IRAQ: Iran’s Involvement

February 7, 2005

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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What are Iran’s goals in the new Iraq?

Iran, a Shiite Islamic theocracy to Iraq’s east, would clearly like to exercise considerable influence over the new government of Iraq. But experts disagree about how much Iran, a member of President Bush’s "axis of evil," is willing to provoke the United States to gain that influence. They also disagree about how committed Iran is to the creation of an Islamic government in Iraq.

What do the experts say?

Some say Iran will be content with a friendly government in Iraq that does not threaten its security and that gives a strong voice to Iraq’s long-repressed Shiites, who form 60 percent of Iraq’s population (and 89 percent of the population in Iran). But others caution that the Iranians have the capacity to destabilize Iraq if they are not satisfied with how events develop there.

How likely is it that Iraq will become an Islamic theocracy?

It’s unclear. Iraqi Shiites, some experts say, are a diverse group, many of whom are secularists. Even among religious Iraqi Shiites, there are many divisions. There is also a moderate streak in Iraqi Shiism that encourages clerical leaders to stay aloof from politics. In addition, Iraq’s diversity--18 percent of the population is Sunni Kurd, and 15 percent is Sunni Arab--reduces the likelihood that an Iranian-style theocracy, a government controlled by religious authorities, could take hold in a unified Iraq, many experts say. Another mitigating factor: the strong ethnic and cultural differences between Iranian Shiites, who are Persians, and Iraqi Shiites, who are Arabs.

What influence does Iran have over Shiites?

It has been the main voice of Shiite Islam since the late 1970s, when Saddam Hussein took power and turned Iraq from a center for Shiite practice into a nation that severely persecuted its adherents. Iran’s government, headed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, has provided a haven to opponents of Saddam’s regime, financially supported Iraqi opposition groups, and is the birthplace of some of Iraq’s most important clerics.

Experts say Iran will use its power and influence in Iraq to remind the United States that it is an important player in the Persian Gulf region. Some say that was the reasoning behind Iranian President Mohammad Khatami’s mid-May visit to Lebanon, where he was received by enthusiastic crowds.

How is Iranian influence being felt in Iraq?

U.S. officials have warned Iran to keep its agents out of Iraq, but classified U.S. intelligence, cited in the American press, indicates that Iran may be trying to exert direct influence in Iraq by moving Iranian intelligence agents and military forces across its border. Some commentators go so far as to blame some of the instability now in Iraq--especially in the Shiite population--on Iranian provocateurs. Iran denies that it is sending agents into Iraq.

What other signs of Iranian influence are there?

Thousands of Iraqis are returning from exile in Iran. Many of them are students or clerics who fled to Iran during Saddam’s repressive rule and were supported by the Iranian government. Some Iranian clerics, such as Kadhem al-Husseini al-Haeri, have issued religious edicts calling on Iraqi Shiites to resist American influence.

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In addition, Arabic-language Iranian television and radio, long blocked by Saddam Hussein, is being broadcast into Iraq. Much of the content on these channels is said to be anti-American, in keeping with the stance of the hard-line religious clerics who dominate the Iranian government.

Are there links between Iran and the Iraqi opposition?

Yes. The brutal Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988 after eight years and some 1.5 million deaths, but a formal peace treaty was never signed between the two countries. In the years following the war, the two nations continued to support groups that attempted to destabilize each other’s governments. Iraq, for example, gave haven to the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq (MEK), a U.S. State Department-classified terrorist group that attacked Iran from Iraqi territory. For its part, Iran has maintained relations with a range of Iraqi opposition groups.

With what Iraqi opposition forces does Iran have ties?

The strongest ties are believed to be with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) led by Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Hakim. Hakim, 63, lost 19 family members to Saddam’s assassins and has been based in Iran since 1980. His group has a military wing called the Badr Brigade, whose estimated 10,000 members have reportedly been trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Hakim has recently returned to Iraq, as have many of his supporters.

How much influence does Iran wield through the opposition groups?

Observers disagree. Some American observers, particularly those who take a hard-line view of Iran and advocate regime change there, refer to SCIRI as Iran’s proxy force in Iraq. Others, however, say that while SCIRI certainly owes Iran some allegiance, it also is indebted to its American patrons and will balance these competing loyalties as it pursues its independent goals. Iranian influence on other opposition figures appears to be less of a concern to U.S. policymakers.

Does SCIRI want to turn Iraq into a Shiite Islamic theocracy?

It is not clear. In his public statements since his return to Iraq, Hakim says he favors a kind of Islamic-based democracy, not a cleric-led theocracy that severely curtails the rights of non-Muslims to worship and imposes harsh Islamic law. "We don’t want an extremist brand of Islam," he told thousands of supporters in an open-air stadium in the southern Iraq city of Basra May 10. "We want an Islam that is compatible with independence, justice, and freedom."

Does Iran have a relationship with other Iraqi opposition groups?

Yes. Iran has some weaker ties with other well-known Iraqi opposition figures. The Iraqi National Congress (INC), an umbrella opposition group led by Ahmad Chalabi, has long had offices in Tehran. Experts say Iran also has connections with the main Kurdish opposition groups, in particular, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which, under the cover of the northern "no-fly" zone established by the United States and its allies after the 1991 Gulf War, has held de facto control of the part of northern Iraq’s Kurdish region that borders Iran.

Is Iran hoping that Iraq splits into different parts, one of which would be a Shiite state?

Again, this is a hotly debated point, but many experts say no. They say that Iran would prefer a stable, friendly state as its neighbor rather than one torn into different ethnic or religious states. However, some experts also caution that this could change if Iran is threatened by a new Iraqi government. In particular, Iran’s anti-American leaders are concerned about long-term U.S. influence in Iran, which now finds itself sandwiched between Iraq and Afghanistan, two countries that host U.S. soldiers and are deeply influenced by the United States.

How is the United States dealing with Iranian influence in Iraq?

There appear to be two sides to U.S. policy. On the one hand, the administration has taken a tough approach, publicly warning Iran to keep its agents out of Iraq. On the other hand, it appears to be pursuing a policy of cautious engagement with Ayatollah Hakim and his SCIRI organization despite its Iranian ties. Though who will lead an Iraqi interim government is still in flux, U.S. officials in Iraq have said SCIRI, along with other Iraqi opposition leaders, will be part of a "nucleus" of leadership. Experts say this move may temper Iranian opposition to U.S./British-led authority in Iraq.

Have the United States and Iran discussed the Iraq issue directly?

Yes. Though there are no formal ties between the United States and Iran, meetings to discuss Afghanistan and Iraq have been held in Geneva between Zalmay Khalilzad, President Bush’s special envoy to the Iraqi opposition, and Iranian officials. Another indication of a moderate approach: President Bush has decided to disarm the anti-Iranian MEK.

How has the Iraq issue affected U.S.-Iranian ties?

It is unclear, in part because Washington remains deeply divided on the best way to deal with Iran, a country with which it has had no formal relationship since 1980. Moderates argue for a policy of greater engagement with Iran, now that the U.S. occupation of Iraq has boosted Washington’s regional influence. There also appears to be increasing interest on the part of the Iranian regime in meeting with the United States— though both sides have stopped short of saying they are ready for a resumption of formal ties. Neoconservatives in Washington, however, oppose engagement, which they believe will shore up the current Iranian regime and hurt the prospects of Iranian regime change.

What are the main points of tension in U.S.-Iran relations?

  • Iran’s drive to build nuclear weapons. The United States believes that Iran has a secret program that is close to producing a nuclear bomb. Of great concern to U.S. officials is the Russian-assisted construction of a nuclear power station at Bushehr. In addition, U.S. intelligence officials believe that Iran has two secret nuclear facilities at Arak and Natanz that are attempting to produce nuclear fuel. Some intelligence estimates say that at the current rate, Iran could have a nuclear weapon in two years. Iran denies it has a nuclear weapons program.
  • Iranian support for anti-Israeli and other Islamist terrorism. According to the U.S. State Department, Iran is the leading state sponsor of terror, and gives support to Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other Islamist terror groups.
  • Human rights issues in Iran. Though there is a reformist element in the Iranian government, headed by President Khatami and some members of Iran’s elected Parliament, the Majlis, experts say real power in Iran still rests with Islamic clerics and hard-line elements in Iran’s military and security services. Ayatollah Khamenei has direct control over the armed forces, the internal security forces, and the judiciary. According to the U.S. State Department, political opponents and journalists considered to be anti-government can face intimidation, torture, or death.

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