USA TODAY: Seventeen months after U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein, instability in Iraq is creating opportunities for its mainly Shiite Muslim neighbor, Iran.
"The real long-term geopolitical winner of the 'War on Terror' could be Iran," concludes a new report by the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Britain's most respected foreign-policy research organization. USA TODAY

By Barbara Slavin

Seventeen months after U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein, instability in Iraq is creating opportunities for its mainly Shiite Muslim neighbor, Iran.

"The real long-term geopolitical winner of the 'War on Terror' could be Iran," concludes a new report by the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Britain's most respected foreign-policy research organization.

The report suggests that Iran's refusal to give up its nuclear program — despite U.S. and European pressure to do so — reflects the Iranian leadership's judgment that the Bush administration, bogged down in Iraq, is in no position to "launch a serious military operation against Iran."

Nervous that it might be the next U.S. target after the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq, Iran agreed last year to suspend enrichment of uranium, a fuel that can be used for power plants or bombs. But an Iranian official, Hossein Mousavian, said Monday that Iran could resume enrichment "within a few months" and has a "legitimate right" to do so to provide fuel for power plants. Mousavian spoke at a meeting in Vienna of the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog. (Related item: U.S. presses for tough line on Iranian nuclear program)

Despite U.S. lobbying and the discovery by U.N. inspectors that Iran hid crucial elements of its nuclear program, the board is expected to put off any consideration of punishing Iran until after the U.S. presidential election in November.

Some opponents of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq argued before the war that Iran would benefit because it would no longer face a hostile, Sunni Muslim-dominated regime that suppressed Iraq's Shiite majority and waged an eight-year war against Iran in the 1980s. Saddam Hussein's Iraq was the main regional counterweight to Iran's ambitions to spread Islamic government to other countries with large Shiite populations. In 2001, the Bush administration eliminated Iran's other regional foe: the Sunni fundamentalist Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Since the U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran has increased funding for Shiite groups and social services in western Afghanistan and southern Iraq. Iran experts say Iran has strengthened ties with Iraqi Shiite religious and political leaders, including rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Al-Sadr loyalists battled U.S. forces in Najaf last month and are still fighting Americans in Baghdad's Shiite slums.

"The Iranians have so much control over what happens in Iraq," says Gareth Stansfield, a research fellow at the University of Exeter and one of the authors of the British report. "The United States is only beginning to realize this."

Supporters of the Iraq war say that creation of a democratic government in Iraq will undermine Iran's authoritarian regime by encouraging Iran's democratic opposition. "If a democratic Iraq develops, protected by the Shiite clergy, that is not good for Iran," says Reuel Marc Gerecht, an Iran expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, a conservative think tank. "The ideal situation for the Iranians was a weak Saddam Hussein" who was unable to wage another war on his neighbors.

But movement toward democracy in Iraq has been hindered by violence, which could delay or limit elections set for January. Even if voting takes place on schedule, the victors are likely to be the majority Shiites, who would be expected to seek good relations with Iran.

Iran wins in every Iraqi political scenario except a new secular dictatorship, the most unlikely outcome of U.S. intervention, says Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East expert at the Congressional Research Service, a think tank that prepares reports for Congress. "The losers are Kuwait and Saudi Arabia," which face new challenges from Sunni Muslim fundamentalists and restive Shiite minorities, Katzman says.

Emboldened by U.S. difficulties in Iraq, the Iranian government has been increasingly assertive about its right to build a nuclear infrastructure and to support radicals in countries stretching from Israel to Afghanistan.

"I say the presence of Americans (in Iraq) is not a sign of strength," Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani told the Al-Jazeera television network last month. Bragging about Iranian influence, he said: "We are present from Quds (Jerusalem) to Kandahar (in Afghanistan). We are present in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq."