Obsessed With Iran
By Jim Hoagland
Friday, May 28, 2004; Page A23
George Shultz says that life in official Washington is not one damn thing after another. It is the same damn thing over and over again. A sudden lurch by the Bush administration to using Iraq's Sunnis to contain Iran's Shiite rulers shows that the former secretary of state is on to something, again.
Bush policymakers and spies have made fear of Iran a driving -- and highly distorting -- force in the continuing war in Iraq. They now resemble the LBJ-era Cold Warriors who were so intent on defeating China and the Soviet Union in Vietnam that they lost sight of the stakes and dynamics of the real war they were fighting.
In Iraq today the CIA is building an Iraqi spy agency from the ruins of Saddam Hussein's Mukhabarat -- the secret police unit that was at war with Iran and Syria for two decades. Like ex-Nazis recruited to fight the Soviet peril, these Iraqis come with useful skills and experience in trying to destabilize Tehran. Some of them were on the job during the Iran-Iraq war, when the Reagan administration (in which Shultz served) shared U.S. intelligence with Hussein's regime to prevent the revolutionary ayatollahs of Iran from taking Baghdad. Old intelligence connections die hard.
But the inordinate fear of Iran is rapidly contaminating U.S. relations with the Shiite majority of Iraq. It is also complicating U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi's effort to name an interim Iraqi government. The White House hopes to get the government named and a new Security Council resolution on Iraq approved before President Bush goes to Europe next week.
The Algerian mediator had all but settled on Hussain Shahristani, a respected chemist and a Shiite, as his interim prime minister. But Shahristani withdrew his name Wednesday after it became clear U.S. authorities would not approve him, apparently after they conducted a background check, according to U.S. and foreign sources, in Baghdad and elsewhere.
What the vetting by U.S. agencies turned up is not known. But Shahristani escaped to Iran in 1991 after being jailed and tortured for refusing to help Hussein's nuclear program. In eight years in Iran, he is unlikely to have been able to avoid contact with and interrogation by Iranian intelligence.
He is also unlikely to have told Iran anything of his own free will, according to people who know and admire him. But the hard line against Tehran championed by U.S. proconsul Paul Bremer and others would have inevitably hurt the chances of Shahristani, especially in the poisonous atmosphere created by CIA allegations that Ahmed Chalabi, another Shiite politician with ties to Iran, has given Iran classified information.
In the closed world of smoke and mirrors that exiles and intelligence agencies inhabit, Shahristani was a source on Hussein's weapons programs for U.S. government agencies and journalists, as were Chalabi, Ayad Allawi and many others. Shahristani was lionized by the television program "60 Minutes" one month before the Iraq invasion.
The ongoing Chalabi-CIA struggle, essentially over who will control an independent Iraq's intelligence service and whether it will ultimately be used to destabilize Iran, is a topic for another day. The more immediate problems belong to Brahimi, who now must publicly deny that the United States is vetting and then passing or blocking his choices for prime minister and other jobs.
That this administration would insist on retaining such power in a rebellious country it spent American lives to occupy is one of those obvious power realities that diplomacy was invented to obscure. As in a Hemingway short story, what is important is what is left out, both in Brahimi's public statements and the latest Security Council draft resolution on Iraq.
The U.S.-British draft is silent on command arrangements and other vital topics. It is intended to maximize U.S. power while seeming to pass authority to a group of mostly political unknowns blessed by Brahimi. Iraqi leaders well known in the West, such as Massoud Barzani or Jalal Talabani, would not get significant jobs.
The premature leak by U.S. officials of Shahristani's name as a candidate backed by Ali Sistani has embarrassed the Shiite grand ayatollah and makes it even harder for him to work with Brahimi, a Sunni Arab whose daughter is to be married on Sept. 7 to the son of King Abdullah of Jordan.
The king, a CIA favorite, is not as diplomatic as his future in-law. Asked recently by the New York Times who should rule Iraq, Abdullah replied: "I would probably imagine . . . somebody with a military background who has experience of being a tough guy who could hold Iraq together for the next year." Or in Shultzian terms, the same Saddam thing over again.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company