A Triangle of Realpolitik
Since the 9/11 calamity, there have been two instances of cooperation between Iran and the United States, once during the assault on the Taliban and then in the course of preparation to attack Iraq. In both cases, a convergence of interests compelled Washington and Teheran to put their exchange of hostile words within brackets and focus on the foe. In the current situation, Iran's long border with Iraq makes the country useful to the American military; and Washington's determination to overthrow Saddam Hussein is most welcome in Teheran. This semi-veiled bedfellowship is based on sharing an enemy and the desire to eliminate him at any price. Therefore, once Saddam Hussein is dead or exiled, the temporary marriage will be annulled. Washington will shift the spotlight to Iran and its nuclear program; and the reigning ayatollahs will resume their condemnation of US presence in the Persian Gulf as a threat to Iran's independence and religious identity.
Since early November 2002, Iran and the United States have been quietly discussing specific measures to deal with military emergencies and the flow of refugees if/when the United States attacks Iraq. These are similar to the arrangements they made when the United States ousted the Taliban regime from Afghanistan. Diplomats from small Arab states in the Persian Gulf and Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, representing the largest dissident group of Iraqi Shiite Muslims based in Teheran, are involved as intermediaries. The ayatollah, who has been living in Iran since 1980 and is closely tied to Iran's ruling clerics, receives US funds for mobilizing anti-Saddam Shiites. He actually wants the US military to overthrow Saddam and then leave Iraq to the Iraqis, who, according to Ayatollah al-Hakim, could be guided to establish an Islamic republic patterned after the one created by his mentor, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Al-Hakim commands several thousand Iraqi rebel troops stationed on Iranian soil near Iraq. These forces have been trained and equipped by Iran's Revolutionary Guards. In the event of US military action against Iraq, al-Hakim's forces could move, if Washington and Teheran consider it necessary, to prevent possible Iraqi use of the border areas. Once the war ends, however, al-Hakim will have to choose, for all practical purposes, between one leg of the "axis of evil" and the "Great Satan." It is virtually certain that he will do what is necessary to win favor from the US military or civilian administrator in Baghdad.
To show good faith to Washington, Iran has ended its lax attitudes toward Iraqi oil smugglers operating along its Persian Gulf shoreline and has begun to implement United Nations sanctions restricting Iraqi oil sales since 1991. According to Vice Adm. Timothy Keating, the coordinator for the US naval force charged with stemming the flow of illegal Iraqi oil sales, in 2002 Iraqis smuggled a lot less oil than they did the previous year. Keating attributed the change, at least in part, to "an apparent change in Iranian policy to restrict smugglers from using Iranian waters."
Furthermore, Iran has just completed nineteen temporary camps along its 730-mile border with Iraq in preparation for the inevitable flow of refugees to its territory if/when the war starts. Special UN agencies have helped the Iranian government to build these camps, which are situated just a few yards inside Iranian territory because, as Interior Minister Abdolvahed Mussavi Lari put it, Iran does not want Iraqis fleeing conflict to travel too far into Iran. "If war happens," he said, "with the assistance of international organizations we are ready to offer humanitarian aid at the border." During the decade following the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Iran became the home for 2.5 million Afghan refugees. And in the aftermath of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, around 1 million Iraqi Kurds and Shiites fled to Iran. An estimated 200,000 of them are still there. Iran is keen to avoid a repeat of this flood of refugees into its territory.
Although in early February Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said that "Iran is basically against war and is not going to support either side," private meetings between Bush Administration officials and Iranian representatives were held in Europe. The US envoy requested Iranian help in rescuing downed US pilots and in preventing Iraqi units that flee to Iran from regrouping and mounting attacks. Teheran's rulers certainly favor regime change in Iraq, but they are worried about the possible disintegration of Iraq into ethnic and confessional groupings. They believe that prolonged violent conflict among competing forces will inevitably lead to the use of Iranian territory as sanctuary or staging grounds for rival fighters. Under such circumstances, Iran will try to assist the forces of Ayatollah al-Hakim while claiming to be neutral. Iraq without Saddam Hussein offers Iran an opportunity to extend its influence there. Shiites constitute 60 percent of Iraq's population and are heavily concentrated in the southern part of the country. Iran's theocrats have close ties to some leading Shiite clerics, and they are hard at work to increase their influence on the politics of anti-Saddam groups.
In mid-January, when Iraqi opposition leaders, because of US refusal to support them, postponed a scheduled meeting in the Kurdish-controlled zone in northern Iraq, Iran "offered to have the meeting on its territory if the dissidents wanted to stick to the originally scheduled date," according to the New York Times. The Iraqis turned down the formal offer, but ten days later, another Times story reported, more than a dozen of them "quietly gathered in Iran to prepare their entry into northern Iraq." Such well-known Iraqi dissidents as Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress, and Kanan Makiya, a Brandeis University professor, were included in the delegation. According to Elaine Sciolino, the Times correspondent in Teheran, the Iraqis met with "senior officials in agencies like the Revolutionary Guards and the security and intelligence apparatus." Chalabi and Makiya are democracy advocates for their country, but they apparently do not mind using and being used by ruthless theocrats on the way to their promised land. Needless to say, Teheran's reigning ayatollahs have their own agenda for post-Saddam Iraq. They will assist their Shiite allies politically and financially without overtly pushing their theocracy as a model for Iraq. As experienced managers of power, they are well aware that in the current political climate of the region, being perceived as exporters of Islamic revolution could bring them the combined wrath of the United States and its Arab allies.