WASHINGTON: Despite the growing number of reports depicting the past week's uprising by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army as a spontaneous and indigenous revolt, some influential US neoconservatives are insisting on Iran's involvement.
They are calling on the administration of President George W. Bush to warn Tehran to cease its alleged backing of Sadr and other Shiite militias or risk retaliation, ranging from an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities to covert action designed to overthrow the government.
But independent experts on both Iran and Iraq say that, while Iran has no doubt provided various forms of assistance to Shiite factions in Iraq since Saddam Hussein's ouster one year ago, it is unlikely it would support any major effort at destabilizing the situation, least of all one led by Sadr, whose family has long had rocky ties with Iran.
"Those elements closest to Iran among the Shiite clerics (in Iraq) have been the most moderate through all of this," said Shaul Bakhash, an expert on Iran at George Mason University here. "The relationship between Iran's clerical community and the Sadr family has not been very good."
Regional specialists agree Iran has a strategic interest in avoiding any train of events that risk plunging Iraq into chaos or civil war and partition - scenarios that loomed into view with startling clarity during the past week's fighting.
The neoconservative effort to blame Iran for the Sadr uprising is the latest in a series of moves since the invasion of Iraq to raise tensions between Washington and Tehran. Virtually from the moment that US troops entered Baghdad, neoconservatives inside the administration - and their colleagues outside, such as former Defense Policy Board chief Richard Perle and Michael Ledeen - have called for Washington to work to oust the "mullahcracy." Despite their efforts, the State Department, with the help of Washington's European allies, had largely succeeded in arresting the downward trend in ties since last December when Washington sent relief supplies to the survivors of Iran's Bam earthquake.
With Sadr's uprising, the neoconservatives see an opportunity to both regain the offensive against Iran and divert attention from the bungling of the Pentagon and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), whose confrontation with Sadr appears to have radicalized a significant part of Iraq's Shiite community.
Top US officials here and in Iraq have not yet identified Iran as the hidden hand behind Sadr, although a senior reporter at the Washington Times, Rowan Scarborough, quoted unidentified "military sources" Wednesday as telling him that Sadr "is being aided directly by Iran's Revolutionary Guard ... and by Hizbullah." Both groups, say a source cited by Scarborough, "are supplying the cleric with money, spiritual support and possibly weapons."
"Iran does not want a success in Iraq," the source said, adding, "a democratic Iraq is a death knell to the mullahs."
The Iran hand was first raised in connection with Sadr's revolt by Michael Rubin, recently returned from a "governance team adviser" to the CPA to his position as a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). In a column titled Iraqi Democrats Feeling Sidelined in the Los Angeles Times Sunday, Rubin complained Washington and the CPA had failed to provide liberal and democratic Iraqi leaders with anything like the kind of support Iran supplied to radical Shiite leaders and their "gang."
"The Iranians are flooding the city and countryside with money," Rubin quotes a southern governor as telling him. "Whomever they can't buy, they threaten."
With that bit of intelligence in mind, Rubin writes that he traveled to the region to investigate and soon found Iranians were pouring money and arms to key Islamist parties, including the Dawa, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and Sadr himself, whose rise over the past year, according to Rubin, is explained principally by "ample funding he receives through Iran-based cleric Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri, a close associate of Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini."
In an interview with The Daily Star earlier this week, another top CPA adviser also identified with the neo-conservative camp echoed Rubin's words. Larry Diamond, a democracy expert at the California-based Hoover Institution, said Sadr's Mehdi Army, as well as other Shiite militias, is being armed and financed by Iran with the aim of imposing "another Iranian-style theocracy."
"Iran is embarked on a clever, lavishly resourced campaign to defeat any effort for any genuine pluralist democracy in Iraq," Diamond said.
"I think we should tell the Iranian regime that if they don't cease and desist, we will play the same game, that we will destabilize them," he added.
On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal's editorial page took up the same theme, noting Sadr has talked "openly of creating an Iranian-style Islamic Republic in Iraq (and) has visited Tehran since the fall of Saddam. ... (His) Mehdi Army is almost certainly financed and trained by Iranians," the editorial continued, adding, "Revolutionary Guards may be instigating some of the current unrest."
"As for Tehran, we would hope the Sadr uprising puts to rest the illusion that the mullahs can be appeased ... Iran's mullahs fear a Muslim democracy in Iraq because is it a direct threat to their own rule," the journal suggested.
Finally, on Wednesday William Safire reiterated the link the between Sadr and Iran in his New York Times column calling for an unsparing and resolute crackdown against the cleric, arguing that Iran, Hizbullah and Syria were all acting in cahoots with the young radical.
"We should break the Iranian-Hizbullah-Sadr connection in ways that our special forces know how to do," he wrote. "Plenty of Iraqi Shiites, who are Arab and distrust the Persian ayatollahs in Iran, can provide actionable intelligence about a Syrian transmission belt" that presumably is used to infiltrate Hizbullah members into Iraq.
This line of reasoning appears particularly curious to Bakhash who notes that the Sadr family, including Moqtada himself, is precisely the kind of Iraqi Shiite who would be and probably is, deeply suspicious of Tehran. "Sadr's father was a strong Iraqi nationalist, like Moqtada himself," Bakhash told The Daily Star.
Like other experts, Bakhash believes that Iran has been heavily involved with the Shiite community, but sees the leadership providing far more support to SCIRI and its Badr brigades, who have so far stayed out of the fray, than to Sadr, seen as untrustworthy.
Like others, he also questions the assumption that Iran wants to destabilize Iraq or prevent the rise of a democratic government which is likely, in any event, to empower the Shiite community to an unprecedented extent. "Obviously the Iranians are not unhappy to see the Americans discomfited in Iraq, but I don't think it's the policy of the Iranian government to destabilize Iraq right along its own border," he said.
Middle East historian Juan Cole of the University of Michigan also questions the notion of a link between Iran and Sadr in the uprising. While Sadr's views on a theocracy are consistent with those of Iranian hard-liners, according to Cole, his outspoken Iraqi nationalism poses a major challenge to Khameini's claim to authority over all Shiite religious communities.
Cole writes that, contrary to the journal's assumptions, Sadr did not receive much encouragement from Iranians leaders with whom he met. "The message he got ... was that he should stop being so divisive and should cooperate more with the other Shiite leaders," he said.
Geoffrey Kemp, an Iran specialist at the Nixon Center and Middle East adviser on former President Ronald Reagan's National Security Council staff, says he has little doubt that the Iranians have influence with several different Shiite groups and that there may even be "rogue elements" inside Iraq who back Sadr.
"The situation is far too complex to make simplistic statements about what Iran is or is not doing," Kemp told The Daily Star. "But to suggest that this is an Iranian-inspired insurrection is a stretch.
"The neoconservatives are all so heavily invested in the success of Iraq that, instead of blaming the Pentagon for some extraordinary blunders, they want to blame everyone else - the State Department, the Iranians, the Syrians for the mess that was partly of their own making," he added.
Cole, in fact, has raised questions about how some of those blunders - including the CPA's confrontational decision to close Sadr's newspaper and arrest his top deputy - came to be committed, suggesting that some neocons may themselves have been pushing for a crisis for "all sorts of ulterior motives."
Cole notes that on April 2, Sadr expressed solidarity with Lebanon's Hizbullah and Palestinian Hamas whose spiritual leader, sheikh Ahmed Yassin, was assassinated in an Israeli rocket attack last month. The following day, Sadr's top aide and 13 of his followers were arrested on a six-month-old warrant, touching off the insurrection. "Who provoked (the arrests) and why?" asked Cole, adding that the conflagration that followed was entirely predictable.