How history-makers misplayed the game of Islamic power

By David Gardner

Financial Times

Published: August 12 2006

When the US and its British ally decided to invade Iraq in 2003, certain consequences were always clear, except, perhaps, to those driving the strategy in Washington and London. It was clear beforehand that this was a step that would proliferate jihadism, risked turning Iraq into a Lebanon cubed and would destroy western credibility and legitimacy in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

But there was one intriguing aspect of the policy that was not then clear. What was Anglo-American thinking about the Shia, the disadvantaged and dispossessed minority in Islam who, in Iraq, are the majority?

Were those who would transform the Middle East aware that by toppling Saddam Hussein they were overturning the nearly millennium-old dominance of Sunni Islam in Iraq and the Arab world, an unbroken run of power since the collapse of the Fatimids, a heterodox Shia dynasty, in Cairo in 1171?

Were they, at a minimum, conscious of how this change in the regional balance of power would enhance the influence of Shia Iran, or would they lose their nerve and turn against the Shia, bringing the revolutionary strain in this faith to the fore?

I raised these questions after the fall of Baghdad*, having spent three months trying to discover whether there had been any substantive discussion within the Bush administration of the tectonic power of this aspect of their decision, any precautionary anticipation of unintended consequences. I found nothing, then or subsequently, to suggest that there had.

There were, of course, people in the American and British foreign and intelligence services who thought about these questions. They were ignored. "All you people know about is history," a Pentagon official told a veteran Central Intelligence Agency man in Baghdad at the time, "but we are making history."

Well, when history turned out to be a lot less malleable, the "freedom on the march" brigade took fright. They started to discern an arc of mostly Shia radicalism under the leadership of Tehran, stretching from Iran to the borders of Israel. What we are seeing in Lebanon is in good part a response to this loss of nerve, a logical extension of the misadventure in Iraq.

Israel's assault on Lebanon to get to Hizbollah, the Shia Islamist movement and militia seen in Washington and London (and Sunni Arab capitals such as Cairo and Riyadh) as the spearhead of Iran in the Levant, is regarded as a regrettable but necessary price to pay to roll back Tehran's perceived ambitions in the region. That is why Israel is getting away with razing south Lebanese and eastern Bekaa villages, with levelling Beirut's southern suburbs, with, in short, destroying Shia Lebanon.

Naturally the public narrative is not that, it is George W. Bush's account of freedom confronting terror, or Tony Blair's arc of extremism. Prior to Iraq, however, there was no arc, just an archipelago of disjointed radicalisms and unresolved rejectionisms.

All the Anglo-American approach to Lebanon promises to do is join these up, adding a failed state on Israel's northern border to the failed would-be state of Palestine to its south, with the broken state of Iraq to its east. This is a policy that continues and compounds the failure in Iraq where, as Anthony Cordesman, the US strategist and supporter of the war, recently observed: "we essentially used a bull to liberate a china shop".

It is also a policy that is hopelessly inconsistent, adding further to Arab and Muslim perception of western hypocrisy. In Lebanon, a Shia Islamist militia allied to Iran that is also part of an elected government, Hizbollah, must be destroyed. In Iraq, however, a Shia Islamist militia allied to Iran, the Badr brigades of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, is part of an elected government Washington supports. Inconsistencies of this sort have a way of stewing for a bit, but then they boil over.

That is what is happening among the Shia in Iraq, tactical allies of the US who could soon become its enemies. Hundreds of thousands came out into the streets in Baghdad and southern Iraq last week to support Hizbollah and/or their Lebanese Shia co-religionists, not just the followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, the young Shia radical who models his Mahdi army on Hizbollah, but the Sciri, too. Indeed, how many members of the US Congress, recently addressed by Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's prime minister, would know that his Da'wa party was oneof the original progenitors of Hizbollah?

Zalmay Khalilzad, Washington's ambassador to Iraq who does know how the region interconnects, this week warned that Iran might encourage its "forces" in Iraq to "create increased instability here".

Iran, especially under Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, its shrewdly populist and messianic president, will not be unhappy with the perception that its Hizbollah allies can establish a balance of terror over the Israel-Lebanon border, or that its friends in Iraq can pull what is left of the country down around America's ears if the conflict over Iran's nuclear ambitions eventually turns violent.

But what all this should suggest is a direct approach to Iran, of the type the US has been evading since the 1979 Islamist revolution.

True, the accumulated grievances and bad blood on both sides are prodigious obstacles, as is the unwillingness of Israel, the only nuclear-armed power in the region, to brook any challenge to its hegemony.

But what has never been properly explored is whether Iran - scarred by a century of foreign meddling in its affairs and western support for Mr Hussein when he rained rockets on its cities and chemical weapons on its troops during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war - could come to share an interest in regional stability. Whether, in return for security guarantees and international underwriting of regional security arrangements binding together Iran, Iraq and the Gulf states, Tehran would respond with verifiable nuclear transparency and an end to meddling in its neighbours' affairs.

President Bill Clinton, who wanted to do a Nixon-to-China with Iran, missed a beguiling opportunity when Mohammad Khatami, the reformist president, was riding a wave of popular passion for change in 1997-99. President Bush rebuffed Iran's overtures for a "grand bargain" in 2003, instead making it a charter member of his Axis of Evil.

Confrontation is a godsend to the current Iranian regime. What might weaken the mullahs, and maybe even dull some of the hysteria about the Shia, is to confront them with a deal.

*FT Magazine, August 30 2003