U.S. squanders as Iranian threat grows | VailDaily.com

U.S. squanders as Iranian threat grows

Nick Fickling

“Hezbollah trains Iraqi militants in Iran,” reads the headline. What is Iran up to? Why, with the world’s most powerful army and largest economy, can we not bring order to Iraq, keep Iran in check and keep the Shiite Mahdi army from attacking the “safe” Baghdad Green Zone with impunity? Is the radical Shiite cleric al-Sadr really in control of Mahdi militia or are other breakaway factions responsible? Has Al-Qaida been defeated in Iraq and, if so, why bother with a disparate Shiite militia and Iran?

According to the latest from the Bush Administration, Iranian-supplied and -controlled “rogue elements” of the Shiite Mahdi Army are the challenge now. Bush claims the coalition forces are essentially fighting an Iranian proxy-war in Iraq. This helps explain why the mighty U.S. Army is seemingly incapable of controlling a rag-tag collection of Shiite splinter groups, but is it accurate? The Iranians are probably helping Iraqi Shiite insurgents, but to paint their involvement as a war effort against coalition forces is probably exaggeration. The Iranians are Shiite but, whereas Iraqi Shiites are Arab and speak Arabic, Iranian Shiites are Persian, speak Farsi and follow a slightly different Shia faith. There is infighting and a power struggle among Iraqi Shiites, but the tension between Iraqi Arabs and Iranian Persians is probably more entrenched and lasting. President Ahmedinajad’s recent Baghdad red carpet reception implied a closer relationship than exists. Iran wants influence and control over Iraq, not to share the same bed.

Iran dominated the entire region under the Shah, and seeks to regain that position. The Shah introduced a liberal western culture to Iran, and was deposed in 1979. Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980, taking advantage of the chaos there. The war that followed lasted until 1988 with millions dying in WWI-style trench warfare. Iranian Ayatollahs have struggled to keep western influence in check ever since the Shah introduced it. They want to project Iranian economic and military might throughout the Middle East, but that takes money and, even with oil, they are not flush with cash.

After the Iran-Iraq war, they found it easier to use implied and actual external threats to justify military expenditure, and keep western influences at bay. The 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, almost 30,000 more in Afghanistan, two carrier groups in the Gulf, international sanctions and a bellicose U.S. president help justify, to the Iranian people, Iran’s nuclear weapon development and military expenditure. Assisting Iraqi Shiite militia to keep U.S. forces pinned down and weak is a cheap way to prolong the threat that justifies their military expenditure, diverts attention from internal issues, and helps them appear all powerful in the Gulf Region. While Bush flounders, Ahmedinajad develops strategic alliances with Russia et al, quietly growing Iran’s economy and his influence in the Middle East. Why take on the United States directly when far more power, influence and money can be gained by quietly stirring things while watching the United States spend its wealth, youth and international reputation through the debacle that is present-day Iraq?

The United States is powerless to act. It does not have the troops to take on Iran on the ground, and bombing Iran might lead them to start a real proxy war and seriously interfere with U.S. military supply lines. U.S.-bound oil tankers in the straits of Hormuz might also be vulnerable. Think what that would do to gas prices.

We are in a hole and it is time to stop digging. Any soldier will tell you that fighting a counter insurgency operation in the midst of a civil war, with a weak host government, multiple enemies, long and extremely vulnerable supply lines, unclear objectives and in an inhospitable climate does not make good military sense. Our troops are in for a long, hot summer with little respite in sight this side of the November elections.

Nick Fickling is retired from the British military and lives in the Vail Valley. E-mail him at fickling@vail.net or editor@vailtrail.com.

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