Iranian president mohammad Khatami did something very interesting November 17: he announced that Iran recognized the Iraqi Governing Council in Baghdad. He said specifically, "We recognize the Iraqi Governing Council and we believe it is capable, with the Iraqi people, of managing the affairs of the country and taking measures toward independence."
Khatami also commented on the agreement made by U.S. administrator Paul Bremer and the IGC to transfer power to an Iraqi government by June. This is pretty extraordinary stuff.
The IGC is an invention of the United States. The president of Iran has now recognized the IGC as the legitimate government of Iraq, and he has also declared Iran's support for the timetable for transferring power to the IGC.
In effect, the U.S. and Iranian positions on Iraq have now converged.
Despite absolute ideological differences on which neither side is prepared to compromise, common geopolitical interests have forced both sides to collaborate.
"Alignment" is a better word than "alliance." What is interesting is the exceptionally quiet response of the global media to what is, after all, a fairly extraordinary development. The media focus on well, media events.
When Nixon went to China, the visit was deliberately framed as a massive media event. Both China and the United States wanted to emphasize the shift in alignment, to both the Soviet Union and their own publics.
In this case, neither the United States nor Iran wants attention focused on this event. For Washington, aligning with a charter member of the "axis of evil" poses significant political problems; for Tehran, aligning with the "Great Satan" poses similar problems. Both want alignment, but neither wants to draw attention to it.
For the media, the lack of a photo op means nothing has happened. Except for low-key reporting by some wire services, Khatami's statement has been generally ignored, which is fine by Washington and Tehran. In fact, on the same day that Khatami made his statement, the news about Iran focused on the country's nuclear weapons program. We christen thee "stealth geopolitics."
The United States had not prepared for a guerrilla war in Iraq, and it had no plan for fighting such a war. At the same time, for all its problems, the situation is not nearly as desperate as it appears.
Most of the country is not involved in the guerrilla war, which is essentially confined to the Sunni Triangle - a fraction of Iraq's territory - and to the minority Sunni group. The majority of Iraqis, Shiites and Kurds, not only are not involved in the war but are inherently opposed to it.
However, being opposed to the guerrillas does not make the Shiites in particular pro-American. They have their own interests: the Shiites in Iraq wanted to control the post-Saddam Hussein government. It is not fair to say that Iran simply controls the Iraqi Shiites, but it is fair to say that Iranian intelligence systematically penetrated and organized the Shiites during Hussein's rule.
Tehran has tremendous and decisive influence in Iraq at this point. Iran has a fundamental interest in a pro-Iranian, or at least genuinely neutral, Iraq. The only way to begin creating that is with a Shiite-controlled government.
If Iraq is neutralized, Iran becomes the pre-eminent power in the Persian Gulf. Once the United States leaves the region - and in due course, the U.S. will leave - Iran will be in a position to dominate. Iran has, therefore, every reason to want to see an evolution toward a Shiite government in Iraq.
Washington now has an identical interest. The United States does not have the ability or appetite to suppress the Sunni rising in perpetuity, nor does it have an interest in doing so. The U.S. interest is in destroying al Qaeda. Washington thus needs an ally that has an intrinsic interest in fighting the guerrilla war and power to do it.
The United States ultimately gets a force in Iraq to fight the insurrection, the Iraqi Shiites get to run Iraq and secure their Western frontier.
Moreover, the Iranians are motivated to fight al Qaeda (a movement they have never liked anyway) and can lend their not insignificant intelligence capabilities to the mix.
The last real outstanding issue is Iran's nuclear capability. Iran would obviously love to be a nuclear power in addition to being a regional hegemon. That would be sweet. However, it isn't going to happen, and the Iranians know that, because Israel cannot permit it. The U.S. would be forced to take out Iran's facilities with American (weapons) in the region - better a non-nuclear U.S. attack than an Israeli nuclear attack.
The Iranians are now using their nuclear option to extract maximum political concessions from the United States. It is in Tehran's interest to maximize the credibility of the country's nuclear program without crossing a line. The nuclear issue is not the pivot. The alignment (over the IGC) represents a solution to both U.S. and Iranian needs.
However, in the long run the Iranians are the major winners. When it's all over, they get to dominate the Persian Gulf and the Arab Peninsula. That upsets the regional balance of power completely and is sending Saudi leaders into a panic.
The worst-case scenario for Saudi Arabia is, of course, an Iranian-dominated region. It's also not a great outcome for the United States, since it has no interest in any one power dominating the region.
But the future is the future, and now is now. We should remember that the U.S. has a history of improbable alliances that caused problems later. But Washington is not going to worry about the long run now.
In the short run, the U.S.-Iranian alignment is the most important news since September 11. It represents a triumph of geopolitics over principle on both sides, which is what makes it work. Quite impressive.
Excerpted from Strategic Forecasting Inc. (www. stratfor.com), a leading global intelligence firm.