Still Time to Save Iraq From Tehran's Claws

The dark shadow of Iran looms over the March 7 parliamentary elections in Iraq, whose implications extend beyond determining a new political configuration in Baghdad. From Tehran to Washington - and many Arab capitals in between - the elections could prove a defining moment.

At first glance, the post-election specter is gloomy: an Iraqi government dominated by Iran. But a closer look at the internal dynamics of both Iraq and Iran reveals real opportunities for the rise of nationalist, secular, non-sectarian Iraqi political blocks, and consequently the political demise of Tehran's surrogates in Iraq.

In Iran, the government is facing a relentless and growing movement for regime-change. A failure of the ayatollahs' Trojan horse strategy in Iraq will be seen as a major strategic defeat, with dire consequences for their longevity at home. Such a debacle will exacerbate the already deep divisions at the top and embolden the opposition.

For more than three decades, Iran's rulers have shielded their regime by deflecting domestic attacks with a perpetual state of crisis abroad. Iran's post-election uprisings have persisted for 8 months, despite a vicious crackdown, compelling the ayatollahs to succeed in Iraq and accelerate their nuclear weapons program. In their worldview, having Iraq as a client state would not only bring about a major realignment of the regional balance, but also invigorate their shrinking ideological base. They need to ramp up the terrorizing specter of their main protector, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC).

Today, many US officials, including General Raymond Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and Ambassador Christopher Hill have gone public about Tehran's incursions into Iraq's political, economic and security spheres and outright meddling in the electoral process.

Since the early days, Iran's theocratic regime has viewed neighboring Iraq, with its majority Shiite population, important Shiite shrines, and extensive shared border, as the main avenue to spread Islamic extremism throughout the Middle East. The same expansionist agenda calls for the nuclear weapons program to augment Tehran's regional hegemony.

The collapse of Iraq's former regime in 2003 gave Tehran a never-dreamed-of geo-strategic access to Iraq. Using Iraqi surrogate Shiite groups, groomed by the Ministry of Intelligence and the IRGC's Qods Force, as its Trojan horses, Tehran extended its influence into the country's economic, political, religious, social, and intelligence-gathering spheres. Along the way, Tehran also hijacked the electoral process.

To accomplish these ends, Tehran set about eliminating those patriotic Iraqis seeking to thwart its meddling. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote recently that "according to U.S. intelligence reports, the Iranians two months ago circulated a list of 600 Iraqi officers who are targeted for assassination."

Since the ascendancy of the Tehran-backed Shiite block in the Iraqi government, Iran has also used Iraq's security and intelligence apparatus to, among other things, purge nationalist Iraqi politicians. The most recent example is the so-called Justice and Accountability Committee which, at the behest of Tehran, used the pretext of "de-Baathification" to ban many prominent politicians, both Shiite and Sunni, from running in the elections.

The New York Times reported last month that Gen. Odierno has identified Ahmed Chalabi and Ali Faisal al-Lami, both involved in the panel's vetting process, as "clearly influenced by Iran." Chalabi is notorious "for having supplied false intelligence to the United States" and al-Lami, who heads the panel, is "suspected of involvement in murderous activities of Shiite militants, including a bombing in Baghdad," according to the Times.

Make no mistake; Tehran's sway over its proxy groups has not translated into popularity in the Shiite streets. To the contrary, many groups with overt allegiance to Tehran fared horribly in Iraq's last elections. Many Shiites describe the ayatollahs' meddling as the "poison from the East," and there is ample evidence that most Iraqis - of every ethnic and religious stripe - detest a de-facto occupation of their country by Iran.

Irrespective of the election results, stability may not be achieved for some time. Ambassador Hill has warned that it could take months to form a new government since, as the political balance now stands, no major political block will have enough seats to form a cabinet on its own without forging alliances. The Shiite blocks are rife with rivalry, and the secular and nationalist blocks are hampered by assassinations, political pressure, and bans affecting their leading politicians. Iran's regime will no doubt do anything and everything it can to keep its men at the helm and exploit this period to its advantage.

Which is why Washington needs to do anything and everything it can to encourage the formation of a nationalist, non-sectarian coalition government in Iraq. A parallel policy in Iran would seek prudent and effective ways to throw US political and diplomatic weight behind the democratic movement, whose success would remove Iran's malignant shadow over Iraq and eliminate the nuclear threat.

One senior adviser to President Obama said late last year that "We've got a near-perfect record of being wrong about these guys [the clerical regime] for 30 years." It is high time to get it right.

Alireza Jafarzadeh is the author of "The Iran Threat: President Ahmadinejad and the Coming Nuclear Crisis" (Palgrave MacMillan).