A few months ago, Washington circles saw him as “Tehran’s man” in Baghdad. Today, Tehran circles label him “Washington’s man” in Baghdad.
The man thus targeted is Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki whose coalition government has the unenviable task of keeping the Americans in, when they do not want to stay, and the Iranians out, when they want to come in.
Those Americans, including some leaders of the new Democrat majority in Washington, who opposed the liberation of Iraq from the start, or changed their minds about it later, blame Maliki for doing nothing to hasten the departure of US troops.
They attack Maliki for not imposing a blanket pardon of Baathists regardless of what they did during four decades of despotic domination.
They also take him to task for rejecting federal schemes that could lead to the disintegration of the Iraqi state. Also, they criticize Maliki because he refuses the sharing out Iraq’s income form oil as if it were loot among thieves.
These American critics want Maliki to throw Iraq to the wolves so that Jack Murtha and Michael Moore can prove that toppling Saddam Hussein was wrong.
Maliki’s Khomeinist critics in Tehran have their own beef with him.
To start with, as the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) noted recently, Maliki is “too pro-Arab”. Translated into plain language this means that the Khomeinists dislike Maliki because he emphasizes the Iraqi Shiite majority’s Arab identity rather than religious affiliation.
Last month, Ali Khamenehei the top mullah in the Khomeinist system, attacked Maliki in a round-about way. He recalled that many leaders of new Iraq spent years in Iran as exiles, and implied that it was payback time.
Maliki, however, has offered no favors to the mullahs. He visited half a dozen capitals in the early stages of his premiership, but pointedly left out Tehran. He also turned out Tehran’s offer of hosting a regional conference on Iraq, preferring to hold the exercise first in Baghdad and, later this year, in Cairo.
Maliki has also given the green light to a crackdown on Shiite militias and death-squads, serving notice that the war of the sectarians must end.
Within the next few weeks, Maliki is expected to further anger Tehran by dropping from his Cabinet all the five Sadrist ministers beholden to the mullahs.
Tehran has already indicated its displeasure by activating its networks in Iraq to organize last week’s demonstrations in Najaf.
Despite months of pressure from Tehran, Maliki has also refused to scrap the maritime inspection mission of the coalition forces under a mandate from the United Nations Security Council.
(The 15 British sailors captured by Tehran last month were operating within that mission.)
Tehran wants the mission terminated for two reasons.
First, it wants to impose total control on the Shatt al-Arab, a border waterway between Iran and Iraq, thus violating the 1975 Algiers agreement that established the thalweg (the deepest channel in the river) as the frontier between the two neighbors.
Exclusive control of the estuary would enable the Islamic Republic to impose its terms for a future continental shelf agreement with both Iraq and Kuwait. In plain language, the Islamic Republic wishes to control access to Iraq’s 75-kilometre long coastline on the Gulf, turning the Iraqi ports of Basra, Um-Qasar, Al-Bakr and Fao into strategic hostages.
If such a scheme were imposed, the Islamic Republic would also control access to the Kuwait islands of Warbah and Bubiyan, designated as new development zones by the Kuwaiti government.
The second reason why Tehran wants Maliki to scrap the maritime inspection mission is the mullahs’ fear that the UN might, at some point, use the mechanism against the Islamic Republic in the context of the current showdown over the nuclear issue.
The two resolutions recently passed by the United Nations’ Security Council against the Islamic Republic, would allow the monitoring of Iranian naval traffic in the Gulf to continue from Iraqi bases even after the US-led coalition has left Iraq.
The Maliki government has also made a number of moves to reassert Iraqi sovereignty over chunks of the border with the Islamic Republic that had become no-man’s land or seized by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG).
The IRCG captured part of the Zaynalkosh salient, some 1800 square-kilometers, shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and has built a number of fortifications there. The Maliki government, however, has refused to accept what is, in effect, an open theft of Iraqi.
Tehran is also sore that the Maliki government has re-imposed visas for Iranians, making it more difficult to smuggle Khomeinist agents among the thousands of Iranian pilgrims who travel to Iraq each day.
Worse still, the Maliki government has arrested, or acquiesced in the arrest of, more than a dozen senior IRGC officers, including two generals still held by the Americans in Baghdad.
The most important cause of Tehran’s anger, however, is Maliki’s strategic vision of Iraq’s relations with the Western democracies, led by the United States.
The mullahs want Iraq to become a theatre of historic humiliation for Western democracies, especially the US.
They hope to see the Americans and their allies running away, not withdrawing in the context of an agreement with a friendly Iraqi government. They want the credit for chasing away the Americans to go to Tehran and its Iraqi allies, notably Muqtada al-Sadr.
Maliki, however, wants the US-led coalition out of Iraq only when new Iraq is capable of defending itself against its enemies, including the Khomeinist regime in Tehran. Beyond that, he wants to maintain a strategic partnership with the Western democracies in the interest of Iraq’s economic development and social transformation.
Maliki is attacked by both the mullahs and Jack Murtha Democrats in Washington. Both hate him because he is working to prevent their respective dreams from coming true.
The mullahs dream of that “last helicopter” that flies from the rooftop of the US Embassy in Baghdad, spelling the end of the American hopes of bringing decent government to Iraq.
The Murtha Democrats may not want a conclusive American defeat in Iraq, but would like something that looks like one. Only perceived defeat in Iraq would give their party something with which to unite its base and make a bid for the White House next year.
It may be a coincidence. However, each time Congressman Murtha throws a poisonous arrow at Maliki, he is followed by one of Tehran’s mullahs doing the same. Who knows, may be Maliki is doing something right!