The Bush administration, beyond the daily temperature readings about the progress of the U.S. troop surge in Baghdad, is making a subtle but important shift in its strategy for the Middle East -- establishing containment of Iranian power in the region as a top American priority.
A simple shorthand for this approach might be "back to the future," for it is strikingly reminiscent of American strategy during the 1980s after the Iranian revolution. The cornerstone is a political-military alliance with the dominant Sunni Arab powers -- especially Saudi Arabia. The hardware will be new arms sales to Israel, Egypt and the Saudis. The software will be a refurbished Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
"The message to Iran is, 'We're still powerful, we protect our friends, we're not going away,' " explains a senior State Department official.
While the Iraq part of the story still has to play itself out, the new approach isn't premised on success there but the possibility of failure. Iraq will continue to straddle the Sunni-Shiite fault line. Rather than a bulwark against Iranian expansion, as it was under Saddam Hussein, the new Shiite-led Iraq will be a battleground. To the extent that it comes under radical Iranian influence, it, too, will have to be contained.
Though the Iranians appear strong in this new alignment, the reality is that they have missed a golden opportunity to consolidate their power. Where they once stood to gain tacit American acquiescence to their regional hegemony, they now confront growing American resistance. It's an Iranian mistake that's likely to have lasting consequences, reminiscent of the Islamic Republic's failure to consolidate its gains in the initial years of the Iran-Iraq war.
Early this summer, senior Bush administration officials still hoped that Iran might cooperate with the United States in stabilizing Iraq. The two countries shared an interest in the success of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the theory went. Thus the United States agreed to bilateral meetings with the Iranians in Baghdad to explore a joint framework for security in Iraq. The prospect of an American-Iranian condominium in Iraq frightened the Saudis, but the United States persisted.
America's modest price for working with the Iranians was spelled out by Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad. Iran's Revolutionary Guard had to stop shipping deadly weapons to Shiite forces in Iraq that were destabilizing the country and killing American soldiers. U.S. officials had intelligence resources to monitor whether Iran complied with this basic demand. "We're not seeing it," says the senior State Department official.
The frustration with Iran also helps explain the administration's growing disillusionment with Maliki, whose Shiite-led government might have been a joint U.S.-Iranian project. He has proved to be a weak, sectarian politician unable to stop the violence, provide services or halt Iraq's rampant corruption. The rationale for the U.S. troop surge was that it would provide political space for this government to make compromises, but that isn't happening.
What modest progress the United States has recently made in Iraq has largely been in Sunni areas, such as Anbar province. It's an alliance of convenience: The Sunnis increasingly see U.S. troops as their best ally for containing the power of Iran and its proxies in Iraq. As the leverage of America's new Sunni friends grows, there has been increasing interest in a coalition to replace the feeble Maliki.
In "back to the future" mode, the name being mentioned these days is Ayad Allawi, a former Baathist who was interim prime minister and has strong support among Sunnis, even though he's a secular Shiite. Allawi has bundles of money to help buy political support, but it comes from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, rather than the United States.
The administration will continue to "turn up the heat" on Iran, says the State Department official. The United States will press for a third U.N. resolution next month imposing sanctions on Iran's nuclear program. America is readying a new weapon in the impending designation of the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. That would squeeze the guard and all of the businesses it owns -- banks, trading companies, tech companies that are part of the nuclear program -- and seek to divide President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, himself a product of the guard, from Iran's less fanatical majority.
The problem with "back to the future," of course, is that we've been there before. Arms deals won't provide lasting security for Saudi Arabia; supporting authoritarian Sunni regimes won't stem the appeal of Islamic radicalism; and a fractured Iraq will keep the region in a permanent state of tension. But the new approach has the virtue of realism -- preparing for the worst in Iraq rather than hoping for the best.