03/17/2006 02:37 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Flattening Iran

Thomas Friedman's latest column blindly accepts the Bush administration's recent assertion that Iran "poses the greatest danger to the U.S. today", but that's not Mr. Friedman's worst offense. It's his claim that the "most frightening" (he adds "scary" and "terrifying") thing we could do to Iran is to get out of Iraq and the second most frightening thing is to succeed in Iraq, that is not just wildly inaccurate but terribly misinformed. But why should we care? It's only an op-ed column, after all. We should care because Friedman is a respected Middle East expert, writing in the pages of the nation's most important paper, and not only what he writes can influence American public opinion, but is often used by the Bush administration as a validation of its foreign policy.

While he is right to deduce that the Iranians are not unhappy that their enemy, the U.S., is pinned down and bleeding in a neighboring country, if the U.S. were to end the occupation of Iraq, the Iranians will not be "terrified". Quite the opposite, or so they claim, but I suppose Mr. Friedman assumes the Iranians just always lie. If invading Iraq taught the U.S. the lesson that it can win a big war but not easily defeat an insurgency, then the U.S. military staying or leaving makes no difference to the newfound sense of security (against an invasion) that Iran enjoys. Iranians want the U.S. out of Iraq because it will mean that their influence there, already quite significant, will only increase. Without a U.S. presence and Ambassador Khalilzad's constant nudging, how long does Mr. Friedman think it will take for the pro-Iranian Shia parties to finally tell the Sunni parties where to get off?
As to whether Iran fears "success" in Iraq, it all depends on what we mean by success. Mr. Friedman still believes (or hopes), rather patronizingly, that Iraq may someday emulate U.S.-style democracy (a "decent outcome", in his words), as if that is the only acceptable political form for a society to take. The reality is that what we think of as democracy is highly unlikely to emerge in Iraq, and the Iranians know that, it seems, better than Mr. Friedman or Bush administration neo-cons do. The best case scenario for Iraq is a stable Islamic republic, with Shias ruling over Sunnis (except in Kurdistan) by sheer force, and that will be fine for Iran.

The "natural rivalry" between Persians and Arabs that Mr. Friedman believes will surface as soon as we're gone from the Iraq ignores the fact that much of that rivalry is due to the centuries-old Shia-Sunni split and is not necessarily a race-based Arab-Persian hatred. Friedman's simplistic "hundreds of years of Mesopotamian history teach us that Arabs and Persians do not play well together" as the basis for his argument is preposterous on its surface. Hundreds of years of Anglo-French history teaches us that the French and the English have historically not "played well together", but so what? Arabs and Persians can get along fine when it's in both their interests. In the latter part of the last century and into this one there has been very little Arab-Persian enmity, to wit Iran-Syria relations, Iran-Lebanon relations and many strong Iran-Gulf states relationships. The Iran-Iraq war that he cites, it must be remembered, involved Iraqi Shia groups (in fact some of those in power in Iraq today) fighting on the Iran side, so perhaps Shia brotherhood does after all count for something. (It is true, in fairness to Friedman, that many Iraqi Shias, conscripts mostly, fought against their Iranian Shia brethren in that war, much to the dismay of Iran's Ayatollahs who had hoped for massive Shia resistance to Saddam's war. But perhaps the prospect of getting shot by Saddam's thugs dissuaded Shia conscripts of any draft-resisting notions.)

As for Mr. Friedman's reference to a "particular Iraqi Shiite strain represented by Ayatollah Sistani", well, it might have been illuminating for his readers if he had pointed out that Sistani is actually Iranian (to say nothing of the fact that Shia Islam allows no "strains" even though the Grand Ayatollahs, eight in Iran and four in Iraq, can often disagree on certain matters. But Mr. Friedman has never spoken with Sistani, nor it seems, any other Ayatollah in Iran or Iraq, for if he had he would know how ridiculous his claim of an "Iraqi Shiite strain" is). True, Sistani is an Iranian who unlike his brethren in Iran has suggested that clerics need not rule the country, but he is also an Iranian who refuses to meet with any U.S. officials while he happily meets with both Iraqi and Iranian officials. Ayatollah Sistani can disagree with the concept of "velayat-e-faqi", rule of the jurisprudent as it is applied in Iran, but he has never suggested that politics be free from Islam, which is a reason why Iraqi politicians feel the need to receive his blessings for any major decision. As long as Ayatollahs can issue fatwas, and fatwas that are obeyed (as they widely are in both Iran and Iraq), then whether we like it or not, or whether it fits in with our ideas of a "decent outcome" for Iraq or not, the senior clerics have a de facto hold on power. Ever wonder why, Tom, none of the Iraqi secularists received much of the vote in the elections you so admired?

In his analysis of why Iran fears the U.S. leaving Iraq, Middle East expert Thomas Friedman says that if the US were out of Iraq and were to then strike Iran militarily, Iran would not be able to retaliate with missiles against any large concentrations of U.S. military forces nearby. (So we're to believe that Iranians like being surrounded by the U.S. Army because it gives them a target?) But unless Friedman is suggesting that we remove all our warships and aircraft carriers from the Persian Gulf, close down our bases in Kuwait, Qatar, and the rest of the Middle East, to say nothing of retreating completely from Afghanistan, then I'm afraid we'll always provide plenty of targets for retaliation by Tehran's missiles. Just look at a map, Tom.

At the end of his little lesson on Iraq and Iran, Friedman seems to have forgotten that he wrote, at the beginning of his piece, that the most "scary" thing we could do to Iran is to leave Iraq and the second most scary thing is for us to succeed in Iraq. In his last paragraph he reverses the order: "So getting out of Iraq would be a good anti-Iran strategy. Succeeding in Iraq would be even better." I suppose he must've remembered that his friends in the White House read his every word.

Whatever happens in Iraq (and perhaps to the horror of Mr. Friedman we'll probably see some form of an Islamic republic there) nothing will alter the fact that Iran is, and will remain, the biggest beneficiary of the decision by the Bush administration to enforce regime-change in Iraq. Wanting a different outcome won't change that.