Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat- Twenty kilometers south of Baghdad lies the city of Tisfoon, which is the Persian name for what was formerly the capital of the Persian Empire before it was liberated by Saad Ibn Abi Waqqas in the Battle of Qadisiyah. This is where Kisra Palace was once located, of which all that remains is an arch (Taq-i Kisra) and the ruins of the palace court (iwan).
This arch had survived and was under the tutelage of the Iraqi State Antiquities Authority until the early eighties. After the outbreak of the Iranian-Iraqi war, then-Iraqi president Saddam Hussein ordered that it be neglected and surrounded it by a fence to prevent people from visiting, considering it to be a symbol of Iranian dominion on Iraqi territory. And indeed, important sections, especially the palace wings started to collapse amidst the concern of academic archeologists who viewed this architectural monument as a testimony of human civilization.
Some of the residents of cities who have been targeted and attacked by armed sectarian militias say that the aim is to rid the area of its Sunni residents so that the Iranians could seize control over the cities and restore Taq-i Kisra – upon the consideration that the ancient Persian monument was an attestation of their former historic glory.
Conversely, some Iranian parties sought to demolish ‘Qaws al Nasr’ [the Victory Arch in Baghdad], which was constructed by Saddam Hussein in 1981 in the Ihtifalat Square, which lies close to the Harithiya district. This monument is made of two huge cast arms that are the exact replica of the deceased Iraqi president’s arms bearing two Arabic-style crossed swords, while on the surrounding ground are [5,000] Iranian helmets [from the Iran-Iraq battlefields] scattered around. The helmets are a testimony of Saddam’s ‘Qadisiyah’, as it had been officially and popularly known at the time. Today, the helmets remain stuck to the asphalt of al Mar Street under the Victory Arch.
A governmental decision was almost passed to destroy the arch and raise the Iranian helmets off the ground, partly to appease Iran but also because the construction was a reminder of the former regime. If it weren’t for the efforts exerted by Mustafa Al- Kadhimiy, a senior member of the Iraq Memory Foundation which was founded by Iraqi academic Kanan Makiya, the monument would have been demolished. They were able to achieve this based on the foundation’s claim that the area of al Ihtifalat Square belonged to the foundation.
But if some Iranian influence in Iraq is concealed and operates within shadows then there is a much more pronounced presence that manifests in various aspects of Iraqi life. Asharq Al-Awsat has recently monitored Iranian presence in Iraq only to discover that it was quite substantial. In Iraqi markets, Iranian goods are displayed in shop windows and facades. The goods bear labels with Farsi writing and include foodstuffs, pharmaceuticals and midrange electronic equipment. Going into any of Baghdad’s pharmacies in search of any medicine, the pharmacist will ask you “do you want the Iranian, Jordanian, or Western product?” Usually Iraqis will opt for the Iranian version of the medicine, as it is the cheapest in price. This also applies to some electrical products and basic mechanical parts.
For centuries, the famous and historic al Shorga market has always supplied foodstuffs and consumer goods, all of which were Iranian products sold at wholesale prices that were impossible to beat. Moreover, Iraqis have become accustomed to the presence of Iranian merchants speaking in their native tongue. In fact, the Persian language is commonly heard around Iraq while the Iranian Rials and Toman [each Toman consists of ten Iranian Rials] are widely circulated in the markets of Baghdad, Karbala and Basra. An Iraqi doctor from Basra told Asharq Al-Awsat, “We are obliged to learn Persian so as to be able to communicate with people,” he said.
But Iraqis still remember the MP who asked the former National Assembly to consider Persian nationalism, upon the consideration that it was the fourth nationalism in Iraq after the Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen. The suggestion was met by a predominant censure from the majority of MPs – many of whom would not hesitate to exchange words in Persian with colleagues during assembly meetings.
The physical presence of Iranians as a people is evident in the cities of Karbala, Najaf and Basra. But if their presence in Karbala and Najaf is justified by their visits to the shrines of Imam Ali and his sons Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas, which is a duty for Shia followers, then their presence in Basra is imposed, as some believe.
It is in Karbala where the presence of Iranians is most visible, hundreds of Iranian tourists can be seen around the hotels, markets and on the streets, however this presence is substantially reduced in Najaf, the residents of which are adamant about preventing an Iranian influx into the city despite the fact that it would have a positive effect on the economy.
“Our economy gets a boost whenever we get waves of Iranian visitors. However, most of them prefer to return to Karbala and settle there despite the numerous hotels we have here,” said Abbas al Mashhadi who owns a clothes shop on al Rasul Street, which lies close to the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf. He added, “Merchants in Najaf undertake their dealings in Persian and use the Iranian currency so as to encourage them [the visitors]”.
In the cities of Najaf and Karbala there are various modern bookshops that promote Iranian books. Furthermore, the pictures of the Imams, which can be seen throughout the two cities, are printed in Iran and have Farsi text on them. A closer look at the shrines of the Imams in the location where visitors donate money as part of the visitation tradition, one can see tens of thousands of Iranian Rial notes bearing the image of the founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, amidst the Iraqi notes and other currencies. Moreover, all the currency exchanges bureaus throughout both cities have the Iranian currency conspicuously visible on all the front windows.
And yet despite the economic boost that the Iranian presence brings to Karbala, the majority of the city’s original residents complain of this presence. Among the negative aspects that Hussein al Khafagi, a retired teacher, lists is, “Drugs. This Iranian presence has brought with it drugs that we did not know of before. Here you can see hashish being sold almost publicly. Iraqi security forces have managed to arrest entire Iranian families dealing hashish. The situation has become one where those seeking hashish come from Baghdad and other Iraqi cities to buy this poison in Karbala,” he said.
Mutaa’ marriages [temporary marriage based on consummation] have become widespread among the Iranian women,” al Khafagi added. “As Shia in Iraq, we do not approve of this type of marriage. It was once only known to a small minority but now it has become prevalent in Karbala and mutaa’ marriages have become widespread among Iranian women and Iraqi men. But it’s become even worse; we now see Iraqi women offering themselves for mutaa’ marriage so as to alleviate their difficult economic situations. I am not talking about that particular group and what is allowed and forbidden by our jurisprudence – I am not a cleric. However, I have spent years rearing and educating generations of our children and I do not want to see them deviate today by chasing after hashish and marriages to Iranians or Iraqis that last an hour or two. This distances them from long-term marriages with the intention of building stable families.” he said.
But what is most pertinent is the infiltration of the Iranian culture among the Iraqi youth, especially in the cities of Basra, Karbala and Najaf where a generation of Iraqis, both young men and woman alike, are starting to learn and employ the Persian language. Persian is used in the place of English, which used to be the prevalent second language and one that was compulsory in this generation’s education. Among this generation, the greeting terms, instead of the Arabic variations that were once heard one now hears the Persian greeting used. Moreover, the youth, as an act of rebellion against Arabic songs, blast Persian music from their cars while the majority of women in the three aforementioned cities wear the chador.
“The modern Iranian chador is much more suited to the spirit of our times. The colors available are fashionable and it also gives girls more freedom of movement than the traditional hijab does,” according to a student at Babel University in Hilla [100 kilometers south of Baghdad]. She added, “the chador reflects a woman’s femininity by allowing her to reveal some strands of her hair, or little more in accordance with the woman’s freedom and desire to do so whereas the Arab-style hijab robs women of that femininity.”
But if these are the popular and visible Iranian influences in the Iraqi street, it is the Iraqi politicians who are portending a much more dangerous presence on the scene, which they consider as having an impact on the ‘nerve center’ of Iraqi life.
Regarding the manifestations of Iranian presence in Iraq, Iraqi parliamentarian, Iyad Jamal al Din, who is the leader of a liberal Islamic thought trend and member of the Iraqi National List, which is headed by Iyad Allawi, said: “there are manifestations on an economic, cultural, intelligence, political and religious level for this presence.”
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, he added, “From an economic perspective, Iran dominates the Iraqi market through exporting fruit, vegetables and midrange quality products to Iraq. Iranian merchants have a complete monopoly of the Iraqi market. As for the cultural dimension, anyone visiting an Iraqi city or village cannot avoid encountering Iranian cultural centers and libraries, all of which are funded by Iran. These centers and libraries have been established and financially backed by Iran for strategic purposes and to fulfill specific political objectives,” Jamal al Din stated.
Furthermore, he affirms that, “the presence of the Iranian intelligence is the most conspicuous in the Iraqi political arena, starting from the Iranian interference in the formation of the Iraqi government down to the intervention in the appointment of senior figures – even to the point of engineering relationships between Iraqi political parties.”
The Iraqi MP revealed that there was Iranian interference, “on a religious level, which is achieved through their penetration of Iraq’s Shia. Our religious marja’a [literally references, they are the highest echelons of the Shia clergy] in Najaf are careful to consolidate their methods by educating the people in matters of religion without imposing politics on religion. This is in contrast to the Iranian concept of ‘Wilayat-e-Faqih’ [Guardianship of the Jurist], which Iraq’s Shia and their marja’a do not believe in. Furthermore, Iranians are attempting to ‘ideologize’ Shiism in Iraq, which is an urgent matter that confronts Iraq’s Shia,” he said.
He warned that “the threat that Iranian presence poses in Iraq goes back to the absence of any force to confront them or oppose their plans. Iran backs the Shia political parties financially, regardless of whether they are large and famous or small and obscure. Millions of dollars are expended on the media and movement of these parties, in addition to providing their militias with money and supplying weapons.”
The Iraqi National List MP added, “Iran invites hundreds of Iraqis to visit the shrines on a weekly basis. It takes on the form of free tourism where they stay for three weeks in which the Iranians organize lectures and meetings with security officials, government officials and professionals.”
Mithal al Alusi, secretary-general of the Iraqi al Ummah (Nation) Party and Iraqi MP views the Iranian presence in Iraq as a clear and present danger. He said, “We are entering new stages of the Iranian presence in Iraq. Formerly in was the presence of their intelligence and their provision of weapons and money to the militias only, however today they have penetrated deep into our lives through their control of energy, the economy and communications.”
“Iraq imports all its energy sources from Iran, such as fuel, natural gas and electricity. As such, Iran can play with the fate of the Iraqis through their control of this energy ‘nerve center’. If we were to find out that Iran was importing oil, or God forbid, if it were to ever fall into a crisis, then that would put us in an incredibly awkward situation,” said al Alusi.
The secretary-general told Asharq Al-Awsat, “Iran is seriously and persistently striving to seize control of the energy and life sources in Iraq. The most prominent example is mobile phone communication. There is a clause in the communications contracts that stipulates against granting the Iraqi government any mobile operator contracts. The Iraqi government has recently agreed to this condition to pave way for the Iranian government to seize control over all mobile phone communication networks, which means the Iranian government will be able to control all communication networks through the mobile phone network, and we know the gravity and danger this poses in terms of security and on life in general. Communications must be in trustworthy Iraqi hands or else we subject it to potential friction. If this happens and the government grants Iran the deal then it also means that 10,000 employees will lose their jobs.”
The other important aspect that al Alusi considers to be a threat posed by Iranian interference is the publication of books in the Iraqi curriculums. He explained that, “The Ministry of Education, based the Minister of Education’s [Khudayr al Khuzai] insistence, forged contracts with Iranian publishing houses to print school textbooks because the cost is less than if they were published in Baghdad. This is a known fact because the Iranian government has cheaper prices for paper as opposed to what Iraqi publishing houses would demand since the latter purchase paper at exorbitant prices and cannot compete with Iranian publishing houses when it comes to prices. This is also the reason behind the owners and employees in publishing houses becoming a redundant army where over 5,000 professionals are unemployed.”
He added that there had been countless discussions and attempts to change the Minister of Education’s decision and to reach a solution whereby the school textbook contracts can be given to Iraqi publishing house, but it has been futile. But al Alusi also spoke about hidden Iranian maneuvers with the intention of “sabotaging the Iraqi economy”. He explained that this was through “smuggling oil into Iran through Basra” and stated that “the Iranian government and intelligence are implicated in encouraging the smuggling of Iraqi oil into Iran. If Iran closed its borders and ports against these smuggling operations, they would be able to completely stop them from occurring but the Iranian government wants to drain Iraq of all its money and exercise absolute control over it.”
Al Alusi warned against the development of weapons, which Iran is working on. “Iraqi cities are subjected to the threat of Iranian missiles if the conflict between the two countries escalates, especially since there is no peace treaty between Iran and Iraq.”
While there are those who welcome the presence and influence of Iranians in Iraq, others are aware of the negative ramifications, particularly since Iraq is still at a formative stage wherein it seeks to establish the foundation for stability in the future. However, it is difficult to formulate the future of Iraq if the roles that the regional powers play are disregarded. Iraqis must agree on what is positive so that they can allow it to flourish and what is negative so that they may sever it at the root.