Iran in Iraq

The Atlantic recently asked a group of foreign-policy authorities about Iran's role in the Iraq conflict

Q.   Does the Bush administration's public assessment of Iran's involvement in the insurgency and sectarian violence in Iraq overstate Iran’s role, understate it, or get it about right?

48%: Overstates

“Iran is playing a role, but so are others.  There is little doubt that funds are flowing from Saudi Arabia in support of the Sunni insurgency, which has claimed the greatest number of Iraqi lives and American troops.  There are many bad actors, and we need to sustain attention on all of them -- and we need to talk to all of them as well.”

“The fundamental problem in Iraq isn't Iran (or Syria for that matter), but the fact that the U.S. invasion opened up a Pandora's Box of sectarian tensions.  The result is the civil war we are now witnessing. And it shouldn't be surprising that sectarian factions will look for financial, material, and moral support from wherever they can get it. For many Shiites, that means Iran. And there are all too many people in Tehran who are willing to provide such support, if only to hasten our defeat.”

“It doesn't so much overstate Iran's role as belatedly calls attention to something that has existed for at least the past 3 years. The question is whether [Iranian intervention is now any] worse (I suspect it isn't) -- and, if not, why are we [now] paying such febrile attention to it?”

“Actually it overstates Iran's role in terms of the overall pattern of violence and the incredible misjudgment of Iraq politicians and it misstates Iran's role. Iran has certainly tried to gather intelligence on the various Shia groups and to increase its influence with some of these groups with a view to ensuring that it has a friendly neighbor after the inevitable American departure. It also is probably true that Iran has encouraged and assisted limited attacks on American forces to make clear that any attack on Iran's nuclear facilities could be quite costly to American forces in Iraq. The major escalation of sectarian violence that followed the attack on the Golden Mosque, however, sprang from internal forces in Iraq -- not as part of a grand Iranian plan. The inability of Iraqi politicians of all stripes to recognize their shared interests and to move to isolate the fanatical fringe has not been of Iranian doing. And this is far more important than any arms supplied by Iran.”

“It overstates, and misstates, which is different.”

“They mis-state Iran's role, which is indeed very active in support of the Shia but is driven primarily by their commitment to establish a Shia-controlled neighbor. It is targeted primarily against the Sunni insurgency, and secondarily the U.S.”

“Iran is neither the solution to all of Iraq's problems nor the cause of them.  The Administration has never been willing to accept that Iraq's problems are almost entirely the fault of atrocious American decisions and has consistently insisted that they were the result of someone else--al-Qaeda, Syria, Muqtada al-Sadr, and now Iran.  All of those villains have played some role in the chaos, but it was America's reckless disregard for sound military, political, and diplomatic approaches to the inevitable problems of postwar reconstruction in Iraq that allowed each of them to play a small role in the unfolding tragedy.”

“The problem is that the Administration treats Iran as monolithic, when there are multiple policy actors who can do things without coordinating or clearing with others. So there is a lot of "Iranian" messing around, but how much this is decided by the highest level is hard to say.”

“The Quds Forces are likely getting weaponry into Iran, but Bush is over-using the reach and the assessment.”

40%: Gets It About Right

“Iran isn't the main problem in Iraq, but it is certainly a contributing factor, and it's about time the administration made a bigger public complaint about Iran's undeclared war on the United States and on Iraqi democrats.”

“[About right,] but the administration has further injured the U.S. standing in the region by talking as if Iran was ascendant and the U.S. on the run. The fact is, Iran is a poor and divided country whose power is only a small fraction of ours.”

“I don't know the answer to #1, but I assume that the administration is
being very cautious not to overstate the intelligence, given the experience
with the CIA's errors on Iraqi WMD stockpiles.”

“I think their statements are technically correct, but meant to imply a
greater involvement than the data can support.  They probably understate
the Iranian political involvement in Iraq.”

“Are they the last people on earth to realize Iran might meddle in
a neighbor's politics, when that neighbor is invaded by an enemy of

12%: Understates

“The administration has been focusing primarily on the presence of Iranian arms in Iraq, perhaps overstating how much centralized control Iran has on the transfer of weapons.  But it has understated Iran's political influence, which is quite substantial due to longstanding ties to clerics and Shiite militias.”

“I don't think we have the intelligence information to know just how much political influence Iran is wielding over the Shia leadership in Iraq.  I would suspect Sadr as well as the SCRI folks are more influenced by Iran and they hold big blocks of power in parliament. Ultimately the political influence is strategically more important than providing weapons and training to Iraqis.”

“Given the nature of the Iranian regime and the window of opportunity offered by Iraq's chaos, I'd guess that the Mullahs are doing more there than our government mentions.”

Q.  Would a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq within the next year help or hinder Iran's objectives in the region?

Help: 59%

“It will help [Iran’s] objectives, if it does not trigger a major reaction from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan. If it does trigger that reaction, it will hinder Iran’s objectives.”

"America fought Iraq and Iran won."

“At this stage probably the U.S. presence helps Iran, so its departure can’t make things worse.”

“No doubt that if we had to leave Iraq within a year, it would be ignobly done.  Hence Iran would then seem the 800 pound gorilla in the region.”

“Iran's objectives in the region can't be realized with the U.S. in the region.  A U.S. withdrawal would be a big victory for the hardliners in Tehran.”

“Help in the short-term.  Iran will be able to say that America has been defeated.  In the long-term, it is hard to say.  If the Iraq civil war evolves into uncontrolled chaos, Iran may not be so happy.  And Sunni states will likely come in behind the Sunni insurgency, fueling a wider regional conflict.”

“The answer for the U.S. lies in 1) developing a comprehensive security structure and plan for the region; 2) offering Iran an end to sanctions and security guarantees in exchange for a) absolute transparency for its nuclear program; b) ending support for terrorism; and c) help in Iraq; and 3) on that basis engaging Iran directly.”

“A withdrawal would likely mean unchecked Shiite dominance in Iraq, and great Iranian influence.  However, a U.S. withdrawal could also precipitate a full-scale civil war and the regional spread of the conflict, which is not in Iran's interest.  Iran wants a stable Iraq dominated by the Shiites, not a failed state that exports violence and instability.”

“We are truly between a rock and a hard place on this one.”

Hinder: 41%

“Hinder, but only if we do not just abandon Iraq, and instead disengage [while] keeping modest, holding garrisons in a couple of bases.”

“Let’s not count on the Iraqis being as servile to Tehran as now appears likely; that’s just not likely, given their history.”

“Withdrawal would hinder Iran if done properly,”

“Withdrawals must be tied to and subordinate to a viable political strategy. We can't just take the troops out and cross our fingers.”

“Iran relies on the U.S. presence to provide for relative stability, give Iran a role in assisting major Shi'ia elements in Iraq, and to assure long-term democracy and therefore a Shi'ia ascendancy in Iraq.”

“It would release us precisely from the entanglement that Iran has taken such tremendous satisfaction from finding is in. Our extrication would also likely result in a reversal of roles, with Iran being sucked into and becoming stuck in the Iraq morass much as we have been.”

“It will hinder more than help. Right now this is a freebie for Iran. We protect a pro-Iranian Iraqi government, and our troop commitment ties us down. As we withdraw, the parties in Iraq will need to accommodate each other more, which might check Iranian influence. And Iran will have to deal with the regional opposition to its attempts to dominate Iraq.”

“Certainly over the longer run it would hinder Iran's interests in [portraying] itself as the defender of the faith and the major bulwark against U.S. domination of the Middle East. It would also throw a large element of uncertainly into Iran's calculation as to what type of neighbor it will have in Iraq. The Shiia inferiority complex ensures that even if a Shiia government emerges in Iraq after a U.S. withdrawal, Iran would continue to worry that it might be usurped at some point by a Sunni strongman and a very hostile government accompanied by an autonomous Kurdish state  with expansionist goals. Iran's preference for a stable, Shiia government that controls all of Iraq would go out the window with a U.S. withdrawal. “


“Both A and B.  In the short term, American withdrawal would open up new opportunities for Iran to make mischief and exert influence, creating a sense that Iran was the rising new hegemony.  Over the longer term, Iran's own internal weaknesses and its probably inevitable inability to gain control over the chaos of Iraq will likely swamp its short-term gains.”

“Neither. Iran was greatly helped by our invasion of Iraq, which removed one of its arch enemies and put in power people with close ties to Tehran.  The damage has been done - and whether we stay or leave will have no real impact on Iran's regional ascendancy.”

“This depends on the circumstances of a U.S. withdrawal (or redeployment).  If we pull back our troops and at the same time engage in serious regional diplomacy to bring stability to Iraq, Iran's capacity to increase its own influence would probably decline.”

“Have little effect.  Do we know what those objectives are?”

“[The question is] impossible to answer as stated.”

PARTICIPANTS (43):  Kenneth Adelman, Graham Allison, Ronald Asmus, Samuel Berger, Daniel Blumenthal, Max Boot, Stephen Bosworth, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Daniel Byman, Wesley Clark, Richard Clarke, William Cohen, Ivo Daalder, Douglas Feith, Jay Garner, Leslie Gelb, Marc Grossman, John Hamre, Gary Hart, Bruce Hoffman, John Hulsman, Robert Hunter, Tony Judt, Robert Kagan, David Kay, Andrew Krepinevich, Charles Kupchan, John Lehman, James Lindsay, Edward Luttwak, John McLaughlin, Jessica Mathews, Richard Myers, William Nash, Joseph Nye, Carlos Pascual, Thomas Pickering, Kenneth Pollack, Joseph Ralston, Susan Rice, Wendy Sherman, Ann-Marie Slaughter, James Steinberg.

Not all participants answered both questions.