons to cross-border terrorists. Yet Iraq has survived, and it is now slowly proving subversive to Iran, albeit in quite a different manner: by reminding Iran’s uneasy Shiite population that free elections are not incompatible with their religion, as they can now readily see from the free, uncensored media across the border. The percentage of Iraqis who turned out for the latest round of voting was greater than the percentage of Americans who turned out for our landmark presidential election of 2008.

As a result of Saddam’s removal and the success of the subsequent democracy, Iran is looking not just at a free Iraq but also at a semiautonomous, prosperous, and pro-Western Kurdistan, and a Lebanon without Syrian occupation troops. Iran must also weigh the fact that there are hundreds of American aircraft just across the border in Iraq—a shift that would have been impossible under Saddam. And whereas a few years ago Iran was threatening Israel with the help of Saddam, who was subsidizing the families of suicide bombers on the West Bank, Iraq today is not fueling unrest in the Middle East.

Iraq has recently achieved its highest level of oil exportation since Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990. Working under new, transparent oil contracts, the Iraqis are hoping to reach an incredible figure of 10 million barrels of oil pumped per day within seven years. Given international interest in Iraq’s oil, competitive bidding, and the growing security in the country at large, Iraq might well come close to meeting such once-unimaginable goals. If it were to pump 7 million to 8 million additional barrels per day, such a spike in production by the nation with the world’s third-largest known oil reserves would moderate oil prices for years

This production boost would especially irk Iran. To pay for its vast terrorist enterprises and its nuclear program, Iran counts on high oil prices. Thus it desperately needs unrest in other countries in the region, depressing their oil production and ensuring price speculation. Meanwhile, its own oil sector suffers declining sales from sanctions, incompetence, and the country’s pariah status. So Tehran may soon face the specter of chronically pumping fewer barrels, without much hope of a near-term return to the old sky-high oil prices—all at a time when its Iraqi neighbor is suddenly swimming in petrodollars.

For more than a year, the Obama administration seems to have failed to appreciate these new realities. It snubbed Iraq’s legitimate prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and instead bragged about its outreach to Iran’s thuggish president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The administration apparently thought that Iraq’s future would entail perpetual civil unrest and combat, declining oil production, and a quagmire for the United States. All that, of course, would have helped Iran, just as its antithesis—a stable, consensual oil-exporting state—is increasingly worrying it.

The percentage of Iraqis who turned out for their latest round of voting was greater than the percentage of Americans who turned out for our landmark presidential election of 2008.

But now the Obama “reset” policy has itself seemingly been reset. Recently, Vice President Biden—of “trisect Iraq” fame—predicted that Iraq would become one of the administration’s greatest achievements. And soon afterward, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton all but confessed that the much-ballyhooed Obama policy of reaching out to the Iranian theocracy with diplomacy, videos, and personal letters, while keeping mum about its brutal crackdown on dissidents, had been a failure.

Clinton pointed to a military coup by the Revolutionary Guards that had supposedly seized power from more “moderate” Iranian theocrats, and thus unexpectedly thwarted Obama’s otherwise sound policy of American engagement: “We see that the government of Iran—the supreme leader, the president, the parliament—is being supplanted and that Iran is moving toward a military dictatorship.”

It is disturbing that Secretary Clinton did not appreciate the long, pernicious history of the Revolutionary Guards’ influence inside Iran and their cozy relationship with many in the theocratic elite.

It may be true that post-Saddam Iraq is increasingly becoming Iran’s worst nightmare, but don’t expect many observers to acknowledge such heresy. The Iraq war has left poisonous antiwar feelings at home, advocacy for Middle Eastern democracy has been caricatured as a “neocon” pipe dream, and the cost to America in blood and treasure has been high. In the current climate, it is nearly impossible for most Americans to appreciate the salutary geostrategic effects of the removal of Saddam Hussein and his replacement by a consensual government.

Imagine that the roles had been reversed. Imagine a free, open Iran holding elections marred only by a few radical Islamist terrorist attacks, while an autocracy in Baghdad ran phony plebiscites and then cracked down on a million citizens demanding democratic reform.

Under such a scenario, one would expect outrage from the American left as it praised a democratic Iran and damned a hopelessly corrupt, violent American puppet in Iraq—always while castigating the United States for ignoring the brave Iraqi protesters in the street.

Why, then, do we show so little appreciation for Iraq’s recent successful elections, and even less outrage over the farcical Iranian voting?

The idea that the Iraq war empowered Iran has become as entrenched a myth as “no blood for oil.” Both are now deeply embedded within the liberal antiwar narrative. Yet the weakening of Iran, although not the primary motivation of the war to remove Saddam Hussein, is fast revealing itself among the dividends of the surprising continuance of Iraqi democracy.