Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1238, (19 - 25 March 2015)
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1238, (19 - 25 March 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Calls for Iran-Iraq 'unity'

Iran’s actions in Iraq can be seen as signalling an ambition for regional dominance or a desire to gain from the chaos in the country, writes Salah Nasrawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

An Iranian presidential advisor, Ali Younesi, declared last week that Iran is once again an empire whose influence extends to Iraq and beyond. From this, a narrative has begun to emerge in Iraq and other Arab countries about Tehran’s goals and ambitions in its largely Arab-dominated western neighbour.

In this version, Iran’s growing role in Iraq is part of its desire, traced back to the Islamic regime’s founder Ayatollah Rohallah Khomeini, to spread “Islamic revolution” or Iran’s Shia ideology throughout the Middle East.

The implication is that Iraq is another prestige project for Iran, similar to its nuclear programme and its involvement in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, but on a much grander scale. Iraq is about the respect and prestige of Iran in the world’s eyes, where Tehran wants more heft in its on-going nuclear talks with the six world powers.

Younesi’s words had both messianic and aggressive overtones. He called Iraq part of Iran, whose geography “cannot be divided.”

Said Younesi: “Iraq is not only regarded as part of the circle of our civilisation’s influence, it is [a part of] our identity and culture, and it is our capital today as it was in the past.” He was speaking at a conference on identity and culture, according to a report by the Iranian news agency ISNA.

“One cannot break apart the geography and culture of the two nations. This is why we can either fight amongst ourselves or unite,” he said. “We will protect all the nations of the region because we regard them as being part of Iran, and we will stand up to Islamic fundamentalism, takfiris, atheism, the new Ottomans, the Wahhabis, the West and Zionism,” Younesi added.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham tried to distance the Iranian government from Younesi’s remarks by emphasising the country’s “respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity, stability, and the security of all countries, especially our neighbours.”

But Younesi’s words remain. In fact, their rhetoric resonates with the perceptions of many in Iran that Iraq is Iran’s backyard.

On Sunday, the Iranian Mehr news agency published an editorial in which it said, “Unity between Iraq and Iran is inevitable.”

Mehr is owned by the Islamic Ideology Dissemination Organisation and usually reflects the opinions of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG).

“Iraq needs a new dress instead of the [Arab] headdress and robe … It is time for the Iraqi people to choose between the false dress of Arab ignorance and humiliation and real Islam,” the agency wrote.

“How does Iraq benefit from its ceremonial presence in the Arab League, which looks down at the Iraqi people through sectarian eyes?” it asked.

Since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which toppled its arch-enemy, the Sunni-dominated regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, Iran has spread its power and influence within Iraq, building on the instability that followed the war and allying itself with newly empowered Shia groups.

Over more than a decade, Iran has managed to build unmatched influence in Iraq, evident through its political, security, economic and cultural arms that have been working mostly under the eyes of the United States, the occupation power in Iraq.

Iran has also escalated its role in Iraq since the stunning territorial victories of the Islamic State (IS) militants last June and their seizure of nearly one third of Iraq’s territory.

Tehran has mobilised the IRG to build a massive and effective Iraqi Shia paramilitary force, contributing arms, funding and training.

Iranian commanders, including Qassim Soleimani, commander of the IRG’s elite Al-Quds Force, have been coordinating plans with Shia militia commanders and directly overseeing attacks on towns seized by IS.

The militias have emerged as the most effective fighting force against IS, helping the battered Iraqi security forces to retake territory.

As a sign of Iran’s growing presence in Iraq, posters of Soleimani hang on street corners in central Baghdad. Pictures of Khomeini and other Iranian clergy, among them Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, also adorn the walls of streets in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.

Many Iraqis regard these pictures as an affront to their patriotism and even as symbols of foreign occupation.

Understanding the significance of the current situation, however, requires a brief foray into the troubled past of the two neighbours. Over thousands of years, the peoples of Mesopotamia and the Iranian plateau have often invaded each other’s land, destroying kingdoms and occupying territory.

In 539 BCE, Cyrus the Great, a descendant of Achaemenes, who created the Persian Empire, conquered Babylon, the capital of ancient Iraq, and developed a vast Persian Empire that incorporated the two existing empires.

Centuries before this, the kings of Sumer and Akkad in southern Iraq repeatedly invaded Elamite territory in southern Persia.

In 651 CE, Muslim Arab armies ended nearly one thousand years of Persian rule in Mesopotamia when they conquered the Sassanid Empire and captured its capital Ctesiphon near Baghdad. Iran remained under Arab and foreign rule until the 16th century, when the Safavids came to rule modern Iran.

The Safavids not only installed the first Persian kings since the Arab conquest, but they also established the Twelver branch of Shia Islam as the official religion of Iran, marking a crucial turning point in the region’s history and rekindling the historic and theological Shia-Sunni divide, which dates back to the 7th century but this time on a political scale.

In the ensuing struggle with the Sunni Ottomans, Shia Iran invaded Iraq several times and managed to retain control of Baghdad and other cities for some time, during which they carried out atrocities against Sunnis, including the burning of Sunni mosques and houses.

Between 1980 and 1988, the Iran-Iraq war left nearly a million people dead, wounded or disabled. The war still plays a major part in shaping the Iranian subconscious, which sees it as an act of aggression carried out by Saddam.

Though it may seem irrelevant to harp on ancient history in a modern context, the past casts a long shadow over today’s Iraqi-Iranian relations. Indeed, historical narratives such as the ones relayed by Younesi and the Mehr news agency lie at the core of today’s national identities, and their interpretation can come to define relations.

For many Iraqis, recent episodes show that Iran is interested in keeping Iraq under its control. They believe that the legacy of deep-rooted quarrels is the key to Iran’s foreign policy toward Iraq.

Iranian officials claim that their interference in Iraq stems from religious and security reasons, being to defend Shia holy shrines in Iraq and to protect their borders from potential IS threats. But national-oriented and strategic issues also seem to have a significant effect on Iran’s role in Iraq.

Iran wants to exploit the weakness of post-US invasion Iraq and advance its own objective to become a major regional power. Iran has seized on the rise of IS as an opportunity to prevent the re-emergence of a strong, unitary Iraq that could potentially work closely with other Arab countries to challenge Tehran’s bid for regional dominance.

Statements like Younesi’s underline the ideological basis of Iran’s foreign policy and the priority given by some Iranian political elites to a national interest based on their version of history and interpretation of ties with Iraq.

It is unclear to what degree Iran will be able to achieve its national, ideological and regional interests in Iraq, but its increasing influence, its hidden agenda and its efforts to downplay the independence of Iraq’s civilisation cannot but appear menacing.

Many Iraqis have now sounded the alarm and warn of the damage Iran’s mounting influence could inflict on their country. Even Shia leaders and the Shia-led government in Baghdad have seemed to challenge the Iranian interpretation of relations with Iraq.

“Welcoming the assistance provided in the war against IS does not mean turning a blind eye to the identity and independence of Iraqis,” Najaf-based Shia spiritual cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani said through an aide recently.

Iraq’s Foreign Ministry has also rejected Younesi’s statement as “irresponsible” and said that “Iraq will not allow intervention into its internal affairs or meddling with its national sovereignty.”

What remains to be seen is whether Iraq’s Shia political leaders, who claim they have resorted to Iranian help to avoid Baghdad falling to IS, will now be able to adopt a strategic focus that can prevent the country’s domination by its ambitious western neighbour.

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