Iran watches the new Iraq cautiously

If an observer monitors news coverage of Iraq in the Iranian media, he or she will be surprised at how minimal it is. The scope of news and analysis is limited to a few areas. These include mainly reports on suicide bombings, Iraqi officials’ criticism of US policies on Iraq, and occasional praise by Iraqi religious and political leaders for the positive role Islamic Iran has played in that country.

All other events and political developments in Iraq go broadly unnoticed in the Iranian media. The reason for deliberately ignoring them is obvious. Some fundamental developments that have gradually taken place in the new Iraq are not welcomed by Iranian leaders. Political developments and, to be more precise, the birth of democracy in Iraq, are never mentioned by either Iranian leaders or the country’s media.

Modern post-Saddam Iraq is by no means an ideal democratic state, but we mustn’t forget that in comparison to some of the other countries in the region, the last parliamentary elections held in that country were undoubtedly a milestone in its modern history. Iraqis enjoy such rare commodities as press freedom, freedom of expression and the privilege of being able to criticize their regime without being accused of treason by their government.

The next area the Iranian media has by and large boycotted is the nature of the new Iraqi political establishment. Although the Shiites form more than 60 percent of the population, the new political system that has emerged in Iraq can broadly be described as "secular". It is much more similar to Turkey than to Iran, even though Iraq has been historically the hub of Shiite Islam and Iranians are largely Shiites. The Iraqi Shiite supreme leader Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who has many supporters in Iran as well, has frequently been cited in the Iranian media for his "praises" for Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, but has kept silent over the Iranian leaders’ idea of "velayat-e faqih".

More importantly, the Iraqi Shiite leader has never condemned the US presence in Iraq, nor has he urged the Americans’ departure from his country–in sharp contrast to Iranian leaders. In fact, unlike the hard-line and radical attitudes that Iranian leaders advocate, the Iraqi Shiite leader has adopted a very moderate stance. He has avoided interfering in the Lebanese crisis, has not called for the destruction of Israel and has refused to get involved in the affairs of the other countries in the region.

The next issue area that causes Iranian leaders to look with anxiety on Iraq is the situation in the north, or Kurdistan region. The central government in Tehran both before and after the revolution has had problems with its Kurdish population. Accordingly, Tehran is naturally anxious about developments in the Kurdistan province of Iraq, which borders on its Kurdish regions. The autonomous status of Iraqi Kurdistan since the fall of Saddam Hussein is obviously envied by Iranian Kurds on the other side of the frontier. Thus far, Iran has succeeded in sealing off Iraqi Kurdish nationalist influence. But if there is any sort of crisis in the future it could present a serious problem for Iran.

The third problematic area between the two neighbors concerns border disputes. These are the legacy of the Ottoman and Safavid era in the sixteenth century, which continues to this day. In 1974, the two countries very nearly went to war over the border; it was Saddam who feared the might of the late Shah’s army and backed down. The 1975 treaty ostensibly ended the dispute, but in reality the Iraqis signed it under duress. In September 1979, after the Islamic Revolution in Iran that destroyed the Shah’s huge army, the Iraqi leader tore up the treaty and invaded Iran. Today, in spite of amicable relations between the new Iraqi regime and Tehran, the border dispute is still unresolved. Some of the new Iraqi leaders have spoken on the record "of the need to renegotiate the 1975 treaty", while Iranian leaders have dismissed the idea and pretend they have not heard their Iraqi counterparts’ comments.

The fourth area where the Iranians are watching developments in the new Iraq concerns energy. Some of Iraq’s huge oil and gas resources are in border areas between the two countries. Since there are border disputes, Iran has laid claim to some of the oil and gas resources. A few months ago, Iranian armed forces actually entered an Iraqi oil field and occupied it. Although the matter was quickly resolved, it demonstrated the depth and gravity of the problem.

Last year, the Iraqi government signed a dozen multibillion dollar oil and gas contracts with well-known western oil companies to develop some of its large oil fields, including resources near the Iranian border. The Iranian media has warned that "Iran will not allow its resources to be plundered by the western powers and we recognize it as our legitimate right to protect our interests."

Finally, Iranian leaders have frequently raised "war compensation" claims that "must be paid by the Iraqi regime for starting the war in 1979". None of these issues has thus far led to any sort of serious rift between the two countries. But common sense tells us that if there are serious political disputes between the two, any or all of the above concerns could easily turn into a major crisis between them.