The steadily escalating, open opposition to the Islamist regime in Iran is causing the Tehran government to cast about frantically for a policy respecting Iraq, its newly liberated neighbor to the West. The presence of U.S. and allied troops is causing more than standard paranoia in the mullah-muddled government that has backed bloody mischief throughout the Middle East from Baghdad to Jerusalem to Riyadh, as well as at home. Sixty percent of Iranians are 25 or younger, and millions of dissidents who have grown up since the shah was deposed in 1979, have filled the streets of the capital and cities around the country, including the religious center of Qom. The last thing the muddled mullahs running the Iranian regime need is problems with an emergent Iraq backed by the United States.
Relations between Iraq and Iran have been anything but smooth for decades. Territorial, religious, and basic governance disputes have been the order of the day, particularly since the 1958 overthrow of Iraq’s monarchy. Iraq’s most critical regional challenge has been and remains normalization of relations with the contentious, meddling, revolutionary Tehran regime, and Iran’s is to adjust to the radically changed situation in Baghdad.
Of all its neighbors, Iraq has no more critical — or volatile — relationship than with Iran. Smoldering mutual distrust of their Kurdish populations keeps friction hovering close to the flashpoint with Turkey. Simmering border and petroleum issues have long been the hallmarks of relations with Syria. Suspicions bordering on paranoia are the baseline to affairs between Iraq and Kuwait. Each is difficult; all, however, pale next to the murky plotting and sub-plotting that has gone on between Baghdad and Tehran, whose leaders have not hesitated to neglect their own countrymen’s needs as they strive to undermine their neighbors’.
Iran in May advised its citizens not to journey to Iraq, home to the most sacred Shia sites, even for religious purposes, until an Iraqi government is established in Baghdad. Viewed by western commentators as a reconciliatory gesture towards the United States, the advisory was carefully couched for local populations to interpret as a rebuff to the Coalition of the willing.
The U.S. and Britain had accused Iran of sending agents to Iraq in the guise of pilgrims, to undermine Coalition reconstruction efforts and embed their own Islamist goals of governance. Several local figures interpreted the carefully framed directive discouraging visits to Iraq until an indigenous government was in power, as a snub to the “occupation” forces.
Relations between the two countries have every reason to be difficult. Iraq, as keeper of the Muslim Shiite sect’s two holiest shrines in Najaf and Karbala has been visited for centuries by devout Iranian pilgrims. Following the disastrous 1980-88 war between the two countries, deposed despot Saddam Hussein banned entry to hundreds of thousands of Iranians seeking to visit the shrines annually.
The world’s only Shiite state, Iran has long chafed at Sunni rule in Iraq, where Shiites represent a 60 percent majority of the population. After the fall of Saddam, nominally from the Sunni Muslim sect, Shiites intend to form the new government in Baghdad, with Iran pushing for an Islamist theocracy similar to the regime that has governed that country since the fall of the shah in 1979.
Coalition opposition to anything but a democratically based regime has been swift and clear. In a speech at the Council of Foreign Relations, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld flatly stated, “Iran should be on notice: efforts to try to remake Iraq in Iran’s image will be aggressively put down.” To emphasize the point the U.S. has deployed troops along the Iran-Iraq border.
And there is much more. Fifteen years after a ceasefire stanched the hemorrhagic hostilities between the two nations, issues including boundary demarcation, war reparations, and repatriation of Iraq’s 1990 civilian and military air fleets have not been settled. For the last five years, Saddam’s Baghdad bullies and the Tehran-based variety attempted to overcome some of the bilateral obstacles, with little progress.
Once the two most powerful nations bordering the Persian Gulf, wars, endemic domestic corruption and U.S.-U.N. imposed political and petroleum quarantine drained both countries’ economies. The 1980-88 conflict saw the slaughter of an estimated one million souls, with 70,000 still missing by International Red Cross estimate. Subsequently, the 1991 Gulf War decimated Iraq’s military and destroyed much of its industry and infrastructure. Moreover, Washington-imposed restrictions on U.S. companies have taken a major economic toll on both nations, as did U.N.-imposed restraints on Iraq’s oil trade.
Most disruptive and the sorest point of all, Iran has housed and nurtured the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), whose leader Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim has spent most of his life in Iran and whose ideology is as Islamist as his mullah mentors in Tehran.
For its part, Iraq has provided haven for Massoud Rajavi and his Mujahideen-e-Khalq mercenaries, a Marxist-based terror group that has long been opposed to anyone ruling Iran, excepting — unsurprisingly — their own Mujahideen-e-Khalq. Both SCIRI and Mujahideen-e-Khalq fighters have caused a fair amount of mischief over the years. Both also offered their services in the recent hostilities to the Coalition of the willing. Both were turned down, with good reason.
In the circumstances, the temptation for Tehran to play an overt role in Iraq is strong, the massive U.S. presence notwithstanding. But Lebanese Minister of Culture Ghazi Aridi, who recently visited Tehran, has observed that Iran’s leaders “understand exactly the present transformations and are aware of the pressures.” He said Iran doesn’t want problems in Iraq and, noting well Syria’s perilous status with the United States, is making every effort not to be seen to be meddling in Baghdad’s internal affairs.
Iranian President Mohammed Khatami’s recent visit to Beirut, planned a year ago, took on a very different purpose and significance, given recent events. The sharp shift in regional dynamics following Saddam Hussein’s overthrow in Baghdad has caused Iran, Lebanon and especially Syria, Lebanon’s occupier and overlord, to be extraordinarily concerned that the United States understand they do not intend to involve themselves in Iraq’s internal affairs.
According to Lebanese minister Aridi, the Iranian president made it clear: “The Iranians want no intra-Shiite or Shiite-Sunni disputes in Iraq. Rather, they want the situation there to be stable.” Khatami, a Muslim cleric twice elected Iran’s president on a platform of liberalizing the mullah-controlled Tehran regime, called for regional cooperation to stop outsiders from interfering in forming Iraq’s political future. This was clearly a double-edged attempt to mollify Washington and simultaneously warn America to keep hands off the evolving Iraqi political process. Khatami further said Iran would not obstruct U.S. efforts to launch the “road map” for peace in the Middle East, noting that Tehran would accept what the Palestinians agreed to accept.
A key issue has been Washington’s insistence that the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, identified for years by the State Department as a terrorist organization, be restrained in order to pacify Israel’s northern border. Spawned in Lebanon by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, coincident with the 1982 bombing of the American embassy in Beirut, Hezbollah has long been supported by both Iraq and Syria, as well. Its roots have sunk deep into Lebanon’s political soil, with 12 members elected to parliament.
Beirut analysts report Iran, Syria and Lebanon have agreed to impede Hezbollah from carrying out attacks against Israel. If accurate, the critical questions will be whether and how long their determination will last.
Combined with Washington’s demand that Iran — a member of the “axis of evil” identified by George Bush in January 2002 — stop harboring al Qaeda members and accusations that Tehran is pursuing a nuclear-weapons program, the Bush administration is moving to thwart Tehran’s more blatant threats to peace. Washington’s refusal to deal formally with Iran on a government-to-government basis, is a clear signal for Iranians to pressure their government to change its policies, or better yet, overthrow it. The signal’s meaning was strongly underscored during the latest wave of demonstrations across the country, when President Bush observed that they were an unmistakable popular call for democracy.
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned on the 14th anniversary of the death of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death, that “Iranians from all walks of life, especially the enthusiastic and prepared youth, will strongly and stiffly confront any attacker,” a remark reminiscent of Baghdad Bob’s pathetic pleas of bravado in the end days of the Saddam regime. The restive youth of Iran have shown their distaste for the regime in increasingly vocal demonstrations during the past three years, with more than 75 percent currently estimated to be opposed to the ruling mullahs.
The presence of some 200,000 Coalition troops in Iraq is fundamental to creating a peaceful atmosphere in that country, as its citizens gingerly seek to rebuild their lives and society. At the same time, allied forces on Iraq’s Western border are a source of frustration and irritation to Iran’s ayatollahs and a restraint on their actions, both in Iraq and at home. Supporting statements from Washington plus several American brigades in Afghanistan to Iran’s east, provide quiet but compelling encouragement to its increasingly restive population.
Not a bad interim outcome of Iraq’s liberation, both for 25 million Iraqis and for 65 million peace-loving citizens in neighboring Iran.
— Hussain Hindawi is a native Iraqi historian, humanitarian, and journalist who currently serves as editor of United Press International’s Arabic News Service. John R. Thomson has been involved in the Middle East since 1966 as businessman, diplomat, and journalist. This was written for UPI and is reprinted with permission.