Iran and the war in Iraq

The war in Iraq has broad implications for Iran. It occurred in a neighboring country and region in which Iran has vital interests, and it was waged by Iran’s archenemy (the United States) against Iran’s main regional adversary (Iraq). While the war could advance some Iranian interests, it also produces challenges, depending on the identity, stability, and policies of the new Iraqi regime and the degree of American and other foreign involvement. Initially, the abrupt collapse of the Iraqi armed forces and the US presence exacerbated the risks for Iran. However, the difficulties facing American forces since Saddam Hussein’s fall and the lack of evidence of weapons of mass destruction have benefited Tehran. Clearly, realities on Iran’s borders have changed significantly since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

These momentous changes occurred during a rocky time on Iran’s domestic front. As social, political, and economic difficulties mount, popular disillusionment and public disaffection reach new peaks. At the same time, Iran maintains hostile relations with most of its neighbors. America now encircles Iran–mainly on its east (Afghanistan) and west (Iraq)–and views it as a member of the "axis of evil," while continuing to pursue the "war against terrorism".

Iran’s attitude to the war–similar to its policy on numerous domestic and foreign policy issues–remains intricate. It had no sympathy for Saddam and has no affection for the US. While some of Iran’s interests in Iraq overlap with America’s, fierce hostility has colored their relations since the Islamic Revolution. In fact, many of the stated objectives for the war in Iraq, including eliminating WMD, suppressing state-supported terrorism, regime change through military means, and democratization by foreign intervention could easily be applied to Iran as well. Consequently, Iran persisted with its two-track diplomacy: vigorous criticism of the US coupled with pragmatic measures to safeguard its post-war interests. Indeed, its policies fluctuated from measures aimed to reassure opinion in the US to active support for its rivals–mainly the Iraqi Shiites.

Since the Iraq war American and Iranian interests have clearly clashed. Iran desired an end to the Iraqi regime, but felt uncomfortable about the US toppling Saddam and installing a pro-American government. While Washington looks for a swift victory, Tehran prefers a protracted, laborious conflict. Iran wants Russia and the European Union to act as balancing powers, while Washington wishes to limit their involvement. While the US sees itself as the major power behind the war against terrorism, Iran wants the international community to play that role. Finally, whereas the US views the war in Iraq as a step in combating terrorism, Iran prefers this to be the last phase in such a war.

Thus Iran’s and America’s post-war visions differ widely. Much to Iran’s dismay, the US seems determined to preserve its interests in Iraq for the long run, and wishes to play a central role in its rehabilitation. Washington hopes to transform Iraq into a bridgehead for democracy in the region, while Iran dreads the spread of liberal ideas among its disaffected youth, particularly if they emanate from a US-backed Iraq. While Iran may benefit from a weak Iraqi government, a stronger government capable of securing the free flow of oil could better suit American interests. Although Iran denies stirring up violence in Iraq, the US blames it for doing exactly that. Finally, while one of America’s most important aims is to prevent new states in the region from acquiring nuclear weapons, the lesson for Iran is totally different: the need to acquire nuclear capabilities to save it from Iraq’s fate. This puts it in a position similar to North Korea. Ironically, this is likely to pro! voke the strongest response from either America or Israel.

New developments could pose additional challenges for Iran. Its least desirable scenario includes Iraqi disintegration and the formation of independent entities–most perilously a Kurdish state. Additionally, the change in Iraq may lead to the re-emergence of Najaf (the holiest Shiite city) as Shiite Islam’s main scholarly center, challenging the newly gained centrality of Qom. Scholars associated with Najaf do not necessarily share Ayatollah Khomeini’s radical dogma. Ayatollah Sistani, for example, prefers a quietest attitude toward politics. Although Shiites in Iran and Iraq share the same faith, various groups follow different political lines and thus disagree about certain interpretations of religious law, including the inter-relationship between Islam and politics.

Points of disagreement between Iran and the US remain, therefore, mainly over the future government in Iraq, terrorism, nuclear proliferation and Iran’s involvement on the Arab-Israel scene. Following the war, Iranian leaders seemed worried by the speedy toppling of Saddam’s regime, the increased American presence at their gates, the marginalization of the UN and EU, the threat they sensed from perceived American schemes, and the growing disillusionment of the Iranian people and possible turmoil among its ethnic minorities. Iran thus hopes for complications in American plans (especially with the approach of the US elections), including growing Iraqi resistance, European and UN pressure, and inflamed tensions between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel and Hizballah. Iran is using all its available tools to strengthen its influence inside Iraq.

While Iran has retreated from revolutionary dogma in many areas, its animosity toward Israel remains uncompromising. In Iran’s view, Israel is an enemy of Iran and Islam, and a threat to mankind. Iran’s revolutionary goal is unequivocal: Israel should be eliminated. Israel, for its part, continues to stress the "Iranian threat" to itself and the free world. The security challenges Iran presents to Israel derive from its dogma, support for Islamism, and aid for Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories and for Hizballah in Lebanon. Israel views Iran’s attempts to acquire WMD–and the missile technology to deliver them–as an existential threat. Accordingly, Israel has intensified its diplomatic activity, mainly by pressuring Washington to harden its attitude toward Iran, a policy it will surely maintain after America’s November elections.