Iran is part of the solution in Iraq, not the problem

August 6, 2008 in Media

Byline: Reza Molavi

Summary: Britain withdrew from the Persian Gulf in 1971, leaving behind a security vacuum that only the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi could fill. With America’s support, Iran under the shah became the policeman of the Persian Gulf. But with the advent of the Islamic Revolution, power in the Gulf region was dispersed among the United States, Iraq, Iran and to some degree Saudi Arabia.

Britain withdrew from the Persian Gulf in 1971, leaving behind a security vacuum that only the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi could fill. With America’s support, Iran under the shah became the policeman of the Persian Gulf. But with the advent of the Islamic Revolution, power in the Gulf region was dispersed among the United States, Iraq, Iran and to some degree Saudi Arabia.

More recently, the American occupation of Iraq and its removal as the strategic counterweight to Iran has changed this dynamic entirely; the Islamic Republic of Iran has been able to expand its influence in the Middle East, Africa, Transcaucasia and beyond. The United States and the European Union now face the question of how they can mitigate potential threats to their interests if Iran succeeds in consolidating its new position as the leading power in the region.

For Iran, the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a miracle come true. Not only was Iran’s sworn enemy (Saddam Hussein) removed from power, but the very Shiite and Kurdish groups that sided with Iran during its eight-year war with Iraq have become the main players on the Iraqi political scene.

Iran was the first country to recognize the Iraqi Governing Council that was established under the US occupation in 2003. Iran has continued its support to embrace the new Iraqi government of 2006. The Daawa party to whom current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki belongs had its headquarters based in Tehran during Saddam’s rule of terror. The same is true for the departed Ayatollah Muhammad Baqer al-Hakim and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), currently known as the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.

The Iraqi Kurds have a long history of proximity to Iran. When the Iraqi government used chemical weapons against the Kurds in 1988, Jalal Talabani (currently president of Iraq) sought safety in Iran. In 1991, when a popular uprising liberated almost all of Kurdistan, including Kirkuk, and the Iraqi Army retaliated with an iron fist, Kurds in massive numbers fled to Iran and Turkey. However, it was only the government of Iran that kept its borders open against all uncertainties and hazards.

Tehran’s regime has no interest in undermining the current government of Iraq. In fact, Iran’s constructive role in Iraq has gone beyond the new Iraqi government to include the new Iraqi Army as well. SCIRI, for instance, asked its members to enter the new Iraqi Army and police force. This was a positive step and Iranians deserve credit for it.

There are three reasons for the recent calm and stability in Iraq, one of them less well-known. The two obvious explanations are the Americans’ 2007 surge, which even the Democrats now concede was a success, and the establishment of the Sahwa (Awakening) forces. The third, less discussed reason is the fact that Iran did its best to help the Iraqi government in its effort to stabilize the situation in Iraq. It was Iran that advised Moqtada al-Sadr to dissolve the Mehdi Army, thereby preventing a major clash between it and the Iraqi armed forces. Later, when the Baghdad operation took place and supporters of Sadr refused to give up their guns, once again it was Iranian mediation efforts that saved the day and stopped escalation of the conflict in Sadr City.

Normalization in Iraq will take time and patience; currently it is at the beginning phase of a long journey. One positive development that took place recently and further enhanced normalization and stabilization efforts in Iraq was the visit of high-ranking Arab delegations followed by the promise of reopening Arab embassies in Baghdad. Other visits by dignitaries such as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan were equally important.

In contradiction to the line adopted by Arab media, Iran actually praises the normalization of relations between Iraq and its Arab neighbors. This position does not derive from sheer benevolence; rather, it is anchored in national interests. First, Iran, which until recently was the only Shiite country in the world, is happy to see the predominantly Sunni governments of the Arab states recognizing the Shiite government of Iraq. Previously, Iranians did not dare dream of a day when countries such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates would recognize a Shiite Iraq.

Second, Iran believes that the presence of Arab embassies in Baghdad will not pose any threat to its interests in the region. The Iranian regime is under the impression that the Arab states are too unpopular with their own citizens to be able to challenge its influence. Even when an immense influx of money from rich Arab states was invested in Iraqi Sunni militia groups, Iran believes, they could not turn the tide in their own favor.

In conclusion, Iran is part of the solution in Iraq, not the problem. Iran seeks stabilization in Iraq as a long-term strategy. Naturally, the Iranians have influence in Iraq and, like any other country involved in Iraq, they wish to maintain it.

Reza Molavi is executive director of the Center for Iranian Studies at Durham University in the United Kingdom. He is also senior research associate at the Center for Strategic Research, a unit of the Expediency Council of Iran. Ariabarzan Mohammadighalehtaki is a PhD student at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.

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