As Congress tries again for consensus on Iraq, it can't ignore the other I-nation next door. Will Iran further deepen its hold over fellow Shiites in Iraq after an eventual US drawdown? That question underlies the renewed debate on Capitol Hill like a Persian rug.
President Bush keeps raising the issue of Iran's ominous presence, both in influence over its neighbor as well as its ambitions as a nuclear and regional power. His claim is part of the administration's ever-evolving definition of threats in Iraq and of a US success. If Congress is to dismiss Mr. Bush's warnings and order troops to begin pulling out, it first needs to look hard at Iran's intentions and potential.
Fortunately, the Bush administration has tried to probe Tehran's designs. Since 2003, it has had indirect talks with Iran about its nuclear program (through European allies) and this year started a series of direct talks about Iraq.
Both negotiations, however, appear to be failing as Iran has ramped up its uranium enrichment and still materially supports Iraqi militants' attacks on US soldiers. It seems to prefer an American quagmire in Iraq so the US can't strike Iran's nuclear facilities. This has led to a rising diplomatic confrontation and added UN sanctions against Iran.
The Bush administration hints that its next move may be to declare the 120,000-strong Revolutionary Guard, or its operational arm, the Quds Brigade, a terrorist group. Such a step would define a large chunk of Iran's forces as a threat, thus making Iran itself a potential target for US military action. Before sliding down that slope toward war, Congress needs to show lively leadership rather than partisan deadlock. And it can begin by asking if Iran's leaders are changing their views, or might be forced to.
The UN body trying to track Iran's nuclear program, the International Atomic Energy Agency, claimed this week that Iran is producing less nuclear fuel than expected. The IAEA also claimed Iran made "a significant step forward" by agreeing to explain suspicious actions within its atomic complex.
In another potential sign of a struggle for power and direction within Iran, the top clerical leaders this week elected a relative moderate, the pragmatic ex-president Hashemi Rafsanjani, to a powerful body that, among other things, selects or dismisses the supreme leader. He won against a hard-line candidate aligned with the bellicose President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose star has fallen in his bungling of economic policy, threats to Israel, and goading of Western powers. Iran also released Iranian-American academic Haleh Esfandiari, who has been held since May.
It's unclear if such moves reflect a significant shift. One scenario is that Iran plans to simply master the technology of atomic weapons without testing one, and then make peace. Or, knowing they sit on a political powder keg of millions of unhappy, unemployed people, the ruling clerics may be only using foreign pressure – and a nuclear program – to cling to power.
Congress can't ignore this Iranian dynamic as it weighs US options in Iraq. Even a troop withdrawal will require Iran not to stir up trouble during the exit. Bush and Congress will need to work together in solving this Persian puzzle.