There is a decidedly weird Op-Ed by David Ignatius in the WaPo: At the Tip of Iran's Spear
Let's try for a moment to put ourselves in the mind of Brig. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guard. For it is the soft-spoken Soleimani, not Iran's bombastic president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who plays a decisive role in his nation's confrontation with the United States.
Soleimani represents the sharp point of the Iranian spear. He is responsible for Iran's covert activities in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and other battlegrounds. He oversees the regime's relations with its militant proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas. His elite, secretive wing of the Revolutionary Guard is identified as a terrorist organization by the Bush administration, but he is also Iran's leading strategist on foreign policy. He reports personally to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his budget (mostly in cash) comes directly from the supreme leader's office.
Soleimani is confident about Iran's rising power in the region, according to an Arab official who met recently with him. He sees an America that is weakened by the war in Iraq but still potent.
Okay, we have got a semi-secret militia master/terrorism master in Iran working behind the scenes to further Iranian interests in the region. We knew that already, but "check."
We're also told that America is "weakened" but "potent." Weakened how exactly? Militarily? Doesn't seem likely. Politically? Maybe, but that only comes to the forefront if Obama wins the White House, and that is no done deal.
A larger point to think about here is that by calling the US "weak but potent" Ignatius is engaged in a not so subtle CYA operation. No matter what actually happens in Iraq, Ignatius can claim to be right. Things go to hell in a hand basket? "Well," Ignatius will crow, "I told you we were weak." Things go swimmingly and Iraq continues to improve dramatically despite Iranian efforts to the contrary? "See," Ignatius will nod sagely, "I told you we were still potent."
The entire Op-Ed is like that. Ignatius spends most of the piece arguing nothing has happened in Iraq that Soleimani hasn't orchestrated in one way or another. Yet if that is true how can you argue the following?
The question for Soleimani-watchers is how he will play his hand in the growing confrontation over Iran's nuclear program. The Bush administration seems to have decided on a course of escalating pressure against Tehran during its remaining months in office. The Iranians, while maintaining a tough line on the nuclear issue, as well as in Iraq and Lebanon, appear wary of an all-out confrontation.
So imagine that you are Qassem Soleimani, commander of a covert Iranian army deployed across the Middle East: You doubt the Bush administration would run the risk of a military strike against Iran, but you can't be sure. You think America can't afford to play chicken in an election year, but you can't be certain of that, either. You think Iran is on a roll, but you know how quickly that advantage can be squandered by unwise choices. You know that Arabs, even in Iraq, have become peeved at what they see as meddling and overreaching by Tehran.
So you watch and wait. You give ground where necessary, but you prepare to strike back, as devastatingly as possible — and on your own terms, not those of your adversary.
I'm sorry, but you do not get to dictate the "terms" if you "watch and wait." You either do one or the other; you cannot do both. If you "wait" by definition you will have to react to the moves of your opponent. Thus, those who react are not setting the terms.
The truth is, the ability of the US to turn the tide against Al Qaeda in Iraq, and the resulting boost in legitimacy to the Iraqi government, was something that was entirely out the purview of anyone in Iran. The notion that it was somehow "allowed" to succeed by the Iranians is simple nonsense. The US success weakened the position of Iran in Iraq. The Iranian "plan," if such it could be called, looks like nothing more than ad hoc attempts to benefit from the long term chaos Iraq experienced. Remove the chaos and Iranian opportunities to influence events dwindle.
Look at these incidences that Ignatius wants to believe speak to Iranian power:
- Soleimani has been adept at turning up the heat in Iraq, then lowering the temperature when it suits Iran's interest. A good example was the Basra campaign in March, when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki attacked the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia headed by Moqtada al-Sadr. Though the Iranians had been backing Sadr, they made a quick switch to supporting Maliki. It was Soleimani himself who brokered the cease-fire that restored calm in Basra.
- After a particularly heavy day of shelling, Gen. David Petraeus sent Soleimani a message — "Stop shooting at the Green Zone." The message was conveyed verbally by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. The Quds Force commander didn't react immediately. But the heavy mortar fire on the Green Zone soon tapered off. Iran had flexed its muscles
In both of those circumstances Iran was reacting to US/Iraqi attacks and US threats. That Iran backed down in both cases hardly looks like the actions of someone who is dictating "terms" to anything. Instead, it looks like Iran was still playing by 2006 rules when the game had clearly changed on them. Indeed, their actions looks exactly like the sorts of things people do when they are running out of options. If the Mahdi army gets wiped out in Basra, then the Iranians lose a valuable chip. So they attempted to preserve some sort of relevance for the force with, to this point at least, uncertain results.
This isn't to say that Iran cannot react and counter-attack effectively. I'm certain they can, but such an approach is inherently defensive and usually the approach taken by the opponent who feels themselves to be in the weaker position.
Besides, there is a larger inconsistency plaguing Ignatius here; If the Quds force is so invincible and "setting the terms" why are they sitting around waiting for the US elections to happen?