Iran is very happy that its old enemy Saddam Hussein is gone, says Steve Yetiv, professor of political science at Old Dominion University. But it does not want the United States to replace him. That leads to a delicate balancing act, says Professor Yetiv:
"It wants Iraq to be unstable enough that America decides to leave the region because it is getting a black eye in Iraq. But it doesn't want Iraq to be so unstable that after America leaves, Iran has an unstable state on its borders."
Iran has been sending people and money to Iraq, rivaling the United States in reconstruction efforts and cultivating ties, above all, with Iraq's Shia, who comprise 60% of the population. A shrewd policy, rather carefully conducted, seems to be paying off, says Professor Yetiv:
"I would say that Iran is more influential now in Iraq than it has been in decades, but that there are certain limits to Iran's influence, partly because of the sheer instability in Iraq and also because Iraq's Shia are not simply going to embrace all that Iran wants them to embrace."
Iraq's Shia are not a replica of Iran's. For one thing, they remained largely loyal to Iraq in the near eight-year war with Iran, putting country above religion. Nor in general do Shia want clerical rule. Their foremost leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, prefers indirect participation in government and is noted for his moderation.
Abbas Amanat, director of Middle East Studies at Yale University, says the Shia of Iraq are by no means subservient to Iran.
"It is even wrong to believe that they have the same aspirations as the Iranians. These are two different populations with two different ways of looking at things, although they share Shia beliefs and practices and although the presence of the clerical establishment in both communities is important."
In the interest of regional stability, Iran wants Iraq to hold together, says Professor Amanat, and not separate into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish parts. Iran is even wary of a federal system:
"Iran also has a sizable Kurdish population and if secessionism in Iraq comes from the Kurds, it may inspire similar sentiments within the Iranian border, and they would be very reluctant to see such a development. Besides, they have the experience of Afghanistan and the destruction of the central powers there, and they do not want to see a repetition of that in Iraq."
In this effort, says Professor Amanat, Iran will have the help of Turkey, equally concerned about its Kurdish population.
Iranians, it is true, have American troops on its border in Afghanistan as well as Iraq. Even so, says Professor Amanat, their position is strategically improved.
"To everybody's surprise, they are even more secure than they were about two years ago before the invasion of Iraq; namely, that although they have Americans now on their frontiers, they no longer have the Taliban or Saddam Hussein, which is to their advantage. And I don't think the United States is in a position to take any military action against Iran. Therefore, in effect, the climate for them to do what they want to do is favorable."
But the United States is very unhappy with Iran's possible development of nuclear weapons to counter, it is said, Israel's regional monopoly. Iran denies any such intention, but evidence suggests otherwise. That keeps harsh U.S. economic sanctions in place on Iran, which is also accused of aiding certain terrorist groups.
There is talk in some quarters of a possible Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, but that would be far more daunting than the strike on Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981. Professor Amanat says it would shatter regional stability and unleash a ferocious anti-Americanism.
There is also more than one Iran. While hard-liners, basically in control of the country, pursue a fairly rigid anti-American line, moderates in opposition are not so hostile to the United States and in some cases, favorably disposed. As they in time come to power, says Professor Yetiv, they will follow a different policy.
"I do believe that Iran will slowly emerge out of a period where the clerics have more influence than the moderates and that people power will also take effect in that political spectrum. And all of that will move Iran into position to be if not a good ally of the United States, at least a state that has correct relations with Washington."
That, in turn, could improve the chances of establishing a stable and integrated Iraq.