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.