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National Perspective

Iran's role in Iraq too complex for academic shorthand

Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been reviled as 'The Evil Weasel' and a 'madman,' and compared to Adolf Hitler. Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been reviled as "The Evil Weasel" and a "madman," and compared to Adolf Hitler. (chris mcgrath/GETTY IMAGES)

WASHINGTON - "Proxy war" is the kind of term that's regularly batted around international relations classrooms. Its definition - a war that's fought through surrogates - is fairly straightforward, but it covers many different types of conflicts.

Simply aiding a rebel movement can be a proxy war, as in the '80s when the United States helped anticommunists in Central America. Sometimes, though, the collaboration is much greater, as when the United States aligned itself with the South Vietnamese government throughout the Vietnam War.

And to people unfamiliar with academic terms - most people, that is - "proxy war" simply sounds like "war."

Three weeks ago, General David H. Petraeus, who has a doctorate in international relations from Princeton University, said Iran seeks to use some Shi'ite militia groups to "fight a proxy war against the Iraqi state and coalition forces in Iraq."

Since then, the general's words have been used by the Bush administration and many other political leaders to suggest that Iran is going to war against the United States in Iraq.

Seventy-six senators including New York's Hillary Clinton voted last week to declare Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. The resolution encouraged the president to consider all options - including the military - against the elite Iranian forces. Iran, declared Connecticut's Joseph Lieberman, must "not be allowed to prevail in its proxy war against us in Iraq."

When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to New York last week to address the United Nations, he was met with a frenzy of hatred. The New York Daily News referred to him in news headlines as "The Evil Weasel" and a "madman." Protesters massing outside Ahmadinejad's speech at Columbia University compared him to Adolf Hitler.

The demonization of Ahmadinejad was similar to that of Saddam Hussein, Iraq's former president. In Hussein's case, however, the Hitler comparison was at least rooted in history: Hussein engaged in mass killings of ethnic groups in his own country, just as Hitler did.

Ahmadinejad hasn't been linked to any mass killings. He's not even a dictator. He can't go to war without the backing of Iran's ruling clerics. Right now, the clerics seem to be keeping their distance from him. And he's increasingly unpopular in his own country.

Americans generally rely on political leaders to tell them such things. But in the midst of a presidential election, there are few votes awarded for challenging the public's view of the facts. And Americans are widely believed to want a leader who won't hesitate to protect the country - which usually means threatening military action against perceived enemies.

Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor running for the Republican nomination, has spoken of the need to prevent Iran from "taking over" Iraq. And Clinton, at a debate of Democratic candidates, said the United States ought to "put some teeth into all this talk about dealing with Iran."

Some of Clinton's rivals challenged her, and Senator Barack Obama of Illinois spoke of the need to analyze the intelligence carefully before jumping to conclusions.

Indeed, analysts cite many reasons why Iran would intervene in Iraq other than to wage a proxy war against the United States.

After the US-led coalition deposed Hussein and Iraq began to splinter, it was widely predicted that Shi'ite Muslim groups would look to Iran - their Shi'ite neighbor - for support against Sunni Muslims. Now, many different Shi'ite militias are believed to be receiving Iranian military aid, but not all are opposed to the US-led coalition. Some are even part of the US-backed Iraqi government, which is largely made up of rival Shi'ite factions because many Sunnis boycotted the elections.

Then there is the question of just how closely Iran has been working with the militia groups. Petraeus, in his testimony before Congress, suggested that trainers from Iran's so-called Quds force - who were allegedly working with militia groups - are no longer in Iraq.

And while most analysts believe Iran would like to see the United States pinned down in Iraq, few believe Iran wants to go to war. Rather, Iran's main interest is in having an Iran-friendly government in Baghdad. Given the bloody history between Iraq and Iran, that's hardly surprising, though it could alter the balance of power in the Middle East.

The United States has good reasons to want to curb Iran's influence in Iraq. But accusing Iran of running a proxy war is a serious charge - or at least it sounds that way to a lot of Americans, who could benefit from a clearer explanation by their commanding general and their political leaders.

Peter S. Canellos is the Globe's Washington bureau chief. National Perspective is his weekly analysis of events in the capital and beyond.

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