In a heightened display of saber rattling, President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have been saying nasty things about Iran's "unelected mullahs."
This is apparently so we'll be able to tell the difference between the theocracy in place in Tehran and the one coalescing in Baghdad. Although things are looking slightly brighter for Iraq after its debut election, it is still not clear why the United States has spent incalculable fortunes in human life, taxpayer money and international goodwill to break Iraq and then remake it in the image of our avowed "axis of evil" enemy next door.
In his State of the Union address, Bush denounced Iran as "the world's primary state sponsor of terrorism." At the same time, he celebrated an Iraqi election that handed power to Shiite ayatollahs who were sponsored for decades by their co-religionists in Iran and who share much of Tehran's vision of religion and politics. Does this make sense to anybody outside of the White House?
The final returns from the Iraqi election are not in, but it seems clear that the slate headed by the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution is going to have a clear majority in the new constitutional assembly. This is a classic example of how, in the real world, there is a lot more gray than an administration that sees everything in black and white wants to admit.
After all, Rice can call Iran's hyper-conservative religious leaders "loathsome," and Cheney can claim, paternally, that the United States knows many "responsible Iraqis," but the fact is that deeply religious Shiites with strong ties to each other will be in control in both Iraq and Iran.
And if what the mullahs have wrought in Basra and other parts of Iraq is any indication, the cause of human rights is in deep trouble -- particularly for women, who enjoyed freedoms in the secular world of Saddam Hussein that are denied under fundamentalist Islamic law. Those photos of Iraqi women dressed in identical shrouds lined up to vote for candidates handpicked by the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani were, to say the least, an ambiguous advertisement for democracy.
"Public freedom should be regulated based on the country's Islamic character," said a top Sistani aide last week, opening the door to the institution of Islamic law, or sharia, that would lower the legal status of women in all important family matters -- from inheritance to their basic rights in a marriage.
What we are witnessing here is a startling application of the law of unintended consequences: A U.S. president who is intent on breaching the wall between church and state in his own country on issues such as birth control and the "sanctity of marriage" has now used the world's most powerful military to pave the way for a new Muslim theocracy in the heart of the Arab world. Furthermore, Bush has unwittingly strengthened the hand of Iran, a nation allegedly developing weapons of mass destruction and supporting global terrorism.
For now, of course, the slate is fresh for Iraq's incoming leaders. But it would be naive for the White House to think that a winning coalition headed by self-defined Islamic revolutionaries long nurtured by Iran would not emulate key aspects of their former Tehran hosts' thinking.
Mind you, there is certainly no harm in the United States strongly urging that minority and individual rights and the separation of church and state be written into Iraq's coming constitution. Washington might seem a bit hypocritical on this, however, considering the tight ties the United States and the Bush family have with the totalitarian theocracy in Saudi Arabia.
Bottom line, though, is that the Shiite ayatollahs have held the keys to Baghdad since Saddam's predominantly Sunni military regime was dismantled after the invasion. They successfully demanded an election in the midst of a Sunni insurgency and boycott, and they won it.
Washington has crashed against the limits of foreign military power as an instrument for crafting a culture of freedom for another people. It does not help that our motives are corrupted by a rapacious thirst for petroleum, our vision blurred by an insufferable ignorance of the complexity of local cultures and our presumption exaggerated by the effrontery of our own leader's claims to the wisdom of God.