Less than a week after American troops left, an earthquake-like crisis is growing rapidly in Iraq. Some folks had warned that Iran would move to replace the Americans while others said Iraqi nationalism would prevent that. It's starting to look like the first group was right.
Admittedly, I claim no evidence of Iranian involvement. However, is it even conceivable that Maliki could dare make such bold and undemocratic moves without the endorsement and support of The Big Neighbor? Arresting the heads of opposition parties on made-up charges is a perfect copy of Khamenei's style (the jailed Mousavi and Karoubbi). Recent shoot-yourself-in-the-foot moves by Iran's mullahs suggest a tendency to gamble. With Assad going down, Iran is desperate for a replacement and another Islamic republic next door would do just fine. Pull it off and it's a nice gain for a regime that needs good news.
Of course the operating assumptions look weak: A. Iran would be able to set up a friendly puppet state easily and B) no one would notice Iran's involvement until it was a fait accompli. But since 2009 the regime has a history of operating on bad assumptions. In one outrage after another it took for granted that no one would pay much attention (blatantly rigged elections, subsequent crimes, the Saudi Ambassador plot). One reason may be that occasionally Khamenei got away with it (covert military aid in Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and possibly in Syria at present).
What would Khamenei prefer for Iraq if successful? An identical twin headed by Supreme Leader Al Sadr or an appendage that defers to Khamenei as a sort of Shiite Pope? Khamenei is not known for tolerating potential rivals. On the other hand, insisting on Iraqi "deference" approach might arouse nationalism even among supposed "friendlies."
For now Khamenei would be playing a role similar to Milosevic in Bosnia. He would encourage sectarian dominance next door and--rathen than send armies openly, he would "loan" weapons, offer trainers and send well armed "volunteers," stripped of their usual uniforms as the regime did in once prosperous Lebanon. He also can hope to promote ultranationalism at home and a "rally around the leader" mood to compensate for his recent loss of popular legitimacy. Unfortunately events since 2009 have primed Iranians to suspect anything Khamenei says these days. Don't expect many volunteers willing to act as human mine field clearers these days. Anyone that crazy won't be mourned by most Iranians who know what such types do for the leader back home in Iran.
HOW ANGRY NEIGHBORS MAY RESPOND
I doubt Iran's neighbors would sit still for all this--not Saudi Arabia, not Turkey, not other most Gulf States and not
Israel. Unlike the poor Bosnians, the Iraq minorities being targeted can expect lots of outside help. They know how to make IEDS and suicide belts as well as Al Mahdi army types. It's only fair if the discontented Iranian majority and oppressed minorities accoss the border get similar help.
INCREASED SUPPORT FOR AN OIL BOYCOTT?
If approved, an oil boycott on Iran could bring down this regime in less than a year. Approval requires that the Saudis ramp up oil production to to keep prices level. It's bad enough to have an aggressive neighbor with imperial ambitions with a record of encouraging, and training mini-Hezbollahs. Worse, Iran is seeking nukes. In this cauldron even the slightest suspicion of Khamenei's meddlng in Iraq should be enough to overrule any reservations about assisting sanctions. Whatever it may cost in the short run is worth it if the aggressive mullahs aren't around two or three years from now.
As usual, the Iranian government will deny any involvement in Iraq's crisis but those denials will have little effect. No one believes a thing that regime has to say these days. That's the downside of relying on the Goebbel's propaganda model. Now the regime is put in the position of having to do the impossible (prove the negative). The general attitude of Iranians and Arabs is, "You denied so many things we know beyond doubt to be true so why should we believe you this time?"
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