The Looming Power Struggle with Iran

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gives an address commemorating Iran's late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose photo towers in the background. Hassan Ammar/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Hassan Ammar/AFP/Getty Images

Consider the Jordanians as a canary in the Middle Eastern coal mine, an early warning system in a dangerous region that could become infinitely more dangerous. Certainly Jordan — small, vulnerable and ultra-sensitive to developing threats — is bracing itself for very bad times.

Jordan's king, Abdullah II, has been warning for some time now of the development of a Shiite crescent; an arc of Islamic fundamentalism stretching from the Persian Gulf to Egypt and beyond. Visiting Jordan a few days ago, I spent a couple of hours with a senior Jordanian intelligence official. "Forget the crescent,” he told me. "Before long, we may be looking at a full moon.”

Like anyone else, the Jordanians are concerned first and foremost about their own security and welfare. But their worries should also resonate in Washington. My briefer — who didn't want to be identified by name or rank, so let's call him Mr. X — is particularly uneasy about the Bush administration's strategy of promoting democracy in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.

"Islamic fundamentalists,” he told me, "consider democratic reform to be like toilet paper. You use it once, and then you throw it away.” There is no doubt in his mind that the Shiites in Iraq are using democracy in this fashion, simply to gain power, with no intention whatsoever of continuing democratic reform beyond that point.

Mr. X contends that Washington only has two options in the region. And both, he concedes, are unpalatable. To promote democracy is to play into the hands of America's enemies: in Iraq, where the Shiites enjoy an overwhelming majority; among Palestinians in Gaza and on the West Bank, where Hamas — Sunni Moslems, but considered a terrorist organization by the United States — recently won power in a free election; in a Lebanon dominated by Hezbollah, also labeled terrorists by Washington; and in Eygpt.

Egypt, Mr. X agrees, is run by an aging and corrupt leadership. But free elections there would simply put the Muslim Brotherhood — another Islamic fundamentalist party — in power. His advice is to stick with the corrupt but friendly status quo of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, while offering similar, unqualified support to the Saudis.

Mr. X is a man of few illusions. Looking at Iraq today, he speaks wistfully of Saddam Hussein. Acknowledging freely that Saddam was incredibly brutal and outrageously corrupt, he reminds me that the Iraqi dictator was, at least, a wall against the expansion of Iranian power. And there is the main focus of all his worries.

We are, he says, embarking on a major power struggle between Iran and Islamic fundamentalism on the one hand, and Western interests, led by the United States, on the other. The concern that Iran may acquire nuclear weapons, he says, is a red herring. Iran's nukes would be counterbalanced, he says, by those in Israel's arsenal.

Mr. X proposes that the best and perhaps the only way to confront Iran effectively is indirectly, inside Iraq. He is concerned that there is already far too much Iranian influence in Iraq, and insists that only U.S. military force can drive it out.

To do that, he says, you will need more troops in Iraq. More, not fewer. And you will have to announce a clear "no exit” policy. When I suggest to him that neither Democrats nor Republicans are likely to be able to sell that package to the American Congress and the public, he shrugs, as if to say: "I've given you a solution. Whether or not you can implement it is up to you.”

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