We needn't give credence to the idea of a vast "Shiite crescent" stretching from Iran to Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to appreciate the challenge posed by the Iranian theocrats to the American project in Iraq and to the order of that Greater Middle East. These are crafty players, the men who rule that radical realm. The networks of terror they have at their disposal have a way of overlooking the fine distinctions of theology and politics. In its struggle for primacy in the habitat around it, Iran is not a Shiite power per se: It aids and abets a Shiite-armed movement in Lebanon and also works with the Sunni die-hards of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories.
In the Iraqi theater of great concern to us, Iran has been sly and duplicitous. It can dial up the violence and dial it down; it can arm and wink at the forces of the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr while professing fidelity to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. There are two huge Shiite parties battling for primacy in Basra and the south, the devotees of Sadr and the followers of his archrivals in the Supreme Islamic Council and its Badr Brigade, and Iran has links to both. Purity has not been a burden that Iran is saddled with. Basra, the "economic capital" of Iraq, the terminal for its oil exports, has been a perfect target of opportunity for the Iranians. They are nearby, their networks of intelligence and smuggling deeply entrenched in that city.
The Iranians have done well by the British abdication in Basra. Last fall, the British shifted to an "overwatch" role, pulling back from the city to a sheltered base. Deeper withdrawals were in the offing, the government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown let it be known. The belief in the Iraq war that had animated the policy of Tony Blair is not shared by his successor. The Iranians and the militias and the criminal gangs rushed to fill the vacuum and to lay claim to the spoils. No one knows for sure the extent of criminal activity and smuggling that take place in the oil traffic in Basra. But it is reckoned to be large and profitable enough to sustain the militias and the warlords who contest the government's power in that city and in the south as a whole.
In the recent battle for Basra between the forces of Maliki's government and its opponents, the British were pulled into the fight. They provided logistical support for Iraqi units. And the British government announced a pause in its planned drawdown of its troops from their zone of operation in Basra. In truth, after the pacification of Anbar province and the cutting down of the terrorist group Al Qaeda in Iraq by the Sunni Arab tribes themselves, there are two theaters of trouble: one, the fight in the northern part of the country, in the city of Mosul, against al Qaeda; the other, the battle for Basra and the south. Ideally, the U.S. military command would have preferred to stay with the fight in the north, where its assets, and those of the Iraqi Army, are much greater than they are in Basra. But Maliki opted for the fight in the south. In this intra-Shiite battle, Iran had plenty of room for maneuver.
Containment. Beyond this inconclusive battle for Basra lies the larger question of containing Iran in Iraq—and beyond. Iran's theocratic rulers have a history of inserting themselves into our presidential elections. Those with long memories need only recall the torment meted out by the Iranians to Jimmy Carter and the role of the hostage crisis so cruelly and exquisitely manipulated by the Iranians in Carter's defeat in 1980. We shall no doubt see, and feel, Iran's fine touch in the months to come. The Iranians fight us on the cheap: For our great power, there is their subversion. They have proxies aplenty; they are of that region and know it better. Their religious pilgrims to Iraq can conceal multitudes of terrorists.
In a perfect world, the Arab neighbors of Iran ought to balance and contest Iran's power. But the Arabs today are mere spectators to their own destiny and are hopelessly divided. They've had nothing to offer Iraq save subversion and incitement. Iran is left with a role far greater than its own weight should allow. As the Bush presidency draws to a close, we should not be surprised as the Iranians try to show that America's work in the region, its wars and diplomacy, and its larger hopes for a less lethal Middle East have been in vain.