Two weeks before the U.S.-led war to liberate Iraq began, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad made a visit to Tehran for 12 hours of “dense talks” with Iran’s ruling mullahs.
The visit, Bashar’s fifth in two years, underlined his growing dependence on Iran as a regional ally. (By comparison Bashar’s father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, visited Tehran just once in his 30-year rule, and then only for six hours.)
At the end of Bashar’s visit, officials on both sides spoke of the “strategic partnership” between the Syrian Baathist regime and the Khomeinist ruling clique in Tehran.
Both sides knew that the war had become inevitable and that Saddam’s days were numbered. But they did not think the “Vampire of Baghdad” would fall so quickly.
Just days before the war Ali Khamenehi, the “Supreme Guide” of the ruling mullahs in Tehran, prophesied that Iraq would become “a quagmire” for the American “Great Satan,” signaling its “final destruction.”
Bashar called on Arabs to prepare for “holy war” against “the invaders.” Tehran and Damascus did their best to prolong the war.
Iraqi Shiite parties, financed by Iran and headquartered in Tehran, called on their brethren in Iraq not to cooperate with “the invading forces”. Iranian “sleeper” terrorist cells in southern Iraq issued death threats against clerics who wished to welcome the U.S.-led Coalition.
Syria, for its part, began shipping Russian-made and other military equipment and spare-part, to Iraq while opening its borders to Arab “volunteers for martyrdom” who wished to fight to save Saddam.
With the fall of Saddam, the Syrian and Iranian regimes move to the top of the Richter scale for rogue states.
Both have a record of sponsoring terrorism, have stockpiled chemical weapons, and have a history of human rights violations. Both know that they could be the next targets for regime change, not necessarily through direct US military intervention.
The leadership elites in Damascus and Tehran are divided over how to cope with the new situation created in the region.
One faction urges change to transform Iran and Syria from rogue states sponsoring terrorism into law-abiding ones keen to seek a role in building a new Middle East.
Another faction wants to turn Iraq into “a giant-size West Bank” for the US and organize a campaign of terror designed to wear out Washington’s resolve and force it to withdraw from the region in despair.
The reformist faction in Syria includes technocrats such as Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shiraa and Economy Minister Ghassan al-Rifai, and is backed by younger army officers, businessmen and segments of the ruling Baath party.
The anti-reform camp in Syria is led by Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam and Defense Minister General Mostafa Tlas, and supported by the military-security Mafia that is plundering occupied Lebanon.
Until recently, the pro-reform faction claimed to have President Assad’s “quiet support.” That, however, may have been a case of self-deception. Right now Bashar appears to be on the side of the old guard.
In Iran the pro-reform faction is led by former Prime Minister Mir-Hussein Mussavi and includes clerics, parliamentarians and businessmen who seek a change of course by the regime. The faction is partly supported by President Muhammad Khatami, a mid-ranking mullah who had initially been seen as a possible leader for the reform movement.
Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani leads Tehran’s anti-reform faction, with former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati acting as chief theoretician. Khamenehi, also a mid-ranking mullah, supports this faction.
The anti-reform factions in Tehran and Damascus are working hand in hand to prevent, or at least, postpone the emergence of a democratic system in Iraq.
They are active on three fronts.
On one front they are using Iraqi Shiite clients as a means of preventing the Shiite community from taking part in U.S.-led plans for a new government.
Together, Iran and Syria control five Iraqi Shiite groups:
The Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI) led by Ayatollah Muhammad Baqer Hakim Tabatabai.
The Islamic Call Party, led by Muhammad Bahr al-Olum
The Islamic Labour Party, led by Muhamad-Taqi Mudarressi.
The Iraqi branch of the Hezbollah, a semi-clandestine military organizations with “sleeper” cells in some Iraqi Shiite cities.
The Badr Brigade, led by Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim.
On the second front, Syria also controls a number of smaller Iraqi groups, including a breakaway branch of the Iraqi Baath Party. The Syrians hope that, if things do not settle in Iraq, they might be able to set up an Iraqi Baathist regime in exile and challenge a pro-American government wishing to seek recognition from Arab and Muslim countries.
On a third front, Iran and Syria are actively campaigning to prevent Arab and Muslim countries to recognize a new pro-American in Baghdad.
The opening shot in the campaign that Iran and Syria plan to launch in Iraq came earlier this month when a mob murdered Hojat al-Islam Abdel-Majid al-Khoi, a moderate Iraqi Shiite cleric in Najaf.
We now know that former Iraqi Baathist collaborators who have concluded a tactical alliance with Tehran through Syrian mediation led the mob that carried out the murder.
The Irano-Syrian plan is aimed at presenting Grand Ayatollah Ali Muhammad Sistani, the senior Shiite theologian in Iraq, from establishing his authority over the shrines, mosques, and religious endowments released from 30 years of Baathist control.
The Irano-Syrian plan also includes tactical alliances with Iraqi groups and parties opposed to Ahmad Chalabi, who is seen as Washington’s favorite candidate as Iraq’s interim leader.
It was under pressure from Tehran and Damascus that Hakim and Mudarressi decided to boycott the first post-Saddam meeting of Iraqi political and community leaders in Naseriyah on Tuesday.
Hardline factions in Tehran and Damascus feel that they are fighting for their lives. They are convinced that they can turn Iraq into “a burning hell for the Americans”, as depicted by Rafsanjani.
“We are now face to face with the American Great Satan all around us: in the Caspian region, in Afghanistan, in the Persian Gulf, in Turkey, and now in Iraq” Rafsanjani said last Saturday in a speech in Tehran. “We have to take preemptive action to defend our system.”
Few may have noticed it, but Iraq has already become the latest battleground between the Tehran-Damascus axis and the United States and its allies.
— Amir Taheri is an Iranian author of ten books on the Middle East and Islam. He’s reachable through www.benadorassociates.com.