WASHINGTON -- The language that Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker used Tuesday to describe the Iranian role in Iraq was extreme -- and telling. They spoke of Tehran's "nefarious activities," its "malign influence" and how it posed "the greatest long-term threat to the viability" of the Baghdad government.
Iran was the heart of the matter during Senate testimony on the war. With al-Qaeda on the run in Iraq, the Iranian threat has become the rationale for the mission, and also the explanation for our shortcomings. The Iranians are the reason we're bogged down in Iraq, and also the reason we can't pull out our troops. The mullahs in Tehran loom over the Iraq battlefield like a giant "Catch-22."
The order of battle in Iraq isn't likely to change significantly for the rest of the year. That was Petraeus' implicit message when he was asked about additional troop withdrawals after July, when U.S. forces are to return to their pre-surge levels. He spoke opaquely about a 45-day period of "consolidation and evaluation," followed by an additional, open-ended period of "assessment." The translation was that he wants to keep the most robust possible force there, to prevent security from deteriorating on his watch. That's understandable for a commander, but it means the question of future troop strength will land squarely on the shoulders of the next president.
And inescapably, the issue of containing Iran will fall to the next American president, too. Can a new administration draw the malign adversary that Petraeus and Crocker described into a new security architecture for the region? Can America reduce its forces in Iraq, without creating a dangerous vacuum to be filled by Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Shiite militias?
Who will bell the Iranian cat? That was the question lurking behind Tuesday's testimony. U.S. officials, even the most sophisticated ones such as Petraeus and Crocker, sometimes speak as if Iranian mischief in Iraq is a recent development. "The hand of Iran was very clear in recent weeks," said Petraeus at one point. But it has a long history.
Iran's covert campaign to reshape Iraq has been clear since the U.S. invasion in March 2003. Iranian intelligence officers prepared lists of Iraqis for assassination in the weeks and months after the war; they sent Iranian-trained mullahs to take over the Shiite mosques of central and southern Iraq that had been smashed by Saddam Hussein; they pumped an estimated $12 million a week in covert financial support into their allies as the January 2005 election approached; they infiltrated all the major Shiite political parties, and many of the Sunni ones, too.
The Iranians have fixed the political game. They are on all sides at once. They have links to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Dawa Party; they funnel money to the Badr organization of Shiite cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, which is a key recruiting ground for the Iraqi army; they provide weapons, training and command and control for the most extreme factions of the Mahdi Army. Moqtada al-Sadr, the Mahdi Army's nominal leader, is actually living in the Iranian holy city of Qom, suffering from what intelligence sources believe may be clinical depression. A useful ploy would be to invite him to come home, and see if he can be drawn into negotiations.
The Iranians were able to start the recent trouble in Basra and Baghdad through one set of operatives, then negotiate a cease-fire through another. In short, they play the Iraqi lyre on all its strings.
Fighting a war against Iran is a bad idea. But fighting a proxy war against them in Iraq, where many of our key allies are manipulated by Iranian networks of influence, may be even worse. The best argument for keeping American troops in Iraq is that it increases our leverage against Iran; but paradoxically, that's also a good argument for reducing U.S. troops to a level that's politically and militarily sustainable. It could give America greater freedom of maneuver in the tests with Iran that are ahead.
Somehow, the next president will have to fuse U.S. military and diplomatic power to both engage Iran and set limits on its activities. A U.S.-Iranian dialogue is a necessary condition for future stability in the Middle East. But the wrong deal, negotiated by a weak America with a cocky Iran that thinks it's on a roll, would be a disaster.
Crocker has it right when he says, "Almost everything about Iraq is hard." That's especially true of the Iran problem. Petraeus and Crocker were taking the hard questions Tuesday, but soon enough it will be one of the presidential candidates who were dispensing sound bites Tuesday: John McCain, Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.