Iraqis Say "Hands Off" to Iran

Many praise Tehran protesters but hope Iran keeps out of their country’s domestic affairs.

Iraqis Say "Hands Off" to Iran

Many praise Tehran protesters but hope Iran keeps out of their country’s domestic affairs.

Thursday, 25 June, 2009

Political turmoil in neighbouring Iran has been closely followed by Iraqis, with many saying their main concern is that the country’s influence in Iraq be limited.

In Baghdad and the largely Shia provinces of Karbala and Basra, Iraqis said they hope to see Iran’s leadership adopt a more hands-off approach in dealing with their country, reflecting growing nationalist sentiment in Iraq.

“I don’t think the Iranian elections are important for us,” said Abbas Mahdi, a civil servant in the southern city of Basra. “What really matters is that Iran stays out of Iraq’s domestic affairs, and that whoever wins the presidency stops Iranian intervention in Iraq.”

Some Iraqis were emboldened by this week’s massive Iranian protests following the presidential election, calling the street demonstrations an impressive sign of democracy. But many also said they hope the unrest will force Iran to focus on its own affairs.

“Tehran is going to be busy solving its internal crisis, which will prevent it from interfering in the business of other countries,” said Salman al-Jumaili, a Sunni politician who sits on parliament’s foreign affairs committee and is critical of Iran’s influence in Iraq.

Jumaili argued that Iran’s current involvement in Iraq may be contributing to the country’s political turmoil.

“What’s happening in Iran now isn’t surprising given that Iran has neglected its domestic situation while focusing on building its power in a number of Middle East countries, including Iraq,” he said. “Most of these expansionist policies don’t serve the Iranian people.”

Tehran’s alleged interference in Iraqi politics and security in recent years has deepened local suspicions of Iran, a key trading partner and ally of Baghdad’s new political establishment.

Iran’s Shia theocracy is scorned by many Sunnis and secularists, who have long feared its influence on Iraq’s majority Shias – particularly the Shia political and religious elite, who gained substantial power after the fall of the largely secular Ba’ath regime. The bloody eight-year Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s severely strained relations between the two nations.

But the internal turmoil Iraq faced following the US-led invasion in 2003 has given birth to a powerful sense of patriotism shared by both Sunni and Shia, many of whom insist that foreign countries should stay out of Iraq’s business.

Iran’s relationship with Iraq “is still cloudy, and we can’t predict anything yet”, said Sabah Dhiya al-Deen, a judge and political analyst from the Shia province of Karbala. “But we hope to have balanced relations with Iran. The Iraqi government plays a role in this, because Iraq won’t be capable of having balanced relations [with Iran] while its security is volatile.”

Many Iraqis hold three international players – al-Qaeda, the United States and Iran – largely responsible for the country’s instability in recent years. Iran was blamed for backing Shia militias and stoking sectarianism during Iraq’s fiercest period of violence between 2005 and 2007 – charges which senior Iraqi leaders with long-standing ties to Iran have denied.

Among those figures are President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, both of whom have lived in Iran. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the powerful leader of the Shia Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, enjoys close relations with Iran.

But while Talabani and a representative of the hard-line Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr congratulated Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad following the election, other Iraqi leaders have remained silent on Iran’s politics.

“Maliki and other politicians don’t want to get involved in the Iranian issue,” said Abbas al-Shihabi, a Baghdad-based political analyst. “They don’t want to be accused of being traitors.”

Iraqi foreign minister Hoshiyar Zebari told Reuters on June 19 that Iran’s unrest is “a cause of concern” for Iraq. But he said Iraq would “respect the will of the Iranian people” by not showing favouritism.

His attitude reflected that of many interviewed by IWPR who were quick to defend Iran’s autonomy.

The election “is their own business”, said Mahdi Abbas, a 55-year-old labourer from Karbala. Deen called the poll a “purely Iranian issue”.

Reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi was prime minister during the Iran-Iraq war, winning him few fans in Iraq.

But Mousavi-inspired rallies have touched many Iraqis, who appear to be more concerned with Iran’s recent Iraq policies under Ahmadinejad.

Deen expressed apprehension about the Iranian leader, saying, “As a neighbouring country, we want Iran to be led by an understanding man, one who is capable of dialogue and negotiation.”

Abbas al-Shihabi, a political analyst and writer based in Baghdad, used blunter language, accusing the Iranian president of being “a major supporter of certain groups in Iraq, groups that killed Iraqis”.

But some question whether Iran’s president makes much of a difference given the country’s theocratic system, which affords enormous power to ayatollahs and the elite Guardian Council.

“Iran’s foreign policy is fairly consistent,” said Haitham al-Musawi, a journalist and analyst in Basra. “It might open up to the west ... but as for its policy toward Iraq, I presume that it is not going to change whether it’s Ahmadinejad, Mousavi or anyone else.”

Abdulhadi al-Hasani, a member of parliament with the main Shia bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, said Iran’s instability is unlikely to impact Iraq, but that Iranian-US relations will affect the country.

“If the problems between [Iran and the US] are solved, any Iranian influence in Iraq will come to an end,” he predicted.

Iran’s demonstrations have captured the imagination of Iraqis, however. Jamili praised Iranian protests against the election results as “a message to all people to refuse domination and dictatorship”.

“I really wish that what has happened in Iran will happen in Iraq,” said Abbas, the labourer from Karbala. “I wish we had the ability to go out on the streets and demand our rights to services, security, jobs and a prosperous life that only the officials have.”

But many asserted that Iraq’s fragmented population and tenuous security makes massive protests a security risk.

“I really admire these democratic protests, especially because there isn’t any drama or panic,” Musawi said. “This won’t happen in Iraq.”

Protests take place in Iraq, but do not resemble the impassioned mass movement witnessed in Iran. Demonstrations are usually organised and tightly controlled by political parties, resembling the government-sponsored protests that are common throughout the region more than grassroots political gatherings.

Musawi said Iranians have a long history of freedom of expression, dissidence and protest, which could be difficult to emulate given Iraq’s security troubles and sectarian politics.

“If one group protests then the probability of a sectarian war certainly cannot be ruled out,” Musawi said.

Basim al-Shara is an IWPR-trained journalist in Baghdad. IWPR-trained journalists Abduladhim Karim and Samar Salih reported from Basra and Karbala.

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