Iranians have mixed emotions about the situation in Iraq. Both the government and the people are glad to see the tyranny of Saddam Hussein ended. Besides Iraqis and Kurds, Iranians suffered most from Saddam's atrocities. However, many concerns and points of friction undermine Iran's joy about Saddam's disappearance.
As one of the largest and most populous countries in the Middle East, Iran has a big stake in regional stability. Any sense of instability undermines Iran's political and economic development and aggravates both internal and international tensions. From that perspective, Iran can only benefit from a new Iraqi regime if Iraq maintains its territorial integrity. Any fragmentation of Iraq will lead to new regional tensions which would be seen as irritants at best from an Iranian perspective.
Understandably, Iran insists that the new Iraqi regime should be installed by the Iraqi people rather than by American-led forces in Baghdad. Nobody doubts that a prolonged American military presence would promote regional instability. For many strategists in Iran, worries abound that even an officially Iraqi government will be resolutely pro-American. Though Iran has coexisted successfully with many other pro-American governments in this region, a strong, pro-American regime in Baghdad might choose not to develop close relations with Iran. Such a regime would pose a potential threat.
The gains and losses Iran has calculated in terms of regional security will fade in the final analysis. The most important issue for Iran is the way internal power structures develop in Iraq.
One of Iran's clear interests in Iraq is to secure an active role for the Iraqi Shiites in the country's new power structure. The Saddam regime had emerged around a Sunni-dominated Tikriti clique which oppressed all other population groups, especially Shiites. Shiites are the religious majority in Iraq and Iran, and could contribute strongly with legitimacy to a new popular regime. Evidently, Iran has supported Iraq's key Shi'a organization, the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution of Iraq (SCIRI) under Ayatollah Hakim. This organization is likely to play a significant role in the constellation of a new regime in Iraq. A leadership role for Shiites would certainly minimize political tensions between Tehran and Baghdad, though it is clear that any new regime in Baghdad would have to lean towards American interests as well. A realistic balance between the competing interests is possible, perhaps through a coalition of various political forces, as leaders tried to forge in Afghanistan. [For background, see the Eurasia Insight archives].
The significance of religious institutions in Iraq has already been underlined in many ways, and religious clerics have played a crucial role in managing local issues in the post-Saddam power vacuum. Conversely, the mob murder of Abdul Majid Al-Khoei, the son of the late Grand Ayatollah Khoei, on April 10 in Najaf underlines the fact that religious figures will also become targets in the process of political reconstruction of Iraq. It is still not clear what motivated Khoei's assassins, who set on him with guns and knives and bare hands, but the gruesome nature of his death indicates the destructive potential for further factional or tribal rivalry in the emerging political atmosphere of Iraq.
Nonetheless, Iran has reason to hope for an increased Shiite presence in Iraqis' political and local affairs. The re-opening of Najaf and Karbala, two of the holiest sites for Shiites, may reactivate the huge wealth of theological schools in these cities. The re-emergence of Najaf as the center of Shiite theological studies will be a welcome event for Iran's clergy, some of whom might decide to move to Najaf. However, a revived Najaf could also become a center for religiously-motivated criticism of Iran's theocracy.
Criticism can lead to reform, but Iran will watch closely for signs of ethnic animosity. Iran and Iraq are both multi-ethnic societies organized around a centralized national government. Any shift in policies towards ethnic groups, especially the Kurds, will have spillover effects on Iran. In the worst case, a disintegration of Iraq would spur creation of a Kurdish state which would generate new tensions in the region (especially with Turkey). Even a federal government with relative autonomy for Iraq's ethnic groups could look like an irritant from Iran's point of view. Though Iran has tried to address ethnic demands for greater cultural freedoms, new realities in Iraq could lead to new demands and hence new dynamics of ethnic questions in Iran.
The dynamics of economic shifts as a result of Iraq's re-integration in the world will be multi-dimensional. Iraq is a natural market for Iranian products. Iran's drive for export promotion would only benefit from an open Iraqi market. Iranian firms also have the potential of benefiting from Iraq's reconstruction both as contractors and as regional subcontractors. Iraq's oil sector developments will be crucial for Iran. If Iraq offers international investors more lucrative contractual terms than Iran's buyback contracts, this might reduce international interest in Iran's oil projects. However, it will take some time before Iraq can efficiently offer investment projects to international companies. And in any case, Iran still has its attractive natural gas potential against which Iraq cannot compete.
Provided that Iraq remains in one piece with a stable government, it would benefit Iran by boosting regional security and delivering consequent economic gains. However, Iran will remain uneasy about a number of facts, not least about the emerging American hegemony regarding regime change in the Middle East. In crises, Iranian politicians have shown a great sense for pragmatic responses. Such responses will probably emerge now from Tehran both in resolving Iraq-specific challenges (such as security, reduction of domestic rivalries etc.) and in asserting a more serious presence in international relations. What Iran would expect at this stage from all involved is recognition as one of the key players in the Iraq crisis.
Incidentally, the process of cooperation could start with discussions on the return of some of Iranian prisoners of war, whom the Saddam regime kept captive for years. Once the doors of cooperation are open, other potentials will emerge.
Bijan Khajepour is a Tehran-based political consultant and a member of the editorial board of Goftogu, a Farsi intellectual and social review.