What does this meeting mean for Iraq? Why would the U.S. President meet with a Shiite leader whose organization is arguably the closest group to Tehran? What does this meeting mean for U.S.-Iran relations? I will attempt to answer these questions and shed some light based on my own knowledge and research.
Al-Hakim's SCIRI has enjoyed the support of the Islamic Republic's leadership since its foundation 24 years ago. One of its main founders is the current Head of Iran's Judiciary, Ayatollah Shahroudi. And yet President Bush has apparently been requesting a meeting with Al-Hakim since February 2006. Few would dispute Islamic Republic of Iran's influence over SCIRI, but no one really knows SCIRI's level of independence or I should say dependence on the Islamic Republic. Is SCIRI merely a proxy or it has managed to emerge as a credible and independent political party with a strong local base since the 2003 invasion? I believe that the answer lies with a little bit of both.
Iraqi government's outreach in foreign policy that finally has surfaced in the last couple of weeks may have been designed to signal to demonstrate it strive towards independence from any foreign element to the rest of the world. Iraq and Syria restore ties after more than two decades; the President of Iraq travels to Tehran to meet with his Iranian counterpart; the Prime Minister Al-Maliki apparently snubs the U.S. President for a dinner in Jordan after a report indicating the U.S. lacking confidence in Al-Maliki surfaces; Al-Sadr, in a rather symbolic move, threatens and pulls out of the Parliament and the government in protest of Maliki's visit with President Bush; and now Bush is meeting with Al-Hakim in the White House. These are all indicators of a sovereign nation, not an occupied one. SCIRI is part of the political and social mosaic of Iraq and has therefore been a part of this policy shift designed to demonstrate to the world Iraq's independence and willingness to resolve its own crises.
What about the notion of a proxy for the Islamic Republic of Iran? I believe that the use of the term proxy is not totally accurate. SCIRI's history is embedded in Al-Hakim family's legacy, one of the most respected Shiite Iraqi families that has a long history of fighting Saddam. Moreover, SCIRI has clearly and repeatedly stated that although it favors a government based on Islamic principles, it does not want an Iranian-style form of government in Iraq and it desires a government that respects the rights of all Iraqis. I think it's a mistake to lump groups such as SCIRI or even Hezbollah with the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Iranian experience with the Islamic Republic has failed, as everyone including the Iranian establishment in Iran has reached this same conclusion, so no group looks at it as a model. Instead such groups see the Iranian experience as the only Shiite authority that has demonstrated independence, power and influence in the region and therefore they all look up to it in a way. But this does not mean that they are proxies and yes they get financial as well as spiritual support from Iran, but as far as the Iranian government is concerned, at least in principle it is helping movements that are fighting occupying forces in cases of both Iraq and Lebanon. You and I may disagree, but the Iranian government makes a pretty solid case for its support.
I hope that I have been successful to at least incite you to ask more questions about the facts and my own personal opinion stated above.
Lastly, what does this meeting mean for U.S.-Iran relations? I don't believe that it means much, except that it will even embolden the Islamic Republic of Iran more than before as they will claim that the U.S. President has personally invited AL-Hakim, someone very close to the Iranian establishment, to the White House and the Iranian establishment will further affirm their arrogant but partially true assertions that they are now a regional power broker and nothing gets done without their approval. On the other hand, the U.S. Administration and establishment has finally admitted that their Iraq policy has failed and are trying to begin living with the notion that they need the Islamic Republic's help in their mission to restore order in Iraq. As usual, nothing is simple in the Middle East!!!