DEBATE PREP: Iraq's Iran problem, Iran's Iraq problem
November 14th, 2011
06:00 AM ET

DEBATE PREP: Iraq's Iran problem, Iran's Iraq problem

Editor’s note: This analysis is part of Security Clearance blog’s “Debate Preps” series. On November 22, CNN, along with AEI and The Heritage Foundation, will host a Republican candidate debate focused on national security topics. In the run-up to the debate, Security Clearance asked both the sponsoring conservative think tanks to look at the key foreign policy issues and tell us what they want to hear candidates address.

By AEI's Michael Rubin, Special to CNN

Ayatollah Khomeini may have founded Iran’s Islamic Republic in 1979, but for the regime in Tehran, his revolution has never really ended.  Iranian politics remain a vortex of factional struggle as hardliners and reformists compete to shape the regime’s character.  American diplomats have long cheered the reformists believing that should reformists triumph, Iran might moderate and return into the family of nations.

In reality, however, the struggle between reformists and hardliners is more style than substance.   Both embrace Iran’s nuclear program, support terrorist groups, and violently oppose Middle East peace.  Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s hardline president, shocked the West with his virulent Holocaust denial, but his reformist predecessor Mohammad Khatami embraced Holocaust denial, just more quietly.

The Islamic Republic’s true Achilles’ heel is not factionalism, but rather the Shi‘ism upon which it is based.  Shi‘ite Muslims embrace a religious hierarchy somewhat analogous to that in Roman Catholicism but instead of having cardinals select a single pope, every Shi‘ite picks his own personal pope from amongst the leading ayatollahs.  Shi‘ites then show their allegiance by paying religious taxes to the ayatollah they embrace.

Here’s the problem:  Ali Khamenei, the leader of the Islamic Republic, calls himself the Supreme Leader and claims both ultimate political and religious authority.  Most Shi‘ites don’t buy it.  Not only do most Iranians not pay their religious taxes to the Supreme Leader — preferring instead more moderate ayatollahs in Iraq — but the Iraq-based ayatollahs daily contradict Khamenei.  This creates a crisis of legitimacy for Iran.

Every Iranian knows that Iran has faced two major, violent revolutions in the 20th century:  seven decades before the Islamic Revolution, there was a constitutional revolution.  In both cases, clerics in Iraq helped coordinate the opposition.  Simply put, a free Iraq is kryptonite for Iran’s leaders.

Khamenei’s strategy is to suppress Iraq with militias.  He seeks to impose through the barrel of a gun what isn’t in Iraqis’ hearts and minds. Khamenei wants a compliant little brother, not a democracy next door.  Last year, three different grand ayatollahs told me they feared an American departure would mean a repeat of 1991.  Then, a precipitous withdrawal foreshadowed bloodshed, dictatorship and, ultimately more war.

The next American administration faces a number of decisions.  Can the United States afford to let Iraq slip into Iran’s shadow?   If so, might the American withdrawal strengthen Iran’s hardliners?  Alternately, if Iraq is too important to accept Iranian dominance, how can the United States help Iraq resist Iran without boots on the ground?

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Filed under: 2012 Election • Ahmadinejad • Analysis • Arab Spring • Bachman • Cain • Debate Preps • Gingrich • Huntsman • Iran • Iraq • Khamenei • Paul • Perry • Romney • Santorum
soundoff (57 Responses)
  1. Florentino Rippin

    March 4, 2021 at 10:24 am | Reply
  2. ClarkClurn

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    March 1, 2021 at 12:13 pm | Reply
  3. Theodore Prost

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    January 28, 2021 at 10:05 pm | Reply
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    January 11, 2021 at 10:13 pm | Reply

    bomb iran now before it is too late, finsih syria now to end the evil hands of iran then start get red of iran thugs.

    November 16, 2011 at 11:17 am | Reply
  6. StanCalif

    I have to laugh when I read such comments as "Israel is America's friend"! Israel is only Israel's friend. During the past year+, Israel has destroyed it's "friendly relations" with Turkey and Egypt. Every time some "official meeting" is about to take place with the US President or VP, Israel pulls another "diplomatic trick" by announcing more settlements! Does this "improve" their relationship with the US? Certainly NOT with our current elected administration, certainly NOT with the American (non Jewish) public who pays any attention! And certainly NOT with any of their "neighbors"!
    The Israeli government has one goal, one ultimate dream in mind! And this is not "negotiating peace". The goal is to entice America to attack Iran. American certainly can't do this while we are bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now that troops are being with drawn, Israel seeks to maintain their "front position" for the "next war"! Israel just needs to stall long enough to see these troops move out, and to wait for another Republican to take over the White House. They are hoping for another "Bush type" administration which supports military action to keep the troops from ever coming home and expecting to be employed by private industry! Obama may well bring our troops home at last. But the Republicans will be sure there are no jobs for them here. Magic answer, start another war! Israel is counting on this!

    November 16, 2011 at 7:30 am | Reply
  7. Am226

    Hahahahahahhaha CNN Media

    November 16, 2011 at 12:35 am | Reply
  8. MrFunkyFox

    So according to CNN community logic, I failed my last College Algebra test because of Israel.

    IIsrael is a bit on the wicked side, yes, but come on, they're not supernatural villains.

    November 15, 2011 at 9:08 pm | Reply
  9. Jimmer


    November 15, 2011 at 5:10 am | Reply
  10. Unbeliever

    " ... Last year, three different grand ayatollahs told me they feared an American departure ..." Seriously! There are a total of seven accepted grand ayatolahs, and three of them told you that? hehe ...

    November 15, 2011 at 12:32 am | Reply
  11. CNN Propaganda

    Nice to see how zionist CNN tries to create rifts between shias. Not surprising when you're supported by Israel and Wahabbis. You will never get to the REAL Shia.

    November 14, 2011 at 11:39 pm | Reply
    • Bryan

      This is a Muslim problem....

      November 15, 2011 at 6:38 am | Reply
    • duckforcover

      CNN created the problem? Come on, get a grip.

      November 15, 2011 at 11:35 am | Reply
    • 7o3y

      The real problem is shiias like you and your friends that think anyone who doesnt follow your religion should be killed...get a grip muslimist.

      November 15, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Reply
  12. Socrates

    I keep saying that we need to put all the Jews and Muslims together in an island with only bread a water for 30 days to get friendly with each other, if they don't get it, we are not going to miss you guys.

    November 14, 2011 at 11:29 pm | Reply
  13. wizarat

    Either Mr. Rubin has an agenda he is projecting as it was done re Iran in 1953 and later or he must be fired for misleading readers of this prestigious paper. (Michael Rubin, Sir, you are no scholar- Scholars are supposed to be intellectually honest)

    November 14, 2011 at 10:37 pm | Reply
    • Brandon

      True, but you gotta admire Kermit roosevelt not only for showing mossedegh the door but forcing a cowardly shah to assume his role. Now we may have to hang the whole lot, including that spurious "supreme leader" who has as much religious credentials and spirituality as you can place on the head of a pin. Kermit's account of those happenings is called "countercoup".required reading for the overthrow minded.

      November 14, 2011 at 10:48 pm | Reply
      • Sam

        Thank you for your informed comment and opinion.

        November 16, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
  14. who?

    this article wasnt biased at all...

    November 14, 2011 at 10:03 pm | Reply
  15. Cassandra Chu

    ... oh Geeze. Get real. the REAL PROBLEM is Israel. We need to get those schmucks out of American politics and media.

    November 14, 2011 at 9:18 pm | Reply
    • Settle

      Spoken like someone who's never stepped foot in Iraq or have CLUE about regional politics along the Sunni/Shi'ia "fault line" there.

      November 14, 2011 at 10:54 pm | Reply
    • TPalin

      Agree 100% Cassandra.

      November 15, 2011 at 12:06 am | Reply
    • 7o3y

      Cassandra THE REAL REAL problem is people like you.This story had nothing to do with Israel yet you say its their fault...go back to asia if your gonna have that kind of attitude.

      November 15, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Reply
    • StanCalif

      So True! Israel is setting the stage for America's next war! Israel knows very well that the US cannot bring home thousands of troops and see them get employed in private industry. It simply won't happen! Just keep stalling and keep buying influence in Congress and Israel will succeed in keeping our military employed attacking Iran!

      November 16, 2011 at 8:02 am | Reply
  16. Brandon

    Why cant some Jews be objective on serious policy issues? Mr.Rubin, that goes for you, neo-con.

    November 14, 2011 at 7:58 pm | Reply
  17. MadasHell!

    I can't wait for Iran and Iraq to blow themselves up. I wish they will just kill each other and leave no muslim alive. This will help America some blood, time and money. They can blow their own blood in Hell as well..........

    November 14, 2011 at 5:21 pm | Reply
    • Bojammah Jones


      November 14, 2011 at 6:10 pm | Reply
  18. Jon

    We're at the point now where having boots on the ground does us more harm than good. Time to pull back and look for an opening on Iran – some way to spoil their days as much as possible, from the shadows. In addition – how do you think Saudi Arabia would react to a Shiite-dominated Iraq?

    November 14, 2011 at 5:05 pm | Reply
  19. flashtrum

    I used to think it sounded politically dim to think this way, but let's get out of there and never look back. Let the problems in the middle east be the problems FOR the middle east to deal with.

    November 14, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Reply
  20. farokh

    Iran and Iraq both have the American problem, Mr. Rubin, the Israeli Lobbyist, not each others.
    The War between them in 1981 was set up and encouraged by U.S.A and Iraq has been invaded twice by U.S.(1993 and 2001) and occupied since 2001. How is that occupation Iran's problem?
    Iran has U.S problem as well. It was U.S. that supported/protected the criminal Khomieni for over 30 years in Iraq so that one day, when they needed him, they could bring him to power in Iran. How is that Iraq's problem, Mr. Rubin?

    November 14, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Reply
    • Bill

      I think your history dates and facts are a bit off. First of all the USA had nothing to do with protecting or supporting the criminal Khomieni for over 30 years. Khomenia was ousted and given protection and support by France prior to 1980. The US supported the Shaw of Iran up till then and then he was ousted from power and the Iranian students and government took American Hostages at the US Embassy for almost one year. The first Iraq war was a unilateral UN sanctioned invasion in response to Iraq invading Kawait on 2 August 1990 and lasted until February 1991 when Kawait was freed of the invaders. Again, it was not untill March 20, 2003 (little over a year after the US was attacked by Bin Laden during 9/11/11) that the UN sanctioned an invasion of Iraq because of WMD threats very similar to what Iran is doing now with its nuclear power. It is only a matter of time before they are invaded by the western world of nuclear attacks to allies and friends of US and Europe. It all depends on how one looks at things, we all know where we stand.

      November 14, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Reply
      • slate

        Bill knows his shit

        November 14, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
      • Paul

        No one can perfectly judges about these dates. When Reagan dealt with Iran about hostages, frequently they were in touch together.(At least until end of Iran vs Iraq war) Mullahs are easy to deal that America like it.

        November 15, 2011 at 6:28 am |
    • Bill

      One more thing. Both times the US invaded Iraq was during the administration of a republican president.

      November 14, 2011 at 4:52 pm | Reply
      • Curious

        Just a curiosity. Unless you considered kuwait to be part of iraq at the time of the first gulf war then the US only invaded Iraq once. They stopped at the original borders of kuwait and Iraq and did not go in to finish off Saddam at that time.

        November 14, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
      • Xen1313

        Actually Curious, we did not stop at the border, we stopped 100 miles outside bagdad. At one point in time, we had a Spec Op team have Saddam in their sights and was given the wave off to not take him out then. The administration didn't want to be seen as a president that assassinates other foriegn leaders.

        November 14, 2011 at 11:29 pm |
    • Bojammah Jones

      Why is it moslems never take the blame for moslem behavior. Its everyone's fault but theirs. This is why americans are suspicious of the moslems who move here – they are never honest. Untll they grow up and behave, there will never be peace in the world. If you want acceptance, then grow up and behave.

      November 14, 2011 at 6:09 pm | Reply
      • Adriane

        Dear Pirouz_2,“Under the Pahlavi dynasty our enomocy changed from self-sufficiency into a uni-product colonial enomocy which was based on ONE RAW material called oil…”Before I delve into our debate, I would like to understand how you interpret self-sufficiency (I believe your interpretation is probably similar to North Korea’s). I do not have PhD in history, but I am fully aware of the dire state of Iran’s enomocy prior to the Pahlavi dynasty, especially before MRP. So, if by self-sufficiency you mean having an enomocy built upon agriculture, having near to no industrial sector (and practically no other sector), and STILL failing to feed your population (along with numerous other ills), then indeed Iran was self-sufficient before the Pahlavi dynasty. Bravo Iran. I wish we could return to the good old days.Despite my lack of a PhD in history, I know how it was the Qajars who sold us out to BP and other Western corporations. So you are wrong (again). Ignoring the fact that MRP colluded to overthrow Mossadegh, he did actually re-negotiate the contract with BP to the benefit of Iran. Like it or not, Iran did not have (and still does not have) the technological knowledge and capability to build a fully functioning, competitive oil industry. That is why before the revolution Iran was extracting and refining almost double the amount of oil it is extracting and refining today. It may be a bitter pill to swallow, but it is reality. As I mentioned before, MRP explicitly stated how Iran’s oil was a commodity to sell. What else should he have done? Drink it?“Under pahlavi dynasty our agriculture was killed completely to point that we were completely dependent on outside for food. Today in Wheat we are close to self-sufficiency and in several food items we are even exporters.”“We fed ourselves using our own agrcultural products. In case you don’t know, it was only after the “White Revolution” that Iran’s agriculture was devastated and reduced to a level next to zero. From a country which could feed itself, under the Pahlavi dynasty we became a nation whose sole agricultural export was Asparagus, Safaron and Pistachio.”Your opposition to the White Revolution speaks volumes. And I kindly ask you to list the “several food items” that Iran now exports. It does not happen to include saffron and pistachio by any chance, does it? And the reason I questioned your ardent support of self-sufficiency in wheat is that you fail to mention the cost of such self-sufficiency. The drive for wheat production actually damaged other food industries in Iran significantly, especially fruits. Arable and productive land has been decimated in order to mass-produce wheat; hence one reason why Iran now imports oranges from Israel.This whole saffron and pistachio export scandal is no scandal from an economic perspective. It is called comparative advantage. May be you should look it up. Why are you so afraid of international trade anyway? Oh I remember – you want Iran to be self-sufficient like North Korea.“It is easy to understand that Iran could feed itself at the time of even Reza Shah (and even the first years of M.Reza Shah), Iran had no considerable income (with no exports and oil revenues going completely into the pocket of the BP) and therefore could not have a major “import”, it relied on subsistent farming and could feed itself.”This does not make sense.“ “A more reasonable eastimate is that agricultural production rose about 2-2.5% per year, population 3% and consumption of agricultural products 12%…. THE AGRARIAN SITUATION PLUS A GROWTH IN FOOD CONSUMPTION MEANT A RAPID RISE IN AGRICULTURAL IMPORTS, WHICH WOULD CREATE A MAJOR PROBLE M WHEN OIL INCOME BEGAN TO RUN OUT. THE GOVERNMENT ALSO REDUCED SHEEP PRODUCTION, FORCING EVER MORE IMPORTS OF MEAT AND WOOL”FROM: Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution page: 155.You can also look at this:“After nearly achieving agricultural self-sufficiency in the 1960s, Iran reached the point in 1979 where 65 percent of its food had to be imported. ”http countrystudies[DOT]us/iran/73.htm”Thank you for the references, but what are you trying to prove? That population and consumption of agricultural products outgrew agricultural production? Do you suggest that the Pahlavi dynasty culled the population instead?“I don’t know how much you know about economics ”It shows. Your self-sufficiency argument (which is incoherent) is completely shallow and not backed up by any evidence, other than the fact that Iran had to become a net importer of agricultural goods (as did most nations, other than North Korea).“This bashing of “self-sufficieny” as opposed to global “free trade” is an idea mainly introduced and promoted by Milton Friedman and the school of Chicago.”I understand your grievances regarding globalisation. I think many people do. What agitates me is that you offer self-sufficiency as an alternative, which is simply impossible, and your arguments are desperately elementary (and resonant of regime propaganda).Anyway, I am not here to defend the Pahlavi dynasty’s economic policy; as I said, I do not want to be dragged into Pahlavi vs IRI debate. But your failure to acknowledge the gains made under the Pahlavi dynasty (which brought Iran out of the dark ages) and your insistence on bending over for the regime, is plain wrong. Most of the progress made since the revolution has blossomed from the foundations built by MRP. The regime is actually reversing many of these gains and eroding indigenous industries. It is ironic that a good handful of traditional craftwork found in the Bazaars of Shiraz now originates from a factory in China.P.S. I am sorry for being rude to you earlier, for calling you a joke. You are not a joke; you simply make me laugh.

        May 22, 2012 at 7:22 am |
    • tom

      the "israeli lobbyist" didn't attack the american embassy in tehran in 1979. and they didn't preach "mahdaviat" to the iranian people, or strive to destroy the world by provoking armageddon with "great satan". nor did the "israeli lobbyist" make a futile war that lasted 10 years and cost over a million casualties between iraq and iran.

      but, it's so much easier to blame the jews and the bicyclists.

      November 15, 2011 at 6:37 am | Reply
  21. rad666

    Every nation in the Middle East is each others' problem.

    November 14, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Reply
    • Cassandra Chu

      .... yeah, that's kinda true. but the real problem is Israel. which is to say, the real problem is our little AIPAC "problem" here in the united states. Israel sticks to us like the gum on the bottom of our dirty shoe. Get off!

      November 14, 2011 at 9:20 pm | Reply
      • KC


        November 14, 2011 at 9:44 pm |
      • Robert

        What's with this obsession with Israel?? It is the same old blame the Jews thing. It has absolutely nothing to do with the topic of the Shi'ites in Iran and the Ayatollahs, Clerics and Sistani's in Iraq.

        November 14, 2011 at 9:48 pm |
      • 7o3y

        Congrats cassandra youve won the Moron of the Day with your ignorant comments directed at israel.Although Israel has been a pain in our sides as of late they are an ally we will never turn our backs on. I would not mind actually letting the middle east take care of their own issues seeing China vs USA seems like a very legitimate Issue going forward.

        November 15, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
  22. TheMovieFan

    "The next American administration..."?

    November 14, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Reply
    • Osama

      I guess CNN knows something we dont...mainly that the GOP is gonna win the next election? That was strange!

      November 14, 2011 at 4:20 pm | Reply
    • Rasniati

      looks great so far! and to the rest of the staff remember that the reveiws are alphabetized so when you put up new reveiws please make sure thaey are in the right spotalso, we decided (or at least I think we did) that at the end of each week we'll put a note at the top of the reveiws page that says all of the new reveiws from that week to help readers know what is new more easily

      May 21, 2012 at 9:22 am | Reply
  23. Christopher Kaiser

    This is the most obvious form of cognitive dissonance that I have ever experienced. This continues to still be a means rather than an end, as the 'profits' are just the cycling of money that is centrally controlled in the first place. It is a means to give credence to this perpetual state of war, which keeps people in a state of fear. I find it interesting that ancient Sumer was located where present-day Iraq is.

    November 14, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Reply
    • Brock

      While I agree with some of the material set forth in Orwell's 1984 I would be slower to link all of your thoughts of the world to what he wrote 50+ years ago. While he was a good observationalist he was also a fiction writer. And I would especially not claim that view as my own when it is just a regurgitation of a book I read.

      November 14, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Reply
  24. billy

    Who gives a rat's butt what happens to them – not me!

    November 14, 2011 at 1:07 pm | Reply
    • Bojammah Kcarab Husseini

      same here!

      November 14, 2011 at 6:12 pm | Reply
  25. Rick from LA

    Are we the guard dog or the leaders of a better way?

    1. Let the Iraqi's prove they have what it takes to ensure their own peace. Do not underestimate their resolve.

    2. Get our military boots off their soil and replace them with diplomats.

    3. Replace our tank with trade agreements. We can fight ideology with ideology, you can be a pious and free at the same time.

    4. If Iraq is afraid of the warmachine that Iran has become, sign a defense treaty so that if Iran point their guns at Iraq, The American's will come back. If the Iranians keep the battle a political one, then we stay away.

    November 14, 2011 at 12:51 pm | Reply
  26. JOE

    So what's new? They have always been enemies throughout their histories. With all the global unrest unraveling this world, PEACE has to be the loneliest word in the dictinary and the most scariest word to dictators.

    November 14, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Reply
  27. WB

    I don't buy the idea of conflict between the Shiites from Iraq vs the one from Iran. I think the US ultimate goal is to have Iranian influence closer to Saudi Arabia and Co. (who are Sunnite) and to create a long term war that would prosper the arms trade and get the $$$ the Saudi charges for their oil. Also as a consequence, Israel would benefit from such conflict as it shifts Iran's occupation to the conflict versus the Palestinian conflict which the case now. Obama, in a very intelligent way, withdrew the US army from the line of fire. And I agree with the President on his last move.

    November 14, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Reply

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