Iran Flexes Muscle in Iraq

Iran Flexes Muscle in Iraq

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Several top Iraqi politicians have been making the rounds in Iran lately, getting support from Tehran in advance of elections scheduled in Iraq for January. Among the politicians: Ammar al-Hakim, the son of the late Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), and Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the former Iraqi prime minister who leads a breakaway faction of the Islamic Call (Dawa) party in Iraq.

Their tour, which reflects Iran’s intimate relationship to many Iraqi politicians, is a sign that Iran is paying close attention to Iraqi politics. Over the summer, top Iranian officials, including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Leader, urged Shiite Iraqis to re-unite into a unified movement for the elections. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who leads another faction of Dawa, initially wanted to join the Shiite bloc, but he demanded too much as a condition for joining, and he eventually opted out. The new Iraqi bloc includes Hakim’s ISCI, the Sadrists, Jaafari’s Dawa faction, and other Shiite groups. (Maliki still maintains close ties to Iran, however.)

The issue of Iran’s influence in Iraq is critical for President Obama’s policy toward both countries. The ongoing US talks with Iran, if they make progress, could create space for Iran and the United States to work together on stabilizing Iraq in 2010, when at least 70,000 US troops are scheduled to leave Iraq. But if the US-Iran talks falter, Iran could use its influence in Iraq to create conflict, greatly complicating the planned US pullout. And, of course, if the US-Iran conflict escalates toward confrontation and war, Iran can use its military, intelligence, and political power in Iraq to inflict casualties on American troops there.

Last week, Hakim — himself a cleric — visited several top Iranian ayatollahs in Qom, including Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi and Ayatollah Ali Safi Golpayegani, both relative hardliners in the Iranian spectrum. Shirazi told Hakim that “security in Iraq and Iran are inseparable,” and he issued a not-so-veiled criticism of US allegations that Iran supports violent Shiite groups that attack US forces, according to the Tehran Times, saying:

“I am surprised to hear some countries saying Iran helps terrorists in Iraq, while Iraq’s peace and security is our security and the two countries are not separable.”

The Tehran Times added:

“The ayatollah also warned that the enemy is promoting Iranophobia and Iraqophobia, expressing hope that the two countries could thwart the enemy’s efforts through joint cooperation.

“Everyone should be aware of the enemy’s plots and this fact that the enemy is greedy about Iraq, he added.”

Golpayegani, the other ayatollah, told Hakim that Iran’s Shiites should stick together under the leadership of the Iraq-based clerics in Najaf, including Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Persian-born mullah who is the chief religious leader in Iraq and who commands the devotion of Shiites worldwide. It was Sistani who helped assemble the sectarian Shiite-only voting bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, that included the Hakims, Maliki, and Muqtada al-Sadr, in 2005.

In Tehran, Hakim also met Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, Saeed Jalili, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, and Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki all of whom pledged support for Iraqi national security efforts.

Jalili told Hakim that US forces in Iraq are a threat to both countries:

“Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Secretary Saeed Jalili, in a separate meeting with Ammar Hakim on Sunday, said the presence of foreign forces in Iraq is a major threat to the country’s security situation.

“Jalili added that the presence of occupying forces in Iraq is hindering the country’s progress.”

Hakim, a thirty-something political neophyte who’s inherited his father’s mantle, didn’t go so far as to agree with his Iranian interlocutors, at least according to the Iranian media. Unlike Sadr, who’s made no bones about denouncing the US force, the Hakims have been careful not to express outright opposition to the US role in Iraq. On the contrary, both the Hakims and Maliki have welcomed US assistance to the Iraqi armed forces and police, as long as that assistance is used to build up the Shiite-led military. But they’ve resisted including Sunni forces into the army and police, especially the remnants of the Sons of Iraq movement — the Awakening, or sahwa — that was funded and sustained by the United States. The Sons of Iraq militia, which were organized by former anti-US resistance fighters and Sunni tribal leaders, have been abandoned by the United States lately, and they’ve splintered. Some support Maliki, but many of them are drifting back into sullen opposition if not armed resistance.

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