Writing in the Weekly Standard, Tom Donnelly, an AEI fellow, singled out my recent Nation piece on the battle of Basra, in which I noted (1) that Iran emerged victorious by mediating an end to the conflict and (2) that Muqtada al-Sadr humiliated Prime Minister Maliki by stalling his offensive in the southern Iraqi city last month. Somewhat laughably, Donnelly suggests House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (who came to similar conclusions) was "parroting the left's judgment" (especially mine). If only.
You can read all of Donnelly's piece here, and mine here.
Donnelly makes some points that need responding to, however.
First, he points out that Iran endorsed Maliki's offensive against "outlaws" in Basra, and that Iraqi government forces have now taken control of several neighborhoods in Basra that had been Sadr strongholds--all true. But what does Donnelly make of this? Here's what apparently happened: as the Basra battle stalled, Iran brokered a deal that persuaded Sadr to stand down in Basra. (This was the deal brokered by the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.) Iran made a tactical decision to back the alliance between Maliki and the IRGC-trained Badr Corps of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. That's not surprising, since Iran has long backed ISCI and its chief Iraqi ally. It's odd, and interesting, that the neocons are sanguine about Iran's close ties to the Maliki-ISCI regime, and I've written extensively (here and here) about how the neocons got into bed with Iran's allies in Iraq. Donnelly is doing it again.
Second, Donnelly points out that the Iranian ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, opposes the U.S.-led assault on Sadr City in Baghdad. True also. But he doesn't comment on the significance of this, saying nonchalantly: "It's very difficult to tell who's up and who's down in Baghdad on a day-to-day basis." Yet this is a crucial point. Iran has played a careful, and highly effective, balancing game, in which it titrates its support for Maliki-ISCI with support to Sadr as well. Iran is building up chips in Iraq, and it's willing to trade those chips for a broader deal with the United States. During my recent trip to Iran, many Iranian officials said exactly that, stressing that Iraq is a place where the United States and Iran can agree. But the neocons don't want a deal with Iran. They want a pro-American Iraq that can be used to "roll back" the "rogue state" of Iran, as John McCain might say.
Donnelly insists that the "surge" has brought the U.S. to the brink of victory in Iraq. "This moment of flux is also a moment of tremendous opportunity for the United States and its Iraqi allies," he writes, one that can "[bring] to power a newly responsive central government." But he doesn't say exactly how. Obviously, such a central government would have to marry Shia power with Sunni resistance and Kurdish separatism in some broad accord. What's the evidence that this is happening? Will Iran help persuade its Shia allies to make concessions to the Sunnis, incuding the new Sons of Iraq sahwa movement? They might, but there's not much evidence they will. More likely is that some new nationalist formation will gradually emerge among the Shia of Baghdad and southern Iraq, a sort of Shia Sons of Iraq movement, that will defeat the power of the separatist ISCI forces. If that happens, it will be with the support of millions of independent, nationalist-minded Shia, including the tribes of southern Iraq. That force will also include most, if not all, of Sadr's movement -- whether or not Sadr goes along. And it will include hundreds of thousands of Shia ex-Baathists, many of whom have found a home in Sadr's movement.