Nothing resonated at the regional conference held in Baghdad last month more than the barbs exchanged by American and Iranian officials attending the conference. Yet the mere fact that officials from both countries agreed to take part in the meeting provided a window of opportunity for more substantive contacts between them over Iraq. A second meeting is expected to take place at the level of foreign ministers in Istanbul in early April. During the Baghdad talks, US envoy David Satterfield pointed to his briefcase, saying that it contained documents providing evidence of Iranian involvement in deepening the Iraqi crisis by arming Shi‘a Muslim militias. The remarks provoked Iran’s chief envoy, Abbas Araghchi, who shot back: “Your accusations are merely a cover for your failures in Iraq.”
American claims of Iranian interference in Iraq are not new. On numerous occasions in the past few years, senior US government and military officials have accused Iran of meddling in Iraq and undermining efforts to stabilise the country and strengthen the central government. Speaking at a news conference on February 15 during his first visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels after becoming defence secretary, Robert Gates said that the Iranians were “doing nothing to be constructive in Iraq.” His predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, had repeatedly accused Tehran of sending agents to cause instability in Iraq, supporting the two Sadrist insurrections in southern Iraq in 2004, and supplying explosive devices to Shi‘a groups involved in attacks on coalition troops in the country. As far back as August 2005, Rumsfeld asserted that sophisticated weapons found in Iraq could be traced to Iran. “These weapons are a problem for the Iraqi government, for the coalition forces, for the international community and, ultimately, it’s a problem for Iran,” he said. In a similar vein, former US Central Command (CENTCOM) commander General John Abizaid accused Lebanon’s pro-Iran Hizbullah on September 19, 2006, of training Iraqi Shi‘a militiamen. For its part, Tehran has always denied theUS allegations and in turn accused the US of fomenting tensions between the various communities in Iraq.
While the exchange of accusations at the Baghdad meeting was yet more evidence of the gulf between Tehran and Washingtonover the nature of the crisis in Iraq, it also underscored the rising influence of Iran in the region in general, and in Iraq in particular. The shift in power in post-Saddam Iraq from the Sunni Arab minority to a Shi‘a majority government has aggravated the Sunni-Shi‘a divide inside Iraq, and caused several Arab governments to complain that the US invasion of Iraq has upset the balance of power in the Gulf region in Iran’s favour. Suspicions and resentments towards Iran among Sunni Arabs in Iraq were heightened by the fact that some of the Shi‘a parties that came to power in the post-Saddam period, such as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), led by Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, were supported by Iran. To varying degrees, these suspicions, which grew out of fears of political marginalisation, are rooted in deeply ingrained, historical distrust of Iran and the Iranians among Iraqis that goes back to the Ottoman-Safavid conflict in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Beneath these suspicions lurks a body of anti-Iranian lore prevalent among Arabs in Iraq. Whereas anti-Iranian attitudes amongIraq’s Shi‘a Arabs are shaped mainly by nationalist passions, anti-Iranian feeling among the country’s Sunni Arabs is laced with a distinctly anti-Shi‘a streak. The predominant view of Iran among Sunni Arabs is that the Islamic Republic harbors historical designs against, and is hand-in-glove with, the Americans in Iraq. The mish-mash of Sunni fears of Iran verges on paranoia. Sunni Arab leaders, politicians and insurgent groups frequently speak of a nefarious Iranian plan to dominate Iraq, accuse Tehran of conspiring against the Iraqi resistance, and consider Shi‘a political parties in Iraq as instruments for spreading Iranian influence. To a large extent this distrust, and the host of misperceptions it nurtures, undercut the possibility of cooperation between Iraqi anti-occupation Sunni Arab groups and Iran, despite the fact that both sides oppose America’s designs and policies in the region. Shortly after the collapse of the Ba‘athist regime, senior members of the Association of Muslim Scholars, the largest Sunni organisation in Iraq, including its spokesman Shaykh Abd al-Salam al-Kubaysi, declined an invitation to visit the Islamic Republic because such a visit would offend the anti-Iranian sensitivities of large parts of the Sunni Arab community.
Accusations thrown liberally back and forth over Iran’s role in post-Saddam Iraq cast a thick cloud of confusion, precluding a detached and objective analysis that comes to terms with the intricacies of Iran’s policy towards Iraq. A proper understanding of the Iranian role in Iraq depends on assessing Iran’s pursuit of its vital interests in that country. Clearly Iran, which fought a costly eight-year war against Iraq from 1980 to 1988, has an interest in seeing a political order in post-Saddam Iraq that poses no threat to it. There are a number of scenarios that Tehran would hate to see unfolding in Iraq. These range from the re-emergence of a hostile, militarily strong government in Baghdad to the descent of the country into total anarchy and all-out civil war, with their potentially dangerous spill-over effects: the secession of Kurdistan and the disintegration of Iraq, which would have serious implications for Iran’s substantial Kurdish minority, and the emergence of a rival Islamic model of government inspired by an interpretation of the Shi‘a political theory of wilayat al-faqih that is at variance with the late Imam Khomeini’s articulation of the notion. Iran also sees the continued presence of American troops in Iraq as a threat, especially in the light of the obsession of the neo-conservatives dominating the Bush administration with “regime change”. That is why Iranian officials have consistently demanded a phased withdrawal of coalition troops from Iraq.
Preoccupation with warding off the threats that could emerge from Iraq has led Iran to pursue a strategy that encourages the empowerment of the Shi‘a majority through the electoral process, tries to preserve the territorial integrity of Iraq, and works to curtail US influence there. So Tehran has supported the efforts of Iraqi Shi‘a Islamic groups to take part in the two parliamentary elections in 2005. It is also reported to have been involved in intelligence-collection and providing support to an array of competing Shi‘a factions in Iraq. Obviously, the success of these efforts would give decision-makers in Tehran a broader set of options to influence the course of events in Iraq and to exert pressure on Washington.
But Iran’s role in Iraq is not restricted to factional politics and security. Economic and trade relations constitute a key aspect ofIran’s involvement in Iraq. During the last few years Iran has become Iraq’s largest trading partner; Iraq is becoming increasingly dependent on cheap goods from neighbouring countries. Bilateral trade between the two countries is believed to have grown by an annual rate of 30 percent since 2003, reaching an estimated US$ 3 billion last year.
In general, there is no doubt that Iran has so far benefited considerably from developments in post-Saddam Iraq. But Iran’s strategy is fraught with risks. Rather than mediating inter-communal conflicts, the political process in post-Saddam Iraq has fuelled an intense form of identity politics, in which the boundaries between religious communities and political communities are being eroded: a process that is ultimately aggravating inter-communal tensions. These tensions are not only straining the fabric of Iraqi society, but are also pushing the country closer to total civil strife. Given the hardened anti-Iranian sentiments and perceptions prevalent among the Sunni Arab community, Iran finds itself increasingly pressed to look for allies in one community, the Shi‘a Arab community, rather than establishing broad-based political alliances based on a programme of action opposed to American policy in the region.
But relations between the Iraqi Shi‘a groups enjoying various degrees of Iranian support are far from harmonious. In fact, inter-factional rivalry among Shi‘a groups in Iraq is so intense that it could easily give way to inter-factional violence, in which the Islamic State would find itself drawn at best to mediate between warring factions, or at worst to take sides. The clashes on March 22 in Basra between the Mahdi Army and the Islamic Fadhila (Virtue) Party, in which nine people were injured, were a stark reminder of the potential for violence between rival Shi‘a groups as they compete for power in the central and southern provinces. Similar incidents of factional violence have been reported over the past few years in other central and southern provinces, such as Muthanna (Samawah), Wasit (Kut), Maysan (Amarah), Karbala and Qadisiyyah (Diwaniyyah).
Although Iran would ideally like to establish a tutelary relationship with these Shi‘a groups, this prospect is unlikely to transpire, because of the nature of these groups and their past, uneasy, and sometimes fluctuating relationship with Islamic Iran. For instance, although Muqtada al-Sadr embraces the concept of wilayat al-faqih, he prefers to not be seen as a protégé of Iran’s. Sadr is also an Iraqi nationalist, and the Sadrists have long criticized the predominance of Persians among the highest ranks of the maraji‘ in Najaf. Other groups believed to be the main avenues of Iranian influence in Iraq have also shown a great deal of pragmatism in their dealings with Iran. For instance, SCIRI, which was founded in 1982 in Iran as an umbrella organisation bringing together Islamic groups dedicated to the overthrow of Saddam’s regime, publicly subscribed to the late Imam Khomeini’s concept of wilayat al-faqih while based in Iran. But as soon as the group returned to Iraq it set out to distance itself from Iran. In their public statements, SCIRI officials have been at pains to assert their independence from Tehran, declare their allegiance to the marja‘iyyah of Ayatullah al-‘Udhma Ali al-Sistani, and proclaim their belief in a ‘democratic’ system of government rather than one based on wilayat al-faqih.
Above all, the fact that some of the Iraqi Shi‘a parties enjoying Iranian support have been drawn into the sectarian violence gripping the country might rebound to the Islamic State’s disadvantage. The ability to transcend the sectarian divide in its dealings with the Islamic world in general, and with Islamic movements around the world in particular, has been one of the strengths of the Islamic State. The Islamic Revolution in Iran has offered an attractive alternative to a contemporary Ummah burdened with abject, insular sectarianism, and opened unprecedented opportunities for re-directing the Muslims’ actions and energies towards major common Islamic causes. That explains why sectarian polarisation has always been a large part of the strategies adopted by Islamic Iran’s adversaries to contain its influence. Finding itself on one side of a Muslim-on-Muslim civil war in Iraq would certainly constitute a severe setback for the Revolution’s all-inclusive vision of the Muslim Ummah, and for the other tasks facing it.