How Iran could help the US in Iraq

By Massoud Khodabandeh

Asia Times, 19 Jan 2005

Grievances between the US and Iran date back to the 1979 revolution's removal of the Central Intelligence Agency-backed Shah's regime, or, more properly, to the US Embassy hostage crisis which followed that landmark event.

Since then, relations between the two have staggered back and forth on points of trust, but they have not quite found enough mutuality to move forward. Efforts have been made on both sides to engineer some kind of rapprochement. Iranian reformists and nationalists - both in the Iranian government as well as among some opposition groups outside Iran - and some advocates for non-military oriented businesses in the US and Europe have tried hard to develop and expand economic trade with Iran.

But these efforts have been hampered, if not to say completely negated, by other, unbending elements on both sides of the divide which have acted vigorously to undermine and block the achievement of such a goal. On the Iranian side sits a bizarre mix of hardliners in the regime itself and a vociferous but largely defunct exiled opposition group, the Mujahideen-e Khalq Organization (MKO), which, seeing no hope of success through its own efforts, courts hawkish proponents of US military intervention in Iran.

More importantly, on the US side we have seen the generic influence of pro-Israeli groups and personalities which regard Iran as the major threat to Israel's best interests, and therefore an enemy not to be negotiated with. For these, Iran does genuinely reside in an "axis of evil".

The traditional focus for this enmity - Iran's support for anti-Israel groups Hezbollah and Hamas - and more recently, doubts about Tehran's nuclear ambitions, has been eclipsed by the new complication added to the region by the removal of Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Although few would deny the benefits of his removal, the move has deeply affected the checks and balances in the region, and perhaps the country most affected is Iran.

For Iran, to have its enemy travel thousands of miles on a military adventure to establish a pro-US regime in Iraq with the potential to continue Saddam's aggressive policy toward the Islamic republic is not acceptable. As the only country which openly refuses to accept the legitimacy of Israel, a further cause for concern for Iran is the presence of Israeli intelligence operatives in Iraq. Iran will understandably want to use its well-established contacts there to counter such a threat from Iraqi territory.

For the US, on the other hand, it is the very existence of these close ties between Iran and Iraq, particularly the majority Shi'ite Iraqis, that is the crux of the problem. The emergence of a pro-Iran regime in Iraq is equally unacceptable for the US. In simple terms, they did not occupy Iraq for the advancement of Iran.

Omar Musa, secretary general of the Arab League, speaking just before the occupation of Iraq, said the invasion would "open the gates of hell". Part of this hell for the US is the wide open opportunity afforded to its enemy to establish an Iranian-style Islamic republic in Iraq, or at the very least to engineer the election of an Iraqi government dominated by Shi'ites subject to Iranian influence.

Certainly, any gain Iran makes, especially as it would have been paid for by the US invasion of Iraq, is intolerable to Washington. And perhaps the Iranians know this better than anybody else. Given this mutual hostility and fear, it may be surprising to learn that what Iran actually wants is stability in Iraq rather than chaos and the disintegration of the country. There is no evidence either that Iran wants a rival Shi'ite Islamic republic on its doorstep. So in a sense, Iranian and US goals are the same. What separates them is the amount of influence each will have on the formation of the new government.

So what is one to make of accusations that Iran is meddling in Iraq's scheduled January 30 election? Is Iran, as many believe, maneuvering cleverly to gain control of the country?

Significantly, the insurgent bombing of Shi'ite cities did not provoke a violent retaliation. Rather, Iraq's Shi'ite leaders announced that they would answer these killings in the elections. In the rest of the country, the remaining 40% of Sunnis, Kurds and others are entrenched in day-to-day fighting in Kurdish and Sunni-controlled areas, so the effectiveness of their voting becomes more questionable day by day.

The closer polling day looms, the more rumors surface that vote quotas could be implemented; an idea already pushed to the fore by some US officials and the Iraqi interim government. As of yet there is no clear wording as to what this actually means, but it indicates that in the likely event that pro-US elements are eliminated over the course of this election - because after all there is only so much you can do under such conditions to win the hearts and minds of the people in the streets to vote for your candidates - there should be a minimum number of seats - premier Iyad Allawi put the figure at about 20% - allocated to the Sunnis and the Kurds. That still leaves the problem of finding the right Sunnis and Kurds to choose from, but as the occupying force, perhaps this is a reasonable demand from the US.

One way to legitimize such an action - and only one of them - is to emphasize Iran's influence on the Shi'ite community and interpret this as a threat to the democratization of Iraq. This would prepare the grounds, on the basis of fairness, to counteract an overwhelmingly pro-Iran outcome. Such an outcome would skew the already unbalanced situation of the region in a way unacceptable not only for the US and Israel, but even for the many others who are currently engaged in controlling the fast growth of Iran and its regional influence.

Iran is trying its best to counter such action by not giving any more excuses than the existing ones, at least until the election takes place. Even top Shi'ite leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has added some Sunnis to his shopping list of candidates for the Shi'ite population to vote for. As much as he wishes for the departure of foreign forces, particularly from Iraq's Shi'ite religious cities, alienating the occupying power clearly is not in his benefit. Everybody, it seems, knows that in this particular stand-off the stakes are much higher than the problems presented by atomic energy or support for Palestinian groups by Iran.

But perhaps the fundamental flaw in the US approach comes from the assumption that Iran's influence in Iraq is both greater than it actually is, and that what influence it has will have entirely negative effects for the US.

The close ties between the Shi'ite clerics in Najaf and Qom in Iran go back many centuries. Many prominent clerics in the Iranian government hail from Najaf, or are first generation Iranians born to families emigrated from Najaf. Sistani is Iranian by birth. The language spoken at home by over 50% of the population of Najaf, Karbala and Kazemiah is Persian. For the general Shi'ite population, holy shrines exist in both countries. There is little either Iranian or Iraqi officials - or for that matter the Americans or British - can do to stop the influx of pilgrims from Iran desperate to reach the long-denied shrines in Karbala, Najaf and Kazemiah.