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Iran: Tehran Walks A Tightrope In Iraqi Conflict

  • Antoine Blua

While officially opposing the U.S.-led war on Iraq, Iran simultaneously appears to have reached a tacit understanding with Washington. RFE/RL looks at what lies behind Iran's practical neutrality in the conflict in neighboring Iraq.

Prague, 1 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Iran harbors no love for Saddam Hussein.

Tehran holds the Iraqi leader responsible for the eight-year war (1980-88) between the two nations, in which up to 1 million people were killed on both sides. Nevertheless, Iran regards the current U.S.-led military offensive in Iraq as a threat to the security of its own regime, labeled by Washington as part of an "axis of evil" along with Iraq and North Korea.

Despite such fears, Iran's first government-backed antiwar rally since the allied military action began on 20 March was held only on 28 March, when tens of thousands marched in Tehran.

Iranian sociologist Ehsan Naraghi said the sentiments of the Iranian public and its leadership toward the war are torn, leading to what he calls a certain "uneasiness." He spoke to RFE/RL from Tehran: "Iranians have an extremely negative opinion of Saddam because he is responsible for the eight-year war with Iran. Of course, [Iranians] wish from the bottom of their hearts his overthrow. They do not agree, however, with the American attack for three reasons. First, they have not forgotten the 1953 American 'coup' against [Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad] Mossadegh. Second, Iranians dislike the arrogant manner in which America went to war, ignoring [the views of] other nations. Third, [Iranians] are aware of the sufferings that the Iraqi population has endured from Saddam Hussein, [so] new suffering appears to them as really unfair."

Mohammad-Reza Djalili notes the strong division in views between the population and the political establishment in Iran. Djalili is a professor at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. According to Djalili, the Iranian public tends to be sympathetic to the war, while the leadership in Tehran is concerned about U.S. intentions in the region. "What is very, very interesting is that Iran has not organized any spontaneous protest against the war. This does not mean that Iranians are against the Iraqi people, not at all. This means that Iranians oppose authoritarian regimes such as Saddam Hussein's. It also doesn't mean that Iranians are unfavorable, by no means, to Americans, despite the antiwar position of the government, which is in keeping with its anti-American ideology," Djalili said.

Officially, Tehran supports the view that Saddam Hussein must disarm, as required by UN resolutions. It opposes, however, the use of military intervention to accomplish this task.

In practical terms, Tehran is remaining neutral to ensure that any new Iraqi regime will not be hostile to Iran and to avoid further antagonizing the U.S. Djalili characterized the Iranians' attitude as "quite realistic."

"The government officially condemns the war but maintains a very firm [practical] neutrality. The Iranians, indeed, can only lose if they are implicated directly or indirectly in the conflict. This is why we can say there is a tacit agreement between the Iranians and the Americans. The American have said to the Iranians: 'Don't interfere, and we'll leave you in peace,'" Djalili said.

But Iran is closely monitoring the U.S. presence on its borders -- the establishment of a new U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan, the U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf, Washington's cooperation with Turkey and Pakistan, and now the military campaign in Iraq.

According to Ali Ansari, a lecturer on the political history of the Middle East at the University of Durham in England: "The Iranian officials in the first place are very concerned that Iran may be next on the [U.S.] list after Iraq is finished. But also there are worries, even if there is no military attack on Iran -- and I think it's very unlikely -- about an American occupation in Iraq, in addition to Afghanistan, that would leave Iran very much surrounded."

Iranian leaders accuse Washington of attempting to establish its political, military, and cultural dominance throughout the world. Leading conservative Hujjat al-Islam Hassan Rowhani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, last month emphasized the cultural aspect of such fears. After Iraq, he said, Washington plans to wage what he called a "software war" against Iran, destroying "people's belief and changing their behavior, striking at our national unity and obliterating the national and religious identity of the people," the Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

Many Iranian leaders also believe the U.S. decided to attack Iraq in a bid to gain control of its oil reserves.

There are also concerns that a different regime in Iraq will affect Iran's religious influence over the Shiites. With the establishment of Hussein's regime in the 1970s, the Shiite leadership was forced out of the Iraqi city of Najaf -- the prime Shiite spiritual center -- and into exile in the Iranian city of Qom. The return of the ayatollahs of Iraqi extraction from Qom to Najaf would increase Iraq's influence to the detriment of Iran. Ansari remarked: "What they're worried about in some senses -- and this is really the hard-line conservative establishment -- are, once Najaf and Karbala, particularly Najaf, are opened up -- are liberated so to speak -- then theological discussions will open up. And this will then pose a challenge to Qom as the center of Shia learning, and it would thereby -- and in all likelihood -- undermine the theological foundations of the Islamic Republic [of Iran]."

Given these threats, Iranian officials want to have as much influence as they can in any postwar settlement in Iraq. They are, for instance, holding talks with representatives of the Iraqi opposition -- both Shiites and Kurds -- and allowing the opposition to meet on Iranian territory.

According to Naraghi, the Iranian sociologist: "There are Shiites, there are Kurds, there are opponents to Saddam who have friendly relations with Iran. Yes, Iran will certainly be a partner of a democratic Iraq, excluding an American military [-sponsored] government, as some people predict. It will be easier for Iran to build a relationship with such a government than Saddam's government. Saddam was an insufferable, dishonest, hypocritical, and cruel person. [Iran] is likely to have an excellent relationship with a representative government of the different groups of the Iraqi nation."

Djalili admits that the existence of an important Shiite faction in any future Iraqi political system could help bring the two countries closer together. But Iran, according to Djalili, will have to proceed carefully. "[Iran] has room for maneuver: the Shiites [in Iraq] and above all the Shiite organizations based in Iran and also several partisans among Islamist Kurdish groups. However, Iran is going to use these [leverages] very cautiously because once Saddam Hussein is put aside, there will very likely be a pro-American regime in Iraq, and then there will also be an American military presence in Iraq, which will surround Iran for a long time to come. In fact, as there will be a pro-American government in Iraq, the United States will become the main neighbor -- the global neighbor -- of Iran," he said.

Meanwhile, the war of words between Washington and Tehran continues to escalate. Speaking on 28 March at the Pentagon, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld urged Iran not to support Iraqi forces that oppose Hussein while coalition troops are active in Iraq. He specifically cited the Badr Corps, a unit that he said is trained, equipped, and directed by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard.

On 30 March, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that Iran and Syria must end what he called their "support for terrorism."

Iranian government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh responded yesterday, arguing that these warnings are an exercise to divert attention from the setbacks in the U.S.-led war against Iraq and are part of Washington's attempt to gain dominance in the Middle East.