Tehran’s Plan for Iraq

Frederick Stakelbeck, Jr. - 12/16/2005 As Iraqi citizens prepare to participate in another round of democratic elections on December 15, the Iraqi government is busy reestablishing contacts with its next-door neighbor and historical enemy: Iran. The accelerated nature of these contacts has Washington extremely concerned – and rightly so. The increased bilateral cooperation between Iraq and Iran centers in part upon both governments’ desire to see the withdrawal of U.S. and coalition forces from Iraq; there’s also the not-so-small matter of Shiite Iran’s desire to exert its influence over Iraq’s Shiite majority. Sensing an opportunity to help cultivate a Shiite theocracy in Iraq similar to its own—one that will help it to establish its goal of hegemony over the entire region—the Iranian government has readily offered its assistance to rebuild Iraq’s fractured economic, political and security infrastructure. And the Iraqis seem all too willing to accept. After a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Jalal Talabani in November, Iran’s rabble-rousing Islamist President, Mahmoud Ahmandinejad, declared, “Iran is ready to share its expertise in different sectors with the Iraqi people and government. A strong and developed Iraq will be the best friend of the Islamic Republic.” In an earlier trip to Tehran, Iranian leaders told Talabani that the Islamic Republic would support Iraq’s transition to democracy—a peculiar assurance given Iran’s own preference for totalitarian sharia law. Talabani, in turn, has said he is “sure that [Iraq] will enjoy the Iranian government's cooperation” in its ongoing struggle against terrorism. This despite repeated claims by the U.S. and British governments that Iran is helping to fund and equip insurgents, especially in southern Iraq. The Brits, in particular, insist that Iran is supplying powerful roadside bombs that have been used in attacks against Coalition forces. The Iranians certainly have the resources on the ground to do just that: it’s estimated that thousands of Iranian agents are currently active inside Iraq. The U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, has taken note of the Iranian regime’s double game: “Iran is working along two contradictory tracks,” said Khalilzad in August. “On the one hand, Tehran works with the new Iraq. On the other hand, there is movement across its borders of people and material used in violent acts against Iraq.” Yet, to the dismay of Khalilizad and other Administration officials, stronger relations between the two former enemies seem inevitable. Iraqi National Security Advisor Mowaffak Rubaie returned to Baghdad recently with a memorandum of understanding outlining an expanded intelligence-sharing relationship with Tehran. This followed a July visit by Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al- Jaafari to Tehran, where an agreement was reached for joint participation in the construction of three pipelines and the transport of 150,000 barrels per day of Basra crude to the Abadan refinery in Iran. Numerous other agreements between the two countries have been made over the past twelve months, including the extension of a $1 billion line of credit by Iran to Iraq; (supposed) antiterrorism cooperation; and joint efforts to reconstruct several Iraqi ports.

Indeed, memories of Iraq’s bloody war with Iran—which lasted from 1980 to 1988 and claimed at least a million lives—seem to be fading fast. In a visit to Tehran earlier this year, Iraq’s Defense Minister, Saadoun al-Duleimi, declared, “We’ve come here to open a new page in our relations against the painful page of the past.” Iranian Defense minister Ali Shamkhani concurred, saying, “No one can prevent this cooperation.” Iraqi spokesman Laith Kubba recently noted that the U.S. is wasting its time trying to hinder the development of bilateral relations between Iraq and Iran. “The U.S. should know…that it is not reasonable to disapprove of the strengthening of relations between the two countries,” said Kubba. “The recent visit indicates Iraq’s strong, friendly relations with their Iranian brothers.” Just as it has attempted to allay concerns over its rapidly developing nuclear program, Iran is already attempting to dismiss fears regarding its growing relationship with Iraq. “It’s something no one should be worried about,” Iran’s ambassador to the U.N., Mohamed Javad Zarif, said recently. “It’s good for the region.” In fact, it’s just the opposite. Iran’s escalating threats toward Israel—not to mention its march towards acquiring nuclear weapons, its wholesale human rights violations and its continued support for global terrorism—arguably make the Islamic Republic the number one threat to stability in the Middle East. Closer ties between Iran and Iraq would severely compromise the situation in Iraq, not enhance it. Iran’s terrorist regime seeks to transform Iraq into a medieval Islamist state —one free of any and all Western influence. That said, statements last month by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the U.S. is considering direct contacts with the Iranian government as a way to resolve the violence in Iraq are an ominous sign. If the past few years have proven anything, it’s that the road to a free and prosperous Iraq doesn’t pass through Tehran. Frederick W. Stakelbeck, Jr. is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. He's an expert on East Asia.