In Abadan, a southwestern Iranian city known for its gentle breezes from the Arvand River, a group of Iranians gather each night to watch the fighting just across the border in Iraq. Meanwhile, in the Iranian capital of Tehran, policy-makers are also watching the war closely with decidedly mixed feelings. While most Iranians welcome the effort to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, many are wary of US strategic intentions in the Persian Gulf.
Iranian policy-makers both reformists agitating for greater political and social change, and conservatives jealously guarding the status quo harbor no love for Saddam Hussein's regime. Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, gassed Iranian soldiers, and lobbed missiles into Iranian cities in a devastating 1980-88 war that led to nearly 1 million casualties on both sides. Officials in Tehran say a nuclear-armed Iraq would, arguably, pose a greater threat to Iran than any other nation in the world.
As far as Iranian policy-makers are concerned, the end of Saddam Hussein's regime would eliminate a potential long-term threat to the Islamic Republic. Iranian Vice-President Mohammad Ali Abtahi puts it bluntly: "The overthrow of Saddam Hussein would be good news for everyone, the Iraqis, the Iranians and the entire Muslim world." And yet, Iranian policy-makers remain worried. Why? Because the "eliminator" the United States also makes Iranian officialdom uncomfortable.
Said Hajjarian, President Mohammed Khatami's chief strategist, argued in an article that since regime change in Iraq is inevitable, Iran must remain neutral in order to accomplish two goals: "guarantee that the next regime in Baghdad will not be hostile to Iran, and a guarantee that we are not [Washington's] next target."
Hajjarian's concern about the Bush administration is shared by many officials in Tehran. Iranian policy makers have mused loudly that they could be next on Washington's "hit list." US leaders, in particular US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have done little to discourage such speculation in Iran. On March 28, for example, Rumsfeld cautioned Iran about the need to restrain an Iraqi force, known as the Badr Corps, which is supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The Badr Corps has reportedly taken up positions in Iraq, where it could possibly interfere with US military operations.
Officials in Tehran tend to see the US campaign in Iraq within a broader regional context. Ali Akbar Velayati, the influential foreign affairs advisor to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said: "[America] is coming to Iraq to complete its encirclement of our Islamic Republic before it moves against us."
The American occupation of Iraq would effectively result in the "encirclement" of Iran, whether intended or not: American troops would be present, active or potentially mobilized in the Persian Gulf, Central Asia, the Caucasus and South-Central Asia (Afghanistan and Pakistan).
Encirclement fears in Tehran are exacerbated by a chorus of influential voices in Washington loudly calling for the overthrow of the Iranian regime. Prominent among these voices are conservative policy analysts, including those at American Enterprise Institute, who have close links to the Bush administration and who pushed for war against Iraq.
Given its precarious position, torn between two foes, Iran has been playing a double game: loud public denunciations of the United States and stated opposition to the war, coupled with quiet cooperation and/or tacit acceptance of the likely US victory.
Take, for example, Iran's relatively muted reaction to several stray US missiles landing in southwest Iran, missiles that certainly raised eyebrows in Iran given the precision nature of American bombing. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi downplayed it. Another example is Iran's refusal to allow fleeing Ansar al-Islam Kurdish fighters into Iranian territory after a US attack on their enclave in the northeast corner of Iraq. Iranian officials feared the US reaction to the possibility of extremist Kurdish Ansar fighters, with ties to al Qaeda, finding refuge in Iran. Tehran has also closed its eyes to repeated violations of its airspace by American jets.
Even the normally hard-line Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, whose control over the armed services, the judiciary and the security services makes him Iran's most powerful figure, acknowledges Iran's war dilemma. "We are not defending the Iraqi dictator or the Baath [Party] regime of Iraq. We know them better than anyone else. We have felt their missiles and their chemical weapons with our own flesh."
Still, Khamenei expressed skepticism with US war aims: "Their aim is to occupy Iraq, dominate the Middle East region and gain total control of this precious treasure, namely oil."
And yet, the Islamic Republic with the full backing of Khamenei assists the war effort by hosting meetings of leading Iraqi opposition groups, including the two main rival Kurdish camps, the leading Shi'a opposition group, and members of the CIA-funded Iraqi National Congress. Iran has hosted the Shi'a opposition group known as the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), since 1980, and has trained its 8,000 member militia.
Meanwhile, exacerbating Iranian officialdom's war worries is a restive population that has repeatedly expressed overwhelming frustration with the current order. When given a chance in the last six years, Iranians have repeatedly voted for reform at the ballot box. As the reform movement sputters in the face of conservative intransigence, Iranians sent a chilling message to reformers in recent municipal elections: they stayed away from the ballot box in droves, with only 12 percent turn-out in Tehran and 38 percent nationwide, starkly lower than previous 75 percent-plus turnouts. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
This loud silence of the majority reflects deep-seated frustration with government gridlock, a stagnant economy and the failed promises of reformist leaders. More ominously, leading student reformist groups have recently announced their independence from what they view as timid reformers and have called for civil disobedience campaigns.
Iranian policy-makers are thus left in an unenviable position: they certainly cannot match American military might, they've largely lost the allegiance of their frustrated population, and they must contend with the possibility of increased protests and civil disobedience.
Afshin Molavi, a Washington-based writer, travels regularly to Iran, where he reports for a variety Western publications.