The mausoleum of Hussein Ibn Ali, the third Imam of Shiism, in Karbala will soon have a new gate. It took dozens of Iranian artisans several years to make the gate that, according to experts, is a masterpiece of Persian handicraft.
At first glance, there is nothing remarkable in that news item carried by Iranian media last week. After all, the mausoleum, like other Shiite places of pilgrimage in Iraq, was built by Iranians and maintained by their donations for centuries.
What is remarkable is that the Iran’s state-owned media have chosen to present the report in the section devoted to “domestic news.” The official news agency, IRNA, carried the item in its section of “news from the provinces.”
Karbala, however, is located in Iraq, a country that, although a neighbor of Iran, has been an independent state for almost 90 years.
It is clear that many within Iran’s ruling elite have difficulty acknowledging that fact. To them, concepts like national sovereignty have little meaning.
Official mullahs, such as Ahmad Khatami, a preacher at the Friday prayers at Tehran University, pretend to have never heard the word “Iraq.” To them, Iraq is either “Bayn al-Nahrayn” (Mesopotamia) or “Atabat al-Aliyat” (The Holy shrines). Apparently, even the war that lasted eight years and left a million dead has not convinced them that Iraq is a sovereign state.
Dominating Iraq has been an ambition of Iranian elites since the Ottomans drove Persia out in 1797, after the death of Karim Khan Zand.
After the First World War and the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, the Shiite clergy tried to persuade the Qajar Shah in Tehran to annex the “holy” cities of Iraq. However, the Qajars, on their way to the graveyard of history, were in no position to dream of conquest.
Once it became clear that Iraq would become independent with British support, the clergy decided to boycott the process and kept Iraqi Shiites on the sidelines.
By the 1940s, the Iranian elite had more or less accepted independent Iraq as a fact.
In the 1950s, an attempt to link the two countries through royal marriage, however, failed, when the Shah’s daughter, Princess Shahnaz, and Iraq’s King Faisal failed to develop enough chemistry for the plot to proceed.
In the 1960s and until the mid-1970s, Iraqi regimes tried to uproot Iranian influence by emphasizing Iraq’s (uruba) Arab-ness. Between 1968 and 1975, almost a million Iraqis were driven out because of their Iranian affiliations. The Baathists tried to replace them with “pure Arab” immigrants from Egypt and Palestine.
After the 1975 accords that led to the restoration of relations after years of hostilities, the Shah tried to revive Iran’s presence through trade, pilgrimage and cultural exchanges.
His idea was to flood Iraqi cities with Iranian pilgrims and tourists while securing a major role in the Iraqi economy. That scheme ended in 1979 when the mullahs seized power in Tehran. Iran’s new ruler, Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini, did not want mere influence in Iraq; he wanted control. Khomeini’s ambitions triggered the 1980 war that, though started by Saddam Hussein, was prolonged by the ayatollah until 1988.
The fall of Saddam Hussein provided the Islamic Republic with both a threat and an opportunity. The threat was that Iraq, the only country apart from Iran where Shiites are a majority, might become a modern democratic state and a rival for the Khomeinist model. The opportunity was for Iran to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the Iraqi state, thus realizing the dream of dominating Iraq.
The current analysis in Tehran is that the threat part of the Iraqi situation has vanished. Iraq could have built a democracy and threatened the Khomeinist model only with long-term support by the United States and other Western powers. In 2008, the situation in Iraq resembled that of West Germany in 1948. Had the US and other Western powers withdrawn their support for the new West German state at that time, the Soviet Union would have moved in to fill the void.
The perception in Tehran is that the Obama administration is not as committed to Iraq today as the Truman administration was to West Germany in 1948.
Thus, Iran is actively preparing to move in and fill the void.
Tehran is advancing on different fronts.
Over the past five years, hundreds of front companies and businesses have mushroomed in Iraq with Iranian money. Iranian “investment” has even created a real estate bubble in such places as Najaf and Karbala. In Basra, more than 70 per cent of all new business permits issued since 2008 are reported to belong to Iranian interests.
Armed groups sponsored and controlled by Iran, including the so-called Mahdi Army, have received new weapons and training for urban warfare. Thousands of Iranian intelligence operatives have settled in Iraq after entering the country along with some six million pilgrims since 2003.
So far, Tehran has failed to seize control of the crucial “howza” (seminary) in Najaf where a number of senior clerics, led by Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani act as guarantors of Iraqi sovereignty.
However, Iran is training and promoting a new generation of clerics for Iraq, among them Muqtada Sadr who is attending a crash course in Qom in the hope of being designated an ayatollah within years.
On the political front, Iran is trying to drive Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki out and promote a sectarian Shiite bloc in the general election in January 2010. If that fails, the alternative is to prevent the elections from taking place.
That could create a new situation in which the eight mainly Shiite provinces could be grouped together in the name of federalism and under Iranian umbrella. The Iraqi political elite is already being divided between the “party of Iran” and those who support an independent Iraq.
The mullahs’ adventurist policy towards Iraq has drawn criticism from within Iran, including some official foreign policy analysts. Their argument is that, by trying to dominate Iraq, Iran may be biting more than it chews. Iran’s own interest requires a peaceful Iraq in which power sharing among the various ethnic and sectarian communities generates stability. The current aggressive scheme of the mullahs could lead only to grief for both Iran and Iraq.