Tuesday, September 11, 2007

"On a less encouraging note, none of us earlier this year appreciated the extent of Iranian involvement in Iraq, something about which we and Iraq's leaders all now have greater concern. . . . It is increasingly apparent to both coalition and Iraqi leaders that Iran, through the use of this Quds Force, seeks to turn the Iraqi special groups into [a] Hezbollah-like force to serve its interests and fight a proxy war against the Iraqi state and coalition forces in Iraq."

-- Gen. David H. Petraeus

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The White House did not anticipate Iran as a rival in Iraq. Indeed, the ouster of Saddam Hussein was initially seen as a potential spur for change in Iran, too. Today, however, even critics of U.S. policy agree with the assessments of Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker that Washington and Tehran are vying for influence in Iraq and the wider region.

"On Iran's activities, they are probably right. If anything, we may be seeing only the tip of the iceberg and the problem," said Bruce Riedel, a former senior CIA, National Security Council and Pentagon official who opposed the war and the troop buildup.

"What is striking about what they said today, comparing U.S.-Iran talks with five years ago on Afghanistan, is that we're dealing with an Iranian government that feels the wind is behind it and America's moment in the Middle East is receding -- and Iran wants to give us a firm push from behind as we depart so we will never, ever think about intervening on the ground in the Gulf again, and certainly not into Iran," Riedel said.

The Bush administration's decision to hold the first formal bilateral talks with Iran in almost three decades has not helped. In contrast with Iran's cooperation on the transition after the Taliban's ouster in 2001, the three sessions held in Baghdad between Crocker and his Iranian counterpart have been a flop. Iran's arms shipments and meddling have only increased, say Arab and European sources.

Yet Petraeus's description is too simplistic, said Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations. "It's not the Iranians who want to fight against the Iraqi state. They're probably happy with the Shia domination of the Iraqi state," he said. "These [Iraqi Shiite] groups are also not looking to be Iranian proxies. . . . It's much more a give-and-take."

-- Robin Wright

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