For Iran, crunch time on Iraq approaches
LONDON - There is a sharp dilemma at the heart of Iran’s policy in Iraq: Tehran wants its neighbour to remain unified but some of its actions have contributed to Iraq’s fragmentation and slide towards partition.
Iraq was never going to become the shining democracy envisaged by American neoconservatives. The Ba’ath Party, after 35 years in power, left a sectarianism that was compounded after the 2003 US-led invasion by Paul Bremer’s inept Coalition Provisional Authority and by Iraqi politicians building mafia-style, sect-based networks.
Tehran’s recent role in building up Shia militias to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) reflected the collapse of the Iraqi Army but has increased Sunni apprehension over Iran’s links with the Iraqi Shia parties.
Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s pre-eminent Shia cleric, has long argued for national unity and dialogue. In 2006 and in 2007, crucially, he forbade Shia from taking up arms after Sunni militants bombed the al- Askari mosque in Samarra.
Sistani’s call in June 2014 for volunteers to fight ISIS reflected the seriousness of the threat. But it was also seen by many Shia as an endorsement of militias that, while nominally under the Iraqi state as “Popular Mobilisation Units”, are to a greater or lesser extent subject to Iranian control or influence.
Sistani’s recent support for demonstrations against corruption and poor services — oddly similar to the “You Stink” protests in Lebanon — shows the ayatollah retains an independent voice.
Beginning in Medina, near Basra, and spreading to Baghdad, the demonstrators were condemned by the Shia parties, which have been in government for more than a decade. Former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki accused them of being “against religion” and appeared even to allege they were allied to ISIS.
Similar claims were made in Iran. The chief of staff of the armed forces, Major-General Hassan Firouzabadi, alleged the protests were “orchestrated” by “well-known groups… non-Muslim ones sometimes”.
There are differences in Tehran over Iraq, which partly coincide with differences between those who favour broad engagement with the outside world and those who see Iran as a beleaguered revolutionary state.
Iranian President Hassan Rohani’s approach has been exemplified in frequent visits to Sistani in Najaf by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Ali Shamkhani, the ethnic Arab appointed by the president as Iran’s top security official.
But the divide is clearly illustrated by the continuing debate in Tehran not just over the nuclear issue but over Iran’s wider foreign policy.
When Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force who has played a leading role in Iraq, addressed the annual meeting of the Assembly of Experts, the clerical body that chooses Iran’s leader, on September 3rd he argued that Iran’s power and spiritual influence were strengthening the “axis of resistance” around the region.
Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, the assembly’s head, told fellow clerics Iran should “not change our foreign policy of opposition to America, our Number One enemy, whose crimes are uncountable”.
Such rhetoric feeds concern among many senior clerics at Western influence, in culture as much as politics. Fifty years after Jalal Al-e Ahmad first popularised the notion of gharbzadegi (‘westoxification’), they remain keen to isolate young Iranians from Western music, clothes and fast-food chains.
As long as the nuclear issue remains live — even once the parliament has voted on the agreement, sanctions are not due to be lifted until February-April 2016 — the main division in Iranian politics is between those who support the agreement and those who oppose it.
This may bring together supporters of the agreement, from reformists to many conservatives, in the two elections due on the same day on February 25, 2016, for the 86-member Assembly of Experts and for the 290-seat parliament. This would increase the likelihood of a shift in either body, especially parliament, favouring Rohani.
Word in Tehran says the president has been discussing some electoral arrangement for the parliamentary election with House Speaker Ali Larijani, a natural conservative who supported the nuclear talks by fighting off attempts by parliamentary deputies to tie the negotiators’ hands. Larijani brushed away a question about this in New York on September 2nd, noting that Rohani was not standing in the election.
Securing a more supportive parliament would not give Rohani carte blanche but it would strengthen his hand not just over the nuclear issue but in regional policy. With Iraq, this means moving closer to the approach favoured by Sistani, including a more inclusive government.
This implies reducing tension with Saudi Arabia — identified by Rohani as a priority in his first speech in office — and probably closer cooperation with the United States against ISIS.
Iraq has repeatedly confounded even modest expectations but, if Rohani wants a viable and stable neighbour, he has no choice but to try.