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Iran: Tehran Opposes U.S. Attack On Iraq, But Weighs Post-Saddam Options

  • Charles Recknagel

Tehran is signaling clearly that it opposes any U.S. military intervention in Iraq, with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami saying this week that, "no one has the right to decide for the people of Iraq." But behind the scenes, there are signs that Tehran is weighing how it might benefit from any overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, whose main armed opposition is based in Iran.

Prague, 24 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- On the official level, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's statements this week opposing outside intervention in Iraq put to rest any doubts as to where Tehran stands on the question of a U.S. attack on Baghdad.

Khatami, speaking this week on a visit to Malaysia, said "any interference into the domestic affairs of Iraq would be against the interests of the people of Iraq, the interest of the countries of the region, and it would be against the peace and tranquility of the region and the world."

He added: "No one has the right to decide for the people of Iraq. The people of Iraq should decide for themselves."

Those statements come 10 days after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's eldest son, Uday, warned Iran against taking advantage of any U.S. military assault on Baghdad in order to launch attacks of its own against its neighbor.

In a statement, Uday accused Iran of supporting a revolt by majority Shiites in southern Iraq at the end of the 1991 Gulf War. He charged Iran with supporting that revolt -- which was crushed by Baghdad -- in order to seize Iraqi territory and vowed any new Iranian efforts would be similarly defeated.

Uday said that, "the Persians tried to harm us in 1991. They should understand that they wouldn't be able to annex even a meter of Iraqi land to their territory."

Uday's warning appeared to discount earlier statements by Iran's Intelligence and Foreign Affairs ministries disapproving of any U.S. attack on Iraq and charging Washington with wanting to divert attention from what they call "massacres and killings in Afghanistan and Palestine."

The public exchanges between Baghdad and Tehran are a measure of the heightened tensions between them as the U.S. repeatedly threatens that it may try to overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime by force. U.S. President George W. Bush said early this month after United Nations-Iraq talks on readmitting arms inspectors failed to make progress, that Washington would use "all tools" available to oust the Iraqi leader.

One reason why tensions are high between Baghdad and Tehran is that both sides recognize that any U.S. intervention in Iraq is likely to tempt Iran into pursuing its own aims there. The two states, which fought a ruinous 1980-88 war, have no political ties, accuse each other of continuing to hold prisoners of war, and host each other's main armed opposition movements.

The wary relations persist despite the states' shared hostility to Washington, which has branded both part of an "axis of evil," and occasional mutual goodwill efforts. Such efforts included a visit to Iran last month by Iraqi Culture Minister Hamid Yusuf Hammadi, who welcomed increased travel by Iranian pilgrims to Shiite shrines in Iraq.

So far, Iran has restricted its opposition to U.S. intervention in Iraq to warning Washington not to interfere. But it has not offered Baghdad any help. It has taken that position despite the fact that any U.S. operations in Iraq would place American forces -- which are already in Afghanistan -- on Iran's western border as well. Washington has also placed some troops in Central Asia as part of its war on terrorism, a move Tehran has also criticized as interference.

George Joffee, a regional expert with the Center for International Studies at Cambridge University in Britain, said that over the past months Tehran has begun to voice stronger opposition to Washington's Iraq plans. He said the sterner tone follows a prolonged debate between moderates and conservatives over how to respond to the threats of a new U.S. campaign next door. "In Iran, there was a major dispute between the moderates and conservatives. The moderates actually said we have to compound with the United States, we have to learn to live with the United States, we need better relations. The conservatives said you cannot compound with the 'Great Satan,' it is quite impossible," Joffee said.

He added: "Now the Bush administration's activities [in branding Iran part of an axis of evil] have simply made it impossible for the moderates to argue their case. So the hesitancy shown in the past about overt statements in support of Iraq are now being replaced by a necessity to demonstrate a solidarity against an American intervention in the Gulf region or in Iraq."

But some analysts say that even as Iran publicly speaks against any U.S. attack on Iraq, there are behind-the-scenes developments that suggest Iran is actively weighing how it might benefit from Saddam Hussein's overthrow.

William Samii, an RFE/RL regional specialist, said that one development is recent contact between the Tehran-backed main armed Iraqi Shiite opposition group, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and the U.S. government. These contacts have included the SCIRI's participation in a meeting of four armed opposition groups in Washington in early June.

The meeting of the so-called Group of Four brought together representatives of the SCIRI; the two dominant Iraqi-Kurdish factions, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK); and the Iraqi National accord, made up of defectors from the Iraqi military.

Samii said that the participation of the Tehran-backed Shiite opposition group indicates Tehran could be coming to terms with Saddam Hussein's eventual replacement with a pro-U.S. government. "The change in the SCIRI's position is interesting because in the past, the SCIRI leadership expressed misgivings about an American role in replacing Saddam Hussein. Now, I think that reflects resentment over the lack of American help during the 1991 Shiia uprising in southern Iraq and it also reflects Tehran's hostility to the United States," Samii said.

He continued: "I think that the participation in the Group of Four by the SCIRI seems to indicate that the Iranians believe that holding the SCIRI back from participating in talks with the U.S. would be counterproductive and could entail a complete loss of control over the SCIRI. Iranian officials, furthermore, resent being relegated to the sidelines in post-Taliban Afghanistan and I think they are now trying to make sure this will not happen again in a post-Saddam Iraq."

Samii said that Tehran also has apparently raised no objections to participation in talks by the PUK, with which it also maintains close relations. The territory of the PUK in northern Afghanistan lies along the Iranian border, giving Iran considerable economic leverage over the Iraqi Kurdish group.

Tehran has given other signs of preparing for a post-war Iraq, including fostering other armed groups that might support Iran's interests should the SCIRI and PUK prove disappointing partners in a new Iraqi order.

Recent months have seen the appearance of a new Iraqi Shiite alliance, the Union of Iraqi Islamic Forces, which includes another Iranian-backed Shiite party, Al Dawa. At the same time, an armed Kurdish Islamist party, the Ansar al-Islam (Peshtiwanani Islam le Kurdistan, or PIK), that is hostile to the PUK has appeared in northern Iraq. The Kurdish Islamist fighters reportedly enjoy strong support from Iran, which PUK officials say has allowed them to move freely across the Iranian border as they have skirmished with the PUK for territory.

Samii said Iran's interest in the new Shiite and Kurdish Islamist groups may be another case of Tehran hedging its bets to ensure it has future influence in Iraq. "The simultaneous appearance of Shiia rivals to the SCIRI and Islamist Kurds hostile to the PUK suggests to me that Tehran is hedging its bets in case the Iraqi opposition groups that it has supported in the past turn against it in the future. Tehran's methodology is unclear but it is crystal clear that Tehran does not want to be left out of the Iraqi endgame," Samii said.

As Iran pursues multiple options for strengthening its influence in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, it remains unclear what Tehran's ultimate goals may be. Some analysts have suggested that Tehran may be seeking to fan divisions in Iraq to keep any new regime weak and ensure the country does not re-emerge quickly as a regional power.

Iran and Iraq constitute the two strongest powers in the Gulf area. The other major regional players, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates, rely on the West for security as they seek to protect their interests against the two regional superpowers.