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: