Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Iranian Overtures Unsettle Sunnis

They’re concerned over Tehran’s influence ahead of US troop withdrawal.
By Hazim al-Sharaa

Iraq’s warming relations with Iran continue to provoke friction between Sunnis and Shias, even after the easing of the country’s bitter sectarian conflict, according to analysts.

A recent visit to Baghdad by prominent Iranian leader Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, pledging to aid the war-torn nation, revealed sharp differences among Iraqis over their attitudes towards Iran.

Analysts said Iraqi-Iranian ties are bound to grow in the coming years and that Iran will have a substantial influence in Iraq, particularly as the United States begins withdrawing its troops.

But while Rafsanjani and other Iranian leaders enjoy close ties with senior Shia and Kurdish officials, many Sunni Arabs accuse Tehran of meddling in Iraqi affairs and instigating the sectarian violence which crippled the country after the US-led invasion in 2003. Iran denies the allegations.

Suspicion of Iran has not abated among Sunnis even as Sunni and Shia Iraqi leaders attempt to govern together.

“Sunnis believe that Iran has a sectarian agenda,” said Hamid Fadhil, assistant dean of the University of Baghdad’s political sciences college.

Rafsanjani’s visit to Iraq earlier this month was his first since the Iranian revolution in 1979 and took place amid extremely tight security, raising hope among some that Iran will invest in Iraq’s deteriorating infrastructure.

But it also re-opened old wounds about Iran’s relationship with its neighbour and former enemy – underscoring the divide among many Iraqis who view Iran as either a friend or a foe. Rafsanjani served as Iran’s parliamentary speaker from 1980 to 1989 – during the entirety of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war – and was acting commander-in-chief of Iran’s military in the final stages of the conflict.

Rafsanjani, a former Iranian president who now heads a powerful clerical body, met with top Iraqi officials including president Jalal Talabani, prime minister Nuri al-Maliki and Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani during the visit earlier this month.

He pledged Iranian aid for Iraq’s reconstruction and indicated the two countries will enjoy closer ties as the US begins withdrawing its troops and cutting funds for Iraq’s rebuilding efforts next year.

Iraqi vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi, a prominent Sunni, snubbed Rafsanjani, refusing to attend his welcoming ceremony.

Hashemi’s Iraqi Islamic Party issued a statement saying Rafsanjani was “unwelcome” while the German news agency DPA reported that protesters in the largely Sunni province of Anbar called Rafsanjani a “killer of Iraqis”.

Analysts were not impressed with the reaction.

“Hashimi behaved as a Sunni, not as vice-president,” said Al-Mada newspaper columnist Hadi Jalo Marai.

“[Official] relations shouldn't be affected by personal points of view,” agreed Fadhil. “Iraq should look forward to a better future, not continue looking back to the past”.

But Usama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni member of parliament from the secular Iraqiya coalition, opposed Rafsanjani’s visit and said the red-carpet welcome was “too much” for the controversial figure.

Nujaifi said a struggle is brewing over which neighbouring countries will have influence in Iraq after the US begins withdrawing its forces in 2010. He warned that Iran would seek to interfere in Iraq’s domestic affairs.

Other politicians were hopeful about closer Iranian-Iraqi ties, arguing that Iran could help rebuild Iraq's economy and infrastructure.

Abdul-Kareem Al-Enzi, spokesman for Maliki’s Dawa party which developed close ties with Tehran after the Iranian Revolution, said visits by Iranian leaders serve to heal the scars of the Iran-Iraq war. He blamed Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath regime for fueling conflict with its neighbours, and argued that Iran was now an ally of Iraq.

“Iran was the first to support changing [Saddam’s rule] in Iraq, and it was the first country to open its embassy in Iraq,” he said.

Analysts said that Sunni concerns about Iran could ease slightly if a more liberal president is elected in Iran’s upcoming election.

Saleh al-Mutlaq, head of the Sunni-led National Dialogue Front, said the Iraqi government should break off relations with Iran until it becomes more democratic.

He argued that Iran wants Baghdad to be dependent on it and cautioned against “good relations with Iran while it is under the mullahs”.

IWPR-trained journalists Hazim al-Shara and Muayid al-Kinani reported from Baghdad.

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