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What the vice president meant to say...

Is Joe Biden freelancing again?

According to CNN, the U.S. vice president told a VFW audience Monday that Iran's influence in Iraq is "minimal" and "greatly exaggerated."

But who, then, is doing the exaggerating?

As recently as Sunday, Gen. Ray Odierno, the outgoing U.S. commander in Baghdad, was warning about Iranian meddling in Iraqi affairs:

CROWLEY: Let me turn to Iran. We know that throughout this process, Iran has been involved at some level, certainly helping the Shia in the fight. What is the level, as far as you can tell, of Iranian involvement in Iraq, both in the government -- in trying to form a government and in the fighting that still exists?

ODIERNO: Well, they -- they clearly still fund some Shia extremist groups that operate in Iraq. They train them. They continue to try to improve their capabilities, partially to attack U.S. forces, partially to make sure everybody understands that they can have some impact in the country. They clearly want to see a certain type of government that is formed here.

CROWLEY: So is that Iran's ambition, do you think, in Iraq, to keep it from becoming a functioning democracy?

ODIERNO: I think they don't want to see Iraq turn into a strong democratic country. They'd rather see it become a weak governmental institution, so they don't add more problems for Iran in the future.

Now, that doesn't 100 percent contradict the veep's statement, but the general's tone is markedly different. So what's the administration's position? It was probably most clearly articulated by Colin Kahl, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, who said last week in a briefing:

I think that General Odierno remains concerned about certain aspects of Iranian meddling in Iraq, principally the continued provision of certain kinds of lethal assistance to Shia militant groups. But I think that Iran has recognized in the last couple of years that its influence in Iraq is somewhat overstated. I think that they clearly – they tried to influence the provincial and national elections not very successfully. They tried to defeat the U.S.-Iraq security agreement not very successfully. And I think that their experience with the militias that they’ve backed is that when they’ve overplayed their hands, they’ve gotten a lot of Iraqi pushback on this.

And I think basically that’s because at the end of the day, there are kind of at least three antidotes to overwhelming Iranian influence in Iraq. The first and most important one is that the Iraqis don’t want Iran to dominate their country. Iraqi nationalism is real, it is powerful, and it’s a much more powerful force than whatever affinity might exist between Iraq and Iran.

The second is the fact that Iran wants good relations with all its neighbors, not just Iran. So it wants good relationships with Iran, but it also wants good relationships with Turkey, it wants good relationships with Saudi Arabia and others, which means that it’s not inclined to have a desire to be firmly in Iran’s camp.

And the last point that I would raise, last but not least, is the vast majority of Iraq’s political parties want a long-term partnership with the United States, which, of course, is not consistent with being dominated by Iran. So I think when you factor all of those things in together, I don’t think we’re at risk of Iraq being dominated by Iran.

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