Iraq has two things that interest Turkey and two other things that interest Iran. One of the two is a source of temptation, the other of fear.
What tempts Turkey in Iraq is a share in the oilfields of Mosul and Kirkuk.
What Turkey fears is that Iraqi Kurds may get too big for their boots and give ideas to Turkish Kurds.
What tempts Iran’s mullahs is the prospect of extending the Khomeinist revolution into Iraq, thus ending their ideological isolation in the Muslim world.
What Tehran fears, of course, is the revival of Najaf, in central Iraq, as the heart of a moderate Shiite Islam allied with the United States.
With the future of Iraq undecided, Turkey and Iran have started series of maneuvers to secure what they covet and to minimize what they fear.
Turkey lacks a significant constituency inside Iraq. It has close ties with a number of Iraqi Turkmen parties and personalities, and will use them as chips in negotiations about the future government in Baghdad. But the Turkomen account for just one percent of the Iraqi population and, concentrated in the Mosul region, lack national reach.
Ankara is trying to make up for its lack of an Iraqi support base by flexing its military muscles. Turkey has the world’s largest army, after the United States, and seems determined to rattle a few sabers in the crucial months ahead.
The Turks are also reviving old treaties and accords, some dating back to the Ottoman Empire, that could give Ankara a veto over key aspects of a future Iraqi government’s policy.
Ankara suffered a strategic setback when the Turkish Parliament refused toe let the US open a second front against Saddam Hussein in northern Iraq by using Turkish territory. A few months ago the Americans, unsure that they would topple Saddam so easily, were ready to give Turkey a say in shaping the future of Iraq. Now they have no incentive or reason to offer the Turks anything.
It would thus be unthinkable for the U.S. to veto the greatest possible autonomy for Iraqi Kurds solely to allay Turkish fears.
Compared to Turkey, Iran has more assets in Iraq. For more than 20 years it has invested in several Shiite, Kurdish, and even Arab Sunni opposition groups, in some cases as joint ventures with Syria.
There is no guarantee that those in whom Iran has invested will emerge as obedient tools of Iranian strategy. Some Iraqi Shiite leaders may turn out to be as ungrateful to Iran as the Chinese Maoists proved to be towards their Communist siblings in the Soviet Union in the 1960s.
Nevertheless, the Iraqi Shiites, financed, trained, and armed by Iran, are unlikely to switch sides easily if only because of the perception that the Americans will not stay long while the Iranians will always be next door.
Iran’s current strategy, therefore, is aimed at preventing the emergence of an independent Iraqi Shiite marjaiyah (source of emulation) around Grand Ayatollah Ali Muhammad Sistani. In that context Iran is forging an alliance with Shiite groups, including the family of the late Ayatollah Muhammad-Sadeq Sadr, who had collaborated with the Baathist regime.
The realities of power on the ground in Iraq are such that Tehran’s strategy may not get anywhere. But it sure can make life more difficult for the Americans as they try to shape a new government in Baghdad.
Tehran is also making noises about old treaties that gave Iran “a right of observation” over the Shiite shrines in Mesopotamia.
Tehran’s fears that Najaf may become an alternative center for Shiite theology and thought are not groundless.
Under the influence of a string of great theologians, starting with Mirza Hassan Shirazi in the 19th century and passing by Abol-Qassem Khoi in the 20th century, Iraqi Shiism steered clear of politics and focused on the ethics of the theological discourse.
This was in contrast with what the late Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini, the father of the Islamic revolution in Iran, preached from the 1950s.
Khomeini spent 14 years in exile in Najaf (1965-1978) where he was a lone voice among theologians.
He argued, “Only a good society can create good believers.”
Khoi’s argued the opposite: “only good believers can create a good society.”
Khomeini believed that, left to their own, most people would not live by the precepts of Islam.
“Man is half angel, half devil,” he wrote in Tozih al-Masayel (Explication of Issues), his magnum opus. “The devil part is always stronger than the angel part. This is why society should organize to combat it through laws and suitable punishments.”
Khoi rejected that view, too.
He asserted that the individual was capable of taming “the devil side” and using “the angel side” to improve society thanks to “divine guidance rather than coercion”.
Khomeini believed that mullahs should seize power and use it to create “the perfect society” even if that meant “purification” in the form of hundreds of thousands of executions.
Khoi rejected the possibility of creating the “perfect society” in the absence of the Hidden Imam whose return is awaited by the Shiites for more than 12 centuries.
Today, Khoi’s views, continued by his disciple Sistani, enjoy a wide audience among Shiites, including in Iran where the grand ayatollahs reject Khomeini’s theory of rule by the mullahs.
Until Saddam imposed his tyranny, Najaf had often acted as a refuge for dissident Iranian theologians. It could become one again. And that frightens the mullahs in Tehran.
As for Turkey, it has always used the bogeyman of a separate Kurdish state in Iraq as an excuse for denying its own Kurds minimum rights, such as speaking Kurdish and promoting their culture. Iraq’s success in developing a system in which Kurd and Arab, and other ethnic groups, live together in peace and harmony could deal a serious blow to Turkish chauvinism.
One danger remains: If the Iraqi state is eclipsed for a long period, at some point Turkey and Iran may come together to exert joint influence on future developments in Iraq. And that could be bad news not only for the U.S.-led Coalition but also for the Iraqi people.
— Amir Taheri is an Iranian author of ten books on the Middle East and Islam. He’s reachable through www.benadorassociates.com.