Edition 35 Volume 2 - September 09, 2024

Iran's regional ambitions

Iraq and Iran: A formidable alliance? -   Irfan Husain

Should a Shiite-dominated Iraq emerge from the embers of the war, it can be expected to cooperate closely with Iran.

Iraq's occupation presents both opportunities and threats to Iran -   Saad N. Jawad

The occupation ended the Iraqi state and created a power vacuum there that Iran is more than eager to fill but also brought its archenemy to its border.

Iran and the war in Iraq -   David Menashri

Iran is using all its available tools to strengthen its influence in Iraq.

The view from Tehran -   Karim Sadjadpour

A Sistani electoral victory would ensure that Iran's influence in Iraq exceeds that of Washington.

Iraq and Iran: A formidable alliance?
 Irfan Husain

Although its desire to spread hard-line Islam abroad has waned somewhat since the Khomeini revolution a quarter of a century ago, Iran remains an ideological state. But apart from Islam, it is the Shiite doctrine that defines Iran's religious leadership and its worldview.

Before 9/11 and its immediate aftermath altered the regional balance of power irrevocably, Iran was well placed to project its influence beyond its borders. It was arming and funding the Shiite Hazaras and Ahmed Shah Masood in their resistance against the Sunni Taliban in Afghanistan. Shiite Muslims in Central Asia were being given scholarships to study theology in Iran's seminaries, and Shiite armed groups in Pakistan were being helped by Tehran in their fight against Sunni terrorists.

In Iraq, the only other Muslim country with a Shiite majority, the ayatollahs were content to play a waiting game, secure in the knowledge that Saddam Hussein, weakened after a decade of sanctions, no longer posed a threat. They had mended fences with the Gulf States and were gradually becoming more acceptable to the West.

With 9/11 and the consequent American-led attack and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran was suddenly encircled by the world's only superpower. Worse, its president had branded the country one of the "axis of evil" together with Syria and North Korea.

But the invasion of Iraq brought opportunities as well as dangers for Iran. For the first time since Iraq's creation after WWI, the majority Shiite population was in a position to gain power. Tehran understood that if it played its cards right, it could wield enormous influence in Baghdad after the Americans left.

Basically, Ayatollah Khamanei seems to have decided to proceed along two tracks. The first track has the firebrand Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr leading his Mahdi army in an armed insurrection against the American occupiers. The idea is to make Iraq virtually ungovernable, forcing the Americans into an early exit. The second track consists of encouraging Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the hugely respected Iraqi cleric, to consolidate his power among the Shiite community.

This policy is based on the expectation of a Shiite majority in any reasonably fair Iraqi election. While the Americans are trying to finesse this possibility through safeguards for the Kurdish and Sunni minorities, it is a matter of time before Tehran's waiting game pays off.

Should a Shiite-dominated Iraq emerge from the embers of the war, it can be expected to cooperate closely with Iran. While the seniority of its hierarchy of ayatollahs would give it considerable independence, the two countries would consult closely on a wide range of matters from oil prices to diplomacy.

Close ties between the world's only two Shiite countries would make for a formidable alliance. Given their oil and gas reserves, as well as their land mass and literate populations, they would dominate the region, and pose a major threat to American and Israeli interests.

The current expressions of alarm over Iran's nuclear program should be seen in the context of the West's growing concern at Tehran's ambitions in Iraq. Similarly, the continuing improvement of the range and accuracy of Iran's missiles is giving it the means to project its power far beyond its borders.

But this overt muscle flexing is making it vulnerable to a joint pre-emptive strike by Israeli and American forces. Although its nuclear and missile-related assets are scattered and hidden, they are not completely immune. If the Americans can obtain a UN resolution based on the International Atomic Energy Agency findings that Iran is in breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, they can justify military action.

Thus, Iran may be in danger of overplaying its hand. If it waits patiently, the sheer demographic realities in Iraq virtually assure it of a major say in that country, together with the strategic and economic implications that flow from Shiite rule in Iraq. If, however, it continues to exert pressure on the Americans through Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army, while also defying world opinion by acquiring nuclear arms, it will be risking all its gains on one roll of the dice.

All too often, revolutionaries miscalculate the reaction of pragmatic leaders to their actions. The ayatollahs in Tehran should try and put themselves in Bush's and Sharon's place: the former will not accept Iran's dominance over the world's biggest oil-producing region, while the latter would never countenance its sworn enemy's possession of nuclear warheads and the missiles to deliver them.

There are times when it pays to tread softly.- Published 9/9/2004 (c) bitterlemons-international.org

Irfan Husain writes two columns a week for Dawn, Pakistan's widest circulating and most influential daily. After a career in the civil service spanning 30 years, he was president of a university in Pakistan for five years. He now divides his time between England and Pakistan.

Iraq's occupation presents both opportunities and threats to Iran
 Saad N. Jawad

Iran has always been a major factor in the politics of the Gulf region. This of course was, and is, due to many factors that include its strategic position, its large population and its mineral wealth, i.e. oil (despite the fact that this factor was added as a result of the annexation of the Arab emirate, Arabistan, to the Persian state following WWI).

In fact, in talking about Iran's regional ambitions, one must not ignore the fact that during the last four centuries, and following the collapse of the different Arab empires in the region, Iran (the Safawid empire) and Turkey (the Ottoman empire) remained the only dominant powers. This historic domination gave rise to certain residual historical claims that are demonstrated every now and then in the two countries' politics. But while the modern Turkish state did not as a rule pursue these claims, modern Iran has.

There are several examples of this. The occupation of the three Arab Gulf Islands, the two Tumbs and Abu Musa, following the withdrawal of the British forces from the region in 1970 is an obvious one. Other less apparent examples are the Iranian attempts to influence or interfere in other Gulf countries, including Bahrain and Iraq. Iran, under the Shah, tried to be the only major power in the area, the 'policeman' of the Gulf and a state with the fourth-largest army in the world. Thus Iranian military advisors and agents and sometimes military units were often present in different parts of the Gulf, and wherever the Shah felt an expedient opportunity to infiltrate. By far the most obvious example was the Shah's heavy involvement in Iraqi Kurdistan between 1961 and 1975, which succeeded in securing all Iran's objectives in the Shatt al-Arab waterway and the Arabian Gulf without any real opposition.

It is interesting to note that these ambitions did not change following the overthrow of the Shah's regime in 1979. The new Islamic regime in Iran remained loyal to all these strategies and ambitions. In fact, one can confidently say that the new Islamic Iranian regime went a step further in this direction by giving itself the right to topple any regime it did not like by introducing the concept of "exporting the revolution," a doctrine that entailed the use of force if necessary. The war against Iraq was the best example.

Although the old Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein was held responsible for expanding and enlarging the conflict, Iran instigated the conflict with the intention of spreading its influence and example of government into Iraq. The ayatollahs thought Iraq, a country with a Shiite majority, would welcome such a change, which in turn would lead to other changes in the Gulf area and total Iranian domination of the region. Of course, this ambition was not achieved for many reasons, but cardinal among them was Iraqi opposition.

Following the 1991 war, which resulted in the elimination of Iraq as a regional power, Iran emerged once again as the sole power in the Gulf. It was, however, psychologically and morally contained, a containment instigated by the US and some other regional powers such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel, to prevent Iran from taking advantage of the defeat of the Iraqi army following the liberation of Kuwait.

A new phase in Iran's regional role has now arisen after the occupation of Iraq. The destruction and occupation of the only regional power directly able to contain Iran holds mixed opportunities for the country. On the one hand, the occupation ended the Iraqi state and created a power vacuum there that Iran is more than eager to fill. On the other hand, it brought Iran's archenemy, the US, to its border. The US, almost immediately, and one should say foolishly, started to issue threats against Iran even before completing the occupation of Iraq. Iran, feeling threatened, decided to take advantage of the chaotic situation in Iraq and facilitated the infiltration into Iraq of elements hostile to the US, while at the same time assisting its own allies in the Iraqi state.

Iran's current strategy appears to be two-pronged. With one eye on its own ambitions, and another wary eye on the US, Iran is hoping to either turn the events in Iraq to its benefit or, at the very least, keep the American forces bogged down in Iraq, thus not giving the US the time and opportunity to invade Iran based on the Iraqi example.- Published 9/9/2004 (c) bitterlemons-international.org

Saad N. Jawad is a professor of political science at Baghdad University.

Iran and the war in Iraq
 David Menashri

The war in Iraq has broad implications for Iran. It occurred in a neighboring country and region in which Iran has vital interests, and it was waged by Iran's archenemy (the United States) against Iran's main regional adversary (Iraq). While the war could advance some Iranian interests, it also produces challenges, depending on the identity, stability, and policies of the new Iraqi regime and the degree of American and other foreign involvement. Initially, the abrupt collapse of the Iraqi armed forces and the US presence exacerbated the risks for Iran. However, the difficulties facing American forces since Saddam Hussein's fall and the lack of evidence of weapons of mass destruction have benefited Tehran. Clearly, realities on Iran's borders have changed significantly since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

These momentous changes occurred during a rocky time on Iran's domestic front. As social, political, and economic difficulties mount, popular disillusionment and public disaffection reach new peaks. At the same time, Iran maintains hostile relations with most of its neighbors. America now encircles Iran--mainly on its east (Afghanistan) and west (Iraq)--and views it as a member of the "axis of evil," while continuing to pursue the "war against terrorism".

Iran's attitude to the war--similar to its policy on numerous domestic and foreign policy issues--remains intricate. It had no sympathy for Saddam and has no affection for the US. While some of Iran's interests in Iraq overlap with America's, fierce hostility has colored their relations since the Islamic Revolution. In fact, many of the stated objectives for the war in Iraq, including eliminating WMD, suppressing state-supported terrorism, regime change through military means, and democratization by foreign intervention could easily be applied to Iran as well. Consequently, Iran persisted with its two-track diplomacy: vigorous criticism of the US coupled with pragmatic measures to safeguard its post-war interests. Indeed, its policies fluctuated from measures aimed to reassure opinion in the US to active support for its rivals--mainly the Iraqi Shiites.

Since the Iraq war American and Iranian interests have clearly clashed. Iran desired an end to the Iraqi regime, but felt uncomfortable about the US toppling Saddam and installing a pro-American government. While Washington looks for a swift victory, Tehran prefers a protracted, laborious conflict. Iran wants Russia and the European Union to act as balancing powers, while Washington wishes to limit their involvement. While the US sees itself as the major power behind the war against terrorism, Iran wants the international community to play that role. Finally, whereas the US views the war in Iraq as a step in combating terrorism, Iran prefers this to be the last phase in such a war.

Thus Iran's and America's post-war visions differ widely. Much to Iran's dismay, the US seems determined to preserve its interests in Iraq for the long run, and wishes to play a central role in its rehabilitation. Washington hopes to transform Iraq into a bridgehead for democracy in the region, while Iran dreads the spread of liberal ideas among its disaffected youth, particularly if they emanate from a US-backed Iraq. While Iran may benefit from a weak Iraqi government, a stronger government capable of securing the free flow of oil could better suit American interests. Although Iran denies stirring up violence in Iraq, the US blames it for doing exactly that. Finally, while one of America's most important aims is to prevent new states in the region from acquiring nuclear weapons, the lesson for Iran is totally different: the need to acquire nuclear capabilities to save it from Iraq's fate. This puts it in a position similar to North Korea. Ironically, this is likely to provoke the strongest response from either America or Israel.

New developments could pose additional challenges for Iran. Its least desirable scenario includes Iraqi disintegration and the formation of independent entities--most perilously a Kurdish state. Additionally, the change in Iraq may lead to the re-emergence of Najaf (the holiest Shiite city) as Shiite Islam's main scholarly center, challenging the newly gained centrality of Qom. Scholars associated with Najaf do not necessarily share Ayatollah Khomeini's radical dogma. Ayatollah Sistani, for example, prefers a quietest attitude toward politics. Although Shiites in Iran and Iraq share the same faith, various groups follow different political lines and thus disagree about certain interpretations of religious law, including the inter-relationship between Islam and politics.

Points of disagreement between Iran and the US remain, therefore, mainly over the future government in Iraq, terrorism, nuclear proliferation and Iran's involvement on the Arab-Israel scene. Following the war, Iranian leaders seemed worried by the speedy toppling of Saddam's regime, the increased American presence at their gates, the marginalization of the UN and EU, the threat they sensed from perceived American schemes, and the growing disillusionment of the Iranian people and possible turmoil among its ethnic minorities. Iran thus hopes for complications in American plans (especially with the approach of the US elections), including growing Iraqi resistance, European and UN pressure, and inflamed tensions between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel and Hizballah. Iran is using all its available tools to strengthen its influence inside Iraq.

While Iran has retreated from revolutionary dogma in many areas, its animosity toward Israel remains uncompromising. In Iran's view, Israel is an enemy of Iran and Islam, and a threat to mankind. Iran's revolutionary goal is unequivocal: Israel should be eliminated. Israel, for its part, continues to stress the "Iranian threat" to itself and the free world. The security challenges Iran presents to Israel derive from its dogma, support for Islamism, and aid for Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories and for Hizballah in Lebanon. Israel views Iran's attempts to acquire WMD--and the missile technology to deliver them--as an existential threat. Accordingly, Israel has intensified its diplomatic activity, mainly by pressuring Washington to harden its attitude toward Iran, a policy it will surely maintain after America's November elections.- Published 9/9/2004 (c) bitterlemons-international.org

David Menashri is a professor at the Department of Middle Eastern and African History and incumbent of the Nazarian Chair for Modern Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University.

The view from Tehran
 Karim Sadjadpour

In the spring of 2024, shortly after US-led forces captured Baghdad with surprising speed, more than a few western analysts began to foretell winds of change blowing toward Tehran. Reconsider the possibilities: Iraq's burgeoning (secular) democracy would serve as a model for Iran, or perhaps inspire envious Iranians to rise up against their anti-democratic mullahs; Baghdad's fall and the subsequent envelopment of Iran by US troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Persian Gulf sheikhdoms would frighten Tehran's ruling mullahs into improving their behavior; Iran's most respected Shiite scholars and clerics--the majority of whom are opposed to Khomeini-style theocratic rule (velayat-e faqih)--would take flight from Qom to Najaf, where they could freely criticize the Islamic Republic's religious legitimacy and potentially incite the masses. For those familiar with the depth of popular discontent in Iran, such scenarios did not appear outside the realm of possibility.

Such scenarios, however, assumed a smooth post-war execution in Iraq. While Bush administration officials talked of how success in Iraq would change the political culture of the Middle East, few seemed to contemplate the regional repercussions for Washington if the post-war did not go as planned. In the case of Iran, the chaotic state of post-war Iraq has served not to intimidate Tehran's mullahs but rather to embolden them. Today, nearly 17 months after the fall of Baghdad, Iran's Islamic regime appears more entrenched than it has been in over a decade.

According to many analysts, US post-war difficulties in Iraq are due in large part to Iranian meddling. While on its own this explanation is overly facile, there is certainly some truth to it. Given that various Bush administration officials and advisors intimated that Tehran should be next after Baghdad, it is logical that Iran would do its best to make sure that the post-war transition in Iraq was anything but smooth. At the same time, however, Tehran's leadership has been cognizant of the fact that a civil war in Iraq--with the potential to spill over the Iranian border--is not in its interest either. Hence Iran's de-facto policy of "contained chaos": generate enough unrest in Iraq to dissuade the US from contemplating regime change in Iran, but refrain from supporting a full-fledged insurrection.

Rather than put its money on one specific horse, Iran has diversified its Iraqi portfolio. Both Moqtada Sadr, the radical young Shiite cleric who advocates an Islamic Republic of Iraq, and Ahmad Chalabi, the secular Shiite ex-pat with close ties to Bush administration officials, have links to Tehran. Above all, however, Iran seems to support the will of the seemingly moderate, respected Iran-born cleric Ayatollah Sistani. Given a one-person, one-vote democratic election in Iraq, it is widely assumed that those aligned with Sistani would emerge victorious. And given Sistani's religious and cultural ties to Iran, Tehran is confident that a Sistani victory would ensure that its influence in Iraq exceeds that of Washington. For this reason, the idea of a democratically elected Iraqi government seems cause for greater concern in Washington than Tehran.

Iran has displayed a similar combination of duplicity and cunning with regard to its nuclear strategy. Despite US and Israeli threats and the risk of European condemnation, Tehran has shown little sign of retreat. Iranian officials--from Khatami to Khamenei to Rafsanjani--have consistently insisted that Iran is not interested in pursuing a nuclear weapons program. "We are ready to do everything necessary to give guarantees that we won't seek nuclear weapons," Khatami said recently. "As Muslims, we can't use nuclear weapons. One who can't use nuclear weapons won't produce them." Given Iran's dubious track record with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), however, few are convinced. "What they're doing is the equivalent of buying a $25,000 ball point pen," one nuclear analyst familiar with Iran's program told me. "If their sole interest is to build a civilian nuclear energy program, they're doing far more than what's necessary."

In addition to its nuclear ambitions, the vacuum caused by the US removal of Saddam Hussein allows Tehran to be open about its ambitions for regional hegemony. Former head of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Mohsen Rezaii succinctly summed up Tehran's aspirations. "Why shouldn't Iran be the flag-bearer of peace, justice, development and democracy in the region? The region cannot have stability and security in the absence of Iran and all nations need Iran's presence, even the Americans." After years of putting intangible Islamic interests ahead of national interests, Iran's ascendant conservatives have ironically begun to use the same rhetoric once used by Mohammed Reza Shah three decades prior. Then as now, Iran's neighbors are likely to view Tehran's self-anointed role as policeman of the Gulf with a certain degree of wariness.

But while Iran's hand seems to have been temporarily strengthened, it is still far too early to tell the ultimate reverberations of the Iraq war. Just as Iraq's future hangs in the balance, so does that of its neighbors. So far, however, Tehran's ruling mullahs have far more reason to be smiling than their counterparts in Washington. Rather than extinguish Iran's Islamic regime, the Iraq war seems to have given it new life.- Published 9/9/2004 (c) bitterlemons-international.org

Karim Sadjadpour was a visiting fellow at the American University of Beirut during the 2024-2004 academic year.

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