Sunday, October 23, 2005


Iran and Iraq

History, Influence and Mistrust

Historical Background

The story is as old as recorded history. There have been raids and counter-raids across the Iraqi-Iranian borders since the earliest city-states around 3000 BC. Conflict also naturally brought cultural interaction.

It was Cyrus of Persia who delivered the final blow to Babylon. The Persians were defeated by the Greeks but they came back to Iraq after Christ, following the Roman conquest. The Persians occupied the central region of Iraq and dominated the Arab tribes residing there for several centuries. Their capital at one time, Ctesiphon, an ancient marvel of glory and grandiose, was on the River Tigris just south of Baghdad.

That episode was terminated by the Islamic conquest in the 7th Century. The Persian occupation of Iraq was swiftly swept away… and Persia itself rapidly crumbled to occupation of those faith-motivated, lightly-armed, fast-traveling Bedouins who came from Arabia. Persia and the surrounding areas soon all became predominantly Muslim.

Cultural influence soon followed the religion, to the extent that the Persian language adopted the Arabic script (as well as numerous Arabic words) which they use to this date.

During the Abbasid Caliphate, the Iranians had several spells of considerable political influence in Baghdad, the center of the sprawling empire of the time. Persian philosophers and scientists made significant contributions to the new civilization. They also helped ‘import’ Indian numerals to Iraq, whence they spread throughout Arabia. [So, it ironically ended up with most of the world using Arabic numerals and most of the Arab world using Indian numerals!]

The Abbasids, driven by political considerations and power struggle, relentlessly persecuted Imam Ali’s progeny, leaders and symbols of the Shiite faith. Many fled to neighboring Persia. That was to have special significance later on, and up to the present date. But Iran was predominantly Sunni throughout that period.

After the disintegration of the Abbasid Empire, Iran went its own way down the path of history and was, like Iraq, influenced much by the Mongols and others who came from central Asia.

Iran was strong enough again to stand up to the Turkish Ottoman Empire when the latter was beginning to weaken under its own weight and illnesses. Their main battleground was (where else?) in Iraq!

The rulers of Iran during and after the 16th century, and the builders of a new dynasty, the Safavids, were strong advocates of the Shiite sect. Most of Iran became Shiite by the 18th century. Parts of south-eastern Iraq soon followed.

It was that conflict between the (Sunni) Ottomans and the (Shiite) Persians that colored the Sunni-Shiite divide in Iraq! That conflict was so acute that when one of the Persian monarchs, Nadir Shah, decided to bring the sects together and managed to set up a major convention in holy Najaf for the leading clergy of the two sects… he was assassinated by his own bodyguards.


A great deal of the influence in recent history was religious in nature.

Although they never admit it, Iraqis are generally and characteristically rather ‘casual’ about their religion and their adherence to it. This should not be taken at face value. They generally hold it in great esteem and will not tolerate any attack on it; they just don’t adhere to what they regard as ‘inconvenient’ aspects of it.

Iranians, on the other hand, are for some reason traditionally more attached to their religion - probably to the extent of being zealot about it! Iraq is almost universally seen as a holy land by many religious Iranians: It is the land where Imam Ali, Imam Hussein and so many other divine Imams are buried… and the land where the 12th Absent Imam, the Mehdi, disappeared. It was also the seat of the Shiite supreme clergy – the Hawza. People sometimes tend to underestimate the influence of that establishment. Early in the last century, the Shah decided to give tobacco rights to some foreign concern. The clergy disapproved. The most senior ayatollah at the time issued a ‘fatwa’ (a religious verdict or opinion) that banned smoking for a while. The people abided. The Shah’s project failed and he had to back down!

Arabs, like many other people, generally take their names and lineage from their fathers only, in defiance of the laws of heredity! With so many of Imam Ali’s descendents living in Iran, many kept their claim to be Sayyeds (of Imam Ali’s blood). This is why Khomeni was a Sayyed… and this is why Ayatollah Sistani can claim to be an Arab, although of Persian birth and tongue.

I remember visiting Iran for the first time in the 1960’s when I was a young man. I took a taxi to go somewhere. Through the barrier of language, I tried to communicate with the taxi driver. He managed to find out that I came from Iraq. The man started crying and repeating words like “Hussein” and “Kerbala”. I was quite shocked by his reaction. It made a deep and lasting impression on me!

I find it sad that a country that had so much influence on another one (to the extent of being held in so much reverence by ordinary people) to waste it so recklessly. But that was exactly what the policies of Saddam did. [This is also reminiscent of the effect of the present US administration’s policies on many countries around the world]. He helped weaken the traditionally moderate center of Shiite religious reference which moved from Najaf to Qum, Khomeini’s domain. Khomeini, who himself spent some 14 years learning in Najaf, was only too happy to oblige.

That simple sentiment of reverence for Iraq and its holy places was to be turned around and used again and again in the Iraq-Iran war to motivate simple people to be fodder for that war. I heard numerous accounts from Iraqi soldiers about simple Iranian soldiers being led to believe that holy Kerbala or Najaf was just beyond that hill or enemy encampment. In truth those places were usually across the two rivers… many, many miles away! In effect, they were frequently sent into certain death.

Mistrust of a Foreign Power

The vast majority of indigenous Iraqi politicians, historians and much of the public believe that Iran sees itself as a regional superpower and has always had dreams of dominating the region. The Gulf, which they insist on calling ‘The Persian Gulf’, is a cornerstone in their foreign policy. The late Shah Mohammed Reza made no secret of his imperial aspirations and worked energetically to consolidate Iran’s influence in the Gulf. He raided and took 3 small islands belonging to Emirates in the ’70. Iran still holds to them.

That view of Iran’s ambitions was hammered into the population consciousness using the media during the war with Iran (much like the way some of the American media was used to convince ordinary Americans of the threat posed by Iraq to America) until a whole generation accepted it as a fact. The mistrust still exists.

Foreigners are called “Ajam” in Arabic. In Iraq, the word is almost used exclusively to refer to Iran. An Iranian is called Ajmi in a tone that is akin to the Japanese use of a similar term, “gaijin”. Because of the association with Iran through the Shiite faith, some misguided Sunnis sometimes insinuate that Shiites are more inclined to Iran. Being called ‘ajmi’ is one of gravest insults that can be directed to an Arab Iraqi Shiite for it implies a denial of lineage and heritage! This however is mainly a ‘city’ affair. I have never heard it in the countryside. For tribal people, lineage is not a suitable subject for insinuations!

Reversal of Influence

In the lead-up to that war, Saddam figured that people of Persian extraction were a weakness in the home front. He quite mercilessly dumped hundreds of thousands of such people on the border with Iran. There were many stories of hardship; many grievances; many homes and businesses abandoned by rightful owners and taken over by the government and given to cronies; many personal tragedies of families separated; many people dumped in a foreign country penniless with no knowledge of language or any relations there! There were many people who were not even of Iranian origin displaced in this manner. However, all were Shiite. It was one of the many horrible tragedies many Iraqis had to live with during the past decades. Many of those who had some money or education went on to other countries, but those deprived of both had to remain in Iran. The deep resentment understandably felt by many of them, sometimes verging on the irrational, can be seen at play today.

Those people were augmented by political and religious refugees who fled Saddam’s heavy hand during and after the war with Iran. And all those people were joined by another group, of mostly activists, who fled Iraq following the failed uprising of 1991 that followed the first Gulf war and which Saddam crushed ruthlessly under the nose of the American army. Those groups were the breeding ground that produced some of the most influential movements and politicians now shaping the political arena in Iraq as well as its future. The soil was Persian.

Foremost among these forces is the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and its now-notorious Badr Brigade. The whole movement was conceived in Iran. It was nurtured, armed, financed and given very substantial support by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Their chief, al Hakeem, now leads the largest coalition in the Iraqi Assembly. One of their prominent members is now Minister of the Interior, in charge of all police forces outside of Kurdistan.

From the above account, it may be evident that the ‘direction’ of influence, particularly religious influence, between the two countries, has been quite abruptly reversed since Khomeini’s Islamic revolution in Iran.

Loyalties and Allegiance

The question remains: how do ordinary Iraqis feel about Iran today and under the present conditions?

Kurds invariably mistrust Iran regardless of the regime in power. Most feel that their Kurdish brethren are oppressed in Iran. The only ‘country’ they had in their long history, the Republic of Mahabad, was declared in Iran in the first half of last century… and was promptly, summarily and mercilessly crushed. Many believe that Iran has repeatedly and consistently betrayed them throughout their troubled history. Several times in the last century, their insurgencies in Iraq were supported by Iran. But they were always sold away when the power of the time made a deal that brought some benefit to Iran!

The dominance of ethnic considerations over religious or economic concerns in Kurdish regions has been amply demonstrated in the last elections beyond any shadow of a doubt. Apart from a very small faction of religious fundamentalists, all Kurdish religious and political groups went along with the “Kurdish” card. Their current leaders however seem to be pragmatic enough… but there is little doubt that they will do the US administration’s bidding. That is where they have cast their vote and made their commitment. So far, these people seem to hold the Kurdish population in short reigns.

Arabs, on the other hand, have varied feelings. The situation is far more complex and there are numerous potent forces at play. There are also numerous parameters that influence a person’s position, some of them quite contradictory… and some of these are held by the same person.

As an illustration of the magnitude of the complexity, consider the following issues:

• I have met people who mistrust Iran’s intentions. Yet, at the same time, they are full of admiration for the Lebanese Shiite Hizbullah (widely regarded as a terrorist organization in America) for what they see as their heroic achievement in expelling Israel and ending its occupation of Lebanon. They therefore acknowledge and appreciate Iran’s significant support of that party. This sentiment is found most with Moqtada’s Mehdi Army.

• Another example: The defense minister in Allawi’s interim government Hazim Sha’alan, a Shiite himself (and who is now facing charges of corruption, to the tune of one billion dollars) repeatedly and vehemently attacked Iran for her interference in Iraq. At the time it seemed that he was playing American administration cards. But it was rather surprising how his stance found much favor with many Iraqis, including many Shiites, particularly in the countryside.

• The majority of the Arab world is Sunni; Turkey is predominantly Sunni. Sunnis in Iraq were for some time associated with the Ottoman Turks. However, during the British invasion of Iraq in 1914, most of the Shiite clergy sided with the Turks, because they were Muslims, and against the ‘infidel’ English.

• On the other hand, Shiites in Iraq are associated with Iran in popular folklore in some corners. This is strongly resented and usually brings out a violent reaction from most people. Again, it seems to me to demonstrate an ascendancy of ethnicity over religious sectarianism.

• Another major force that has emerged since the invasion is one that can be clearly seen at work in the mass media. Its main agenda is to hammer the idea that most Arabs are Sunnis and it would be in the interest of the Shiites of Iraq to side with Iran. Arab nationalism is attacked as racist and damaging to the country. This is at present a powerful lobby that boasts many influential members including, intentionally or not, the US administration.

• Another factor is the Sunni-Shiite polarization that has been taking place quietly over the past decades and more dramatically during the past two years. This has been a major issue in Iraqi politics and power-seeking. The stakes are too high for many countries and powers involved in Iraq to refrain from using the sectarian ticket as fuel.

• There is indeed some Sunni Shiite divide in all this. But at the same time, there is a great deal of spread of feelings and considerable city-rural differences.

So, where does the allegiance of the Iraqi Shiites lie?

This question keeps coming up again and again. A simple answer would be that the question is the same as asking whether all Catholics in Holland, or Italians in America, would side with Italy in a potential conflict.

The first time I personally thought about this issue was immediately before the 1980 war with Iran started. Many people began to quietly question where Iraqi Shiites’ hearts would lie in that conflict.

Within a week of the beginning of that war, a wise old man told me that on the question of nationality and sectarianism, nationalism and patriotism would come first. He was proven correct on numerous occasions.

In one particular incident, that came out astonishingly clearly. During 1982, the tides of that war began to turn and the Iranian army invaded parts of southern Iraq. Iran was close to taking one particular village called Baidha on the edge of the Iraqi Marshes. Residents were predominantly devout, simple Shiite peasants. The Iranians expected to be welcomed as liberators by the local population. To their surprise, even housewives, wielding kitchen utensils, went out to fight them! They were repelled.

To my mind, there is no doubt about it. When the worst comes to the worst, the overwhelming majority of ‘ordinary’ Iraqi Shiites will side with Iraq… but there are numerous potent forces at play.

Iran and Iraq: War and Politics

Some Background - The 20th Century

When Iraq was ‘liberated’ from the Ottomans by the British during WWI and became a ‘free country’… and Iran was also a ‘free country’ under considerable influence from Britain, there were numerous outstanding issues of conflict regarding their common borders. There was also the problem of Arabistan (Ahwaz or Ahvaz) - the region in Persia next to southern Iraq inhabited by Arabs who saw themselves as part of Iraq to the extent that the notorious Shaikh Khaszal of Mohammra (Khoramshahar) was one of the major contenders to the Iraqi throne in 1920. That region was on the other bank of the oil-rich Gulf.

Those border issues, particularly at Shat al Arab, the combined flow of Iraq’s two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, later became a major ‘official’ excuse of the Iran-Iraq war that started in 1980 and lasted for 8 years.

Most people still find Saddam’s attack on Iran almost immediately after Khomeini’s Islamic revolution rather perplexing. Many Iraqis find sufficient explanation in conspiracy theories. The vast majority of people I know in Iraq firmly believe that Saddam was doing America’s bidding. However, I believe that there were some tangible ‘incentives’ for him to jump into that unfortunate venture.

Saddam had made a number of territorial concessions to the Shah of Iran in 1975 to encourage the Shah to stop his support for the Kurdish insurgency. There was much resentment, even within his party. Someone close to him wrote a book later in exile about that time and he stated that he cried when he knew of the details of Saddam’s deal with the Shah. When the Khomeini revolution came, Iran was in chaos and in turmoil. The clergy purged many of the senior officers and pilots. The mostly inexperienced ‘Islamic Revolutionary guards’ were incompetently running the war machine. Iran was rather weak. Saddam probably saw an opportunity in attacking her. I can find a number of ‘advantages’ from his point of view for that adventure. President Reagan’s America of course did not discourage him. It is now open knowledge that the late King Hussein of Jordan played a significant role as a go-between.

There is a great deal of mistrust towards Iran in the Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia. Most of these rich countries overtly or covertly assisted Iraq during the last war with Iran (1980 – 1988), most notably Kuwait. In addition to what were seen as Iranian imperial aspirations in the region, there is no doubt that the sizeable Shiite communities in the oil-rich eastern bank of the Gulf were, and still are, on most of those people’s minds. Militant Islamist Shi'ism, inspired by Iran, was not welcome. [The recent harsh words coming from the Saudi Foreign Minister regarding American policies empowering Iran in Iraq are a case in point.]

The issue of Arabistan was one of anomalous features of that war. When Saddam’s army occupied it during the first two years of that war, there was an extremely conspicuous lack of sympathy with the nationalistic aspirations of the Arabs living there. They were not encouraged. They were in fact actively discouraged! To me, that is still a mystery! It only shows that during the most vicious of wars, some red lines can be drawn and respected… and some unspoken deals can be made!

Iran and Post-invasion Iraq

During the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, the present administration of President George W. Bush made no secret of the fact that their next station was Iran, one of the components of the ‘Axis of Evil’.

Iran’s response to the American invasion of Iraq has been a two-component policy: political and military.

The Military component is quite understandable and straightforward:

The general assumption was, and still is, that the USA would turn to face Iran as soon as things were settled in Iraq. Pro-administration war hawks were jubilant at the beginning of the invasion (before discovering that they were in a quagmire or being aware of the nature of that quagmire!) that Iran’s regime’s days were numbered. In Iranian eyes, this threat is still quite real.

The main obstacle preventing that threat from materializing is America’s entanglement in Iraq. It only makes sense for the Iranians to help bog down the Americans in the Iraqi quagmire. I am certain that Iranian policy-makers believe that they are doing it in self-defense. They are probably correct!

Iran had been actively doing that through supplying several factions of the insurgency. Secretary Rumsfeld recently announced something about Iranian explosives being used against the American army, explosives that the insurgents didn’t have before. This claim has been echoed by the British in Basra.

The other activity was more vicious. There are numerous pieces of evidence (including CIA reports) to suggest that Iran has its own violent covert operations in Iraq. One such report suggested the presence of 17 separate covert combat units operating in Iraq. The idea seems to be to produce maximum chaos and instability in Iraq, making the American occupation as difficult as possible. Some of the senseless acts of violence as well as some acts of violence of sectarian nature have been attributed to Iran.

The political approach had the aim of gaining as much influence as possible on the political arena in Iraq.

They had considerable influence on several of the ‘Shiite’ forces opposing Saddam’s regime. They had supported them considerably during their struggle against that regime. There were two major such parties: The Da’wa party and the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).

The Da’wa party (currently represented by Prime Minister Ja’afari) was friendly but not totally ‘owned’. The reason is that the movement was born inside Iraq and fought its battles on the inside most of the time. Its members were severely punished for that and paid a hefty price for it, including the death penalty to their founder and philosopher… another Sadr, usually known as the ‘First’ Sadr (to distinguish him from his cousin, Moqtada’s father) The attack started during the Iraq-Iran war and was rather vicious and persistent.

SCIRI, on the other hand, was born and nurtured in Iran, again mainly during that war. A militia, now known as the “Badr Brigade’ was wholly constructed in Iran, mainly from Iraqi defectors or PoW’s during that war. It was totally financed by the Iranian regime. Some of its elements actually took part in battles against the Iraqi army during that war; something that would have been unthinkable to many of the Da’wa people.

That distinction is most important. It explains a lot of the differences between the positions of the two parties after the invasion of Iraq.

After the invasion, both parties accepted the political game as defined by the American administration and played it with zeal and enthusiasm. But, to my surprise, there was a great deal of difference between the attitudes (and methods) of the two parties. Da’wa turned out to be the more ‘political and philosophical’ of the two! Much of their agenda were ‘Iraqi’ in essence and spirit. SCIRI was something else.

During the elections, both parties entered into a coalition and joined the same slate (under the tacit blessing of Sistani). After those elections, the Da’wa was given the ineffective post of Prime Minister (because he had little control over his ministers!) and SCIRI took the Ministry of Interior, primarily in charge of the police.

And all this under the eyes of the American administration! It really is almost unbelievable!

On the political side, as soon as Hakeem, the head of SCIRI, was chairman of the Iraq Governing Council, one of the first things he did was to announce that Iraq should compensate Iran for the war. There was uproar from all quarters, including most Shiite ‘activists’. About a year later, I watched him on TV claiming that he never said that.

There were simply too many pro-Iranian stands and inclinations in the SCIRI political positions. The coordination was almost vulgarly obvious during the Iranian present stand off regarding their nuclear program and the efforts to draft Iraq’s new constitution.

In the simplest possible terms, I cannot understand the following: Iran is a declared enemy of America. America invades Iraq. America consistently strengthens the hand of pro-Iranian political parties and their influence on the future shape of Iraq!

The latest source of amusement is that both the US administration and the regime in Iran are enthusiastic supporters of the new draft constitution.

There are too many murmurs coming from the Iraqi politicians taking part in the political process that Iraq is being governed by the Iranians… to ignore!

An Illustration: The plight of fighter pilots

Perhaps no single issue illustrates the extent of the (suspected) Iranian machinations in Iraq at present more than the plight of retired Iraqi army officers and fighter pilots.

Over the past two years, some unknown force literally went on a killing and an assassination spree that included former senior army officers and, almost inexplicably, former fighter pilots who took part in the Iraq-Iran war. Some of those people were old and retired.

Their plight was discussed in the National Assembly: A lady member of the National Assembly once raised the plight of those people during a parliamentary session last August and said that, up that moment, more than 30 of those people had been killed and asked for an investigation. Another member coldly replied that it was ‘dangerous’ for the lady to address such issues and make those insinuations! Nothing was done.

Then they took their case to the President: In mid-October, those unfortunate people, about 1000 retired army officers, went to see their president. They complained that they were being targeted and killed systematically, particularly the pilots who took part in the Iraq Iran war.

The President invited those unfortunate people to go to Iraqi Kurdistan and live in Arbil or Suleimaniya where they would be safer!!!

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