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Lost in Translation: Iraqi Jitters at "Iran Domination" Quote

Despite Iranian insistence that official’s remarks were twisted, merest suggestion of external influence stirs controversy in Iraq.
By Abeer Mohammed, Anas al-Bdeer

Reported comments by an Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander boasting of his country’s influence abroad have sparked controversy in Iraq. Analysts say the seriousness with which the incident was taken reflects the huge sensitivities surrounding sovereignty issues after the United States military withdrawal.

Tehran quickly moved to insist that the comments attributed to the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, Qassem Sulaimani, in which he apparently suggested that both Iraq and southern Lebanon were under Iranian control, were badly misquoted.

“These statements are false. They are groundless and meant to achieve crooked aims,” a statement which the Iranian embassy in Baghdad sent IWPR on January 21 said.

The Iranian ambassador to Lebanon, Ghazanfar Roknabadi, said the actual comments Sulaimani made were mistranslated.

“In his original remarks, Brigadier-General Qassem Sulaimani said many countries in the region are inspired by the ideas of the Islamic revolution in Iran,” he told the As-Safir newspaper. “Unfortunately, his words have been deliberately twisted.”

The incident nonetheless led to protests across the board in Iraq, as Sunni Arab, Kurdish and some Shia officials dismissed any suggestion their country was subject to Iranian domination.

The Association of Muslim Scholars, one of Iraq’s leading Sunni groups, issued a statement warning of “a terrible evil” from Iran, and calling on people to “deal seriously with such dangerous remarks that might cost Iraqi blood”.

The Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc also criticised the alleged remarks, and legislator Naheda al-Daini told IWPR that while Iran did have influence in Iraq, such statements were “exaggerated and provocative”.

Tehran, Dainy added, was “not entirely dominating Iraq as they said; Iraq is a strong country”.

A Kurdish member of the Iraqi parliament, Farhad al-Atrushi, said, “We will not accept any form of harm to Iraq’s sovereignty and independence”.

Ali al-Tamimi, a Shia lawmaker from the political bloc of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, told IWPR, “We reject any interference in Iraq’s affairs by any country, whether it’s Saudi Arabia, Turkey or Iran. We have not surrendered to any foreign intervention – we ejected the American occupation forces from our land, so we aren’t going to allow any others to come in.”

In the face of such protests, Ali al-Allaq, a Shia lawmaker from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc, attempted to pour oil on troubled waters by noting Iranian denials that Sulaimani had made the remarks quoted.

“I am not defending the Iranian stance, but they have denied the statements,” he said. “We politicians should deal with such issues wisely, not through speeches that stoke tensions.”

He added, “In any case, we reject any interference by any state in the world. Iraqi people are capable of building their own country. We don’t need interference by others.”

The Iraqi government did not respond directly to the alleged comments, although a statement released by the foreign ministry reiterated the need for regional states, “especially Turkey, Iran and some Arab countries”, to “respect the sovereignty and independence of Iraq” in the wake of the United States troop withdrawal in December.

Government spokesman Tahsin al-Sheikhli told IWPR that “we will not let anyone interfere in our internal affairs”, without commenting on what Sulaimani might have said.

Basim al-Sheikh, a Baghdad-based political analyst, said Iranian influence– real or perceived – was a natural consequence of the two countries being neighbours with majority populations of Shia Muslims.

“This makes Iran feel it will be an easy mission to dominate this country,” he said. “Iranian attempts to interfere in Iraqi affairs are in evidence. It’s the responsibility of the Iraqi government to stop any kind of interference.”

Anas al-Bdeer is a freelance reporter based in Baghdad. Abeer Mohammad is IWPR Iraq editor.

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