Saturday, March 8, 2008

Assessing Iranian Influence In Iraq

Iran is the greatest long-term threat to a unified and democratic Iraq. With that in mind, the two things that need to be watched are the actions of Moqtada al Sadr, the cleric seemingly being groomed by Iran to lead a Hezbollah type organization in Iraq, and as a more general matter, support for Iran’s theocracy inside Iraq. And there is much to report on both issues.


You can find an extensive report on Sadr’s background, including a discussion of his extensive ties with Iran, here and here. It was reported two days ago that Sadr was comatose in an Iranian hospital with food poisoning. There is still no confirmation of that; however, Sadr's office in Najaf has released a letter, ostensibly from Sadr and reported by the BBC, explaining that his extended absence from the public eye has been to take time to study for the rank of Ayatollah.

If Sadr attains the rank of Ayatollah – and do note he is doing his studies in the Khomeinist version of Shia’ism that requires theocratic rule - it will give him the gravitas to issue religious edicts and to challenge the leadership of Iraqi Shiite’s supreme religious figure, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Sistani has stayed out of direct intervention in Iraq’s politics and generally cooperated with American efforts. I see nothing good that can come of a Sadr challenge to Sistani.

At any rate, the communication ostensibly from Sadr contains complaints about splits within his "Mehdi Army" and an instruction to remain faithful to Sadr. This from the BBC:

Moqtada Sadr also acknowledged in his statement the divisions in the movement he leads and to distance himself from his followers who had developed their own agendas.

Many of his followers had split from him "for materialistic reasons or because they wanted to be independent", he said.

"This was one of the reasons behind my absence... yet I still have many people loyal and faithful to me and I advise them to direct society toward education and teaching," he added.

What all this means from Sadr – assuming it was from him and that he is compos mentis – is unknown. It may simply be an attempt to add legitimacy to continued rule by those in the Mahdi Army hierarchy. In any event, it is one more piece in the puzzle of Sadr.

On the more general issue of support for Iran inside Iraq, that seemed very much an open question prior to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s state visit to Iraq. The visit was billed by Iran as a "triumph" for Iran and "a slap in the face of the American Great Satan." By all accounts, it did not go quite as planned. Amir Taheri sums it up today, "Ahmadinejad had come to Iraq to show it was an Iranian playground. He ended up by showing that Iran's influence in Iraq is widely exaggerated:"

Weeks of hard work by Iranian emissaries and pro-Iran elements in Iraq were supposed to ensure massive crowds thronging the streets of Baghdad and throwing flowers on the path of the visiting Iranian leader. Instead, no more than a handful of Iraqis turned up for the occasion. The numbers were so low that the state-owned TV channels in Iran decided not to use the footage at all.

Instead, much larger crowds gathered to protest Ahmadinejad's visit. In the Adhamiya district of Baghdad, several thousand poured into the streets with cries of "Iranian aggressor, go home!" . . .

And there is similar anecdotal evidence from Alireza Jafarzadeh in his report at Fox News:

Behind the orchestrated pomp and pageantry during the visit to Baghdad last weekend by the Iranian ayatollahs’ president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it was hard to miss the revulsion of Iraqis of all stripes. Adjectives like "historic" could not disguise the frustrating reality for Ahmadinejad and the ayatollahs: outside of Iraqi political spheres dominated by Tehran surrogates, they are seen as enemies of a secure, non-sectarian and democratic Iraq. . . .

Significantly, in a joint statement, over 130 Iraqi tribal leaders from the Shiite-dominated provinces of southern Iraq also denounced Ahmadinejad’s visit. "Since five years ago Iraq has turned into the scene of the Iranian regime’s meddling and aggression. Everyday hundreds of Iraqis are victims of the Iranian exported terrorism. In southern Iraq we are witnessing the murder of our children and ransack of our oil and other national wealth by the criminal elements of the Iranian regime," the statement said. In late 2007, more than 300,000 Shiite Iraqis, including hundreds of tribal leaders from the southern provinces, signed a petition condemning the Iranian regime’s meddling in Iraq and supporting the presence of the main Iranian opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), in Iraq. . . .

This is all very good news. Perhaps even more significant though was the refusal of Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, to meet publicly with Ahmedinejad. Iran seeks always to extend its reach and portrays itself as the vanguard of Shiite Islam. Yet the truth is the theocracy in Iran is much more a Salafi influenced anomaly that broke with more than a millenium of Shiite tradition that separated mosque from state. A meeting between Ahmedinejad and Sistani would have gone far to providing legitimacy to Iran’s Khomeinist Shia variant. Thus the refusal of Sistani to meet publicly with Ahmedinejad will not be lost on Iraqis, though it will likely be very muddled in Iran’s press.

The visit's political side was equally disappointing for Ahmedinejad. More on this from Amir Taheri:

[Ahmedinejad] failed to persuade the Iraqi leaders to stop negotiations with America on long-term arrangements ensuring US commitment to new Iraq for several more years. Nor did he succeed in obtaining cast-iron guarantees that new Iraq won't seek to renegotiate aspects of the 1975 Treaty with Iran. (Iraqi President Jalal Talabani told an interviewer last year that the treaty, signed by Saddam Hussein, doesn't reflect the interests of the Iraqi people.)

. . . The Iranian visitor failed on another issue close to the heart of Iran's ruling mullahs: the handover of some 4,000 members of the Mujahedin Khalq (People's Combatants), an armed Marxist-Islamist group who live under US protection in a camp northeast of Baghdad. The Iraqi leaders paid lip service to the idea of getting rid of the "terrorists" but offered no timetable for expelling them, let alone handing them over to Tehran and certain death. . . .

To be sure, Tehran exerts influence through a number of Shiite militias it has recruited, trained and financed for years. And some insurgent groups depend on Iran as their main source of weapons, especially sophisticated explosive devices. Iran also remains Iraq's biggest trading partner and the second-biggest investor in the Iraqi economy. Iranian pilgrims account for more than 90 percent of all foreign visitors in Iraq.

Yet the visit highlighted one crucial fact: Few Iraqis wish to see their country dominated by the Khomeinist regime in Tehran.

Iraq proved too hot for Ahmadinejad. He had to get out as fast as he could.

This is all good news for Iraq and portends that Iraq is on track to be a functioning democracy rather than a Lebanon-like satellite of Iran’s theocracy.

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