June 12, 2008

NIAC Memo: Who Is Making Tehran’s Iraq Policy?

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Washington, DC – One of the most curious aspects of reporting on Iran is the never-ending search for finding the one person that “really” makes policy. The latest example of this search can be found in David Ignatius’ June 8 Washington Post column in which the reader is informed that it is really not the “bombastic” Ahmadinejad but the “soft-spoken” commander of the Quds Force of Islamic Revolution’s Guard Corps (IRGC), Brigadier General Qassem Soleimani, “who plays a decisive role in his nation’s confrontation with the United States.” Soleimani’s name has in fact been in the news for a while because of his alleged role in brokering the cease-fire that restored calm in Basra in March.

Perhaps it is the history of the United States’ dealings with most Middle Eastern countries (Israel and Turkey excepted) and the tradition or habit of dealing with one strongman as the ultimate decision maker that creates the hope or aspiration to find the one person that holds the key to Iran’s decision making process. Or perhaps it is the tendency, when in doubt or short evidence, to go with the fad of the moment.

This habit is so well established that when a candidate such as Soleimani appears, the tendency is to anoint such a person as the sole player pulling all strings behind the scene. The trouble is that decision making in Iran, like elsewhere, is not that simple. But with this mindset, once the anointed person, and the institution associated with him, fails to deliver as the sole decision maker, the search for another man “really” in power continues, giving the whole exercise a faddish quality.

Since the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for instance, it has been in vogue to talk about the IRGC in general and the Qods Force as the THE power in Iran (with consequential impact throughout the Middle East). To be sure, the Guards’ hierarchy as well as its individual members have and do play an important role in Iranian politics. The birth of the Islamic Republic was inextricably linked to the Iran-Iraq War and as such it should not be surprisingly to anyone that the body and individuals that played important roles in that war continue to be influential, with or without Ahmadinejad.

But there is also this reality that the Iranian polity has historically been under civilian control. As an institution, the military in both pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary Iran has behaved very differently than let us say the militaries in Pakistan or Turkey, where wholesale taking charge of the political system by military men has occurred occasionally or as in the case of Pakistan even more than occasionally. Ironically, the comparable country to Iran in this regard is perhaps Israel, another political system born and bred in war, in which military officers are also quite often prone to political ambition.

In Iran, even if there has been a rise in the power of hard-line IRGC men, the focus on one individual within the Guards as the decision maker is quite misplaced. This is not to suggest that someone like Soleimani has no influence. It has been reported that Soleimani sits on the committee for regional affairs of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council — consisting of him as well as the chief of intelligence of IRGC, the deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs (who also heads the Foreign Ministry’s Iraq Desk), Mohammd Reza Baqer, a team of experts on Iranian-Arab relations and Iran’s ambassadors to Arab countries (Hassan Kazemi-Qomi in the case of Iraq). Focusing in particular on developments in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territories, the task of this committee is to advise on the appropriate policies to be pursued. But the final decision makers are civilians (some well known because of their institutional positions and others like the head of the supreme leader Khamenei’s security office, the cleric Asghar Hejazi, or his chief of staff Mohammad Golpayegani, also a cleric, wielding less publicized influence).

Furthermore, regarding Iran’s Iraq policy, it is simply difficult to accept that Soleimani wields more (or for that matter less) influence or has more input in the decision making process than let us say the current head of IRGC, Mohammad Ali (Aziz) Jaafari, who prior to his current position was in charge of setting up IRGC’s Strategic Center, a center tasked with drawing up a new command structure and military strategy, preparing the country for the changing regional environment and the kind of foreign military confrontation it may have to face; or Iran’s Iraq ambassador Kazemi Qomi, reportedly himself a former Qods force member.

These key individuals and many others must be in constant interaction to set and reassess policies that are partially shaped by a long-term interest in a relatively calm Iraq that maintains close political, economic, and security relations with Iran and also developed in reaction to Iraq’s complex domestic dynamics and US plans for that country.

Within this context one does not need to search for a scheming and all powerful individual like Soleimani to figure out that the Iranian leadership as a whole, in all its contentious variety, would have to be engaged in constant conversation and planning (and at times improvisation) about how to stunt plans that would make the US military presence in Iraq permanent or make that country a launching pad for an attack on Iran. The rejection of this possibility was of course precisely the assurance Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was repeatedly giving Iranian leaders in his visit to Iran this week.

One also doesn’t have to be a genius to guess that, hunkered down in a security and paranoid mode due to the escalating economic and political pressures, not to mention military threats, the Iranian policy makers are trying very hard to convince the Bush Administration that an attack on Iran will be costly.

Dr. Farideh Farhi is an independent researcher and an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Hawai’i.




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