Iraq remains a hotly debated topic in Tehran policy-making circles. The debate, however, revolves largely around the specific topic of Iran's relationship with the US occupation authority. Some Iranian leaders view Iraq as a platform for outreach to the United States. Others contend that Iraq's current disarray proves that United States should not be considered a reliable partner. These critics of the American occupation say Iran should instead explore alliances with China, Russia and even North Korea.
Regardless of the differences over US relations, an overwhelming majority of Iranian policy makers support a pragmatic approach in assisting Iraq's Shi'a community. Such assistance is not only viewed within a religious context, but also seen as a geopolitical imperative. The expansion of influence over Iraqi Shi'as creates for Tehran a potential role in shaping Iraq's future, many Iranians believe.
Nasser Hadian, a political scientist at Tehran University, described Iran's Iraq policy as one that "calls for the protection of Shi'a interests in Iraq, ensures a friendly Iraqi government, and provides for the return of Iraqi refugees to Iraq." [For background click here].
Under the pragmatic approach, Iran has funneled consumer goods and food to southern Iraq, much of it distributed via local mosques. Emulating tactics developed by Hezbullah in southern Lebanon, Iranian religious foundations, usually operating under the control of conservative forces, have been a driving force in providing much-needed social services to Iraqi Shi'as.
A centuries-old bond between the Shi'a communities in Iran and Iraq serves as the foundation for Tehran's actions. Iranians are predominantly Shi'a and Shi'a Islam's holiest sites are located in Iraq. Generations of Persian pilgrims considered it a religious obligation to visit the Iraqi shrines of Najaf and Karbala. Many have settled there and formed families. In addition, Iran is now home to an influential Iraqi Shi'a exile community. According to some estimates, roughly 200,000 Iraqi Shi'as found refuge in Iran during Saddam Hussein's years in power. Many of these Iraqi-Iranians now occupy influential positions in conservative-dominated Iranian structures, including the judiciary and the Revolutionary Guards.
As it seeks to expand its influence, Tehran has an important ally in Iraq known as SCIRI, or the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. From its inception in 1982 until recently, the Shi'a-dominated SCIRI relied heavily on Iranian support. Iran, for example, trained its military wing, the Badr Brigade, as it mounted armed resistance to Hussein's regime. In addition, SCIRI leaders often used Iranian passports for foreign travel.
The US-led ouster of Saddam Hussein has had a liberating effect on the SCIRI. Nevertheless, ties between the organization and the Iranian government reportedly remain strong. Hamid al-Bayat, a leading spokesman for the organization, recently defended the special relationship between SCIRI and Tehran. "We are grateful to them (the Iranians) because they helped us in our time of need." He hastened to add: "We thank them just as we thank the Americans for their contribution to our liberation."
Iran's policy-making calculus may be in for a change following the late August assassination of the Iraqi Shi'a spiritual leader Mohammad Bakr al-Hakim in a devastating car bombing in the holy city of Najaf. Al-Hakim had a reputation as being a moderate cleric who favored political activism. He also had close ties to Iranian spiritual leaders.
Although its initiatives have encountered early success, the ultimate ability of Tehran to wield greater influence among Iraqi Shi'as is far from assured. Prior to al-Hakim's death, the mood among Iraq's Shi'a clerics was fractious and unpredictable. They were divided among those who supported "quietism," or a reluctance to get involved in politics, and those, like al-Hakim, who sought an active role in Iraq's reconstruction.
Another fault line revolves around the "nativist" beliefs embraced by a segment of the Iraqi Shi'a community. The nativist view holds that only those with pure Iraqi roots should be qualified to hold prominent religious positions and political posts. Such a standard would disqualify many present Iraqi Shi'a clerics from holding their current positions. A significant number of Iraqi Shi'as also are resisting pressure from Tehran to set aside their own national aspirations in favor of forging a common defense for Iran's Islamic revolution. In addition, collegial competition between the Shi'a holy cities of Najaf in Iraq and Qom in Iran has been rapidly developing in recent months.
The Iraq Governing Council's 25-member cabinet, announced September 1, includes 13 Shi'as. With Iraq's Shi'as divided, it remains to be seen how influential the Shi'a members of the cabinet can be. A lot may depend on who emerges as al-Hakim's spiritual successor. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, for instance, is a prominent advocate of "quietism." Meanwhile, another potential contender, Moqtada al-Sadr, has repeatedly criticized the American-led occupation, and would appear more willing to aggressively push an Iraqi Shi'a political agenda.
Al-Sadr visited Iran in June, a trip reportedly arranged by an Iraqi exile named Kadhem Husseini Haeri, who is based in Qom and is leading Shi'a cleric. During the visit, al-Sadr reportedly met with several influential Iranian political figures. According to some unconfirmed reports, al-Sadr received assurances of support from elements of Iran's security establishment. Al-Sadr has had a prickly relationship with conservative Iranian clerics in the past, but sources tell EurasiaNet that the two sides have reportedly agreed to set aside their differences.
Ardeshir Moaveni is a freelance journalist who specializes in Iranian and Afghanistani affairs.