Monday, October 24, 2005


Iran and Iraq: Influence and Mistrust

[This post is dedicated to my cyber-friend Hoots who has posted an excellent account of the recent presidential elections in Iran a while back. I am most grateful for his valuable feedback on the draft of this essay. This post is an attempt to provide some background; more contemporary political issues are addressed in my other blog “Iraqi Letters”. An extended version of both essays combined can be found here ]

A Long History of Interaction

The story is as old as recorded history. There have been raids and counter-raids across the Iraqi-Iranian borders since the earliest city-states around 3000 BC. Conflict also naturally brought cultural interaction.

The ‘modern’ episode started after the fall of Babylon. The Persians occupied parts of Iraq for several centuries. Their capital at one time, Ctesiphon, was on the River Tigris just south of Baghdad.

That episode was terminated by the Islamic conquest in the 7th Century. The Persian occupation of Iraq was swiftly swept away… and Persia itself rapidly crumbled to occupation. Persia and the surrounding areas soon all became predominantly Muslim. Cultural influence soon followed the religion, to the extent that the Persian language adopted the Arabic script (as well as numerous Arabic words) which they use to this date. As an illustration, consider the following ‘extreme’ example:

But at the same time, the Iranians had several spells of considerable political influence during the days when Baghdad was the center a sprawling empire. Persian philosophers and scientists made significant contributions to that civilization. They also helped ‘import’ Indian numerals to Iraq, whence they spread throughout Arabia.

So, it ironically ended up with most of the world using Arabic numerals and most of the Arab world using Indian numerals. The Arabs added an important nothing – the zero.

The Caliphs of the time, for political reasons, relentlessly persecuted Imam Ali’s progeny, leaders and symbols of the Shiite faith. Many fled to neighboring Persia. That was to have special significance that was to last up to the present. But Iran was predominantly Sunni throughout that period.

After the disintegration of that empire, Iran went its own way down the path of history. But she was strong enough again to stand up to the Turkish Ottoman Empire when the latter was beginning to weaken under its own weight and illnesses. Their main battleground was in Iraq!

The rulers of Iran at one became strong advocates of the Shiite sect. By the 18th century, most of Iran, as parts of south-eastern Iraq, was Shiite. It was that conflict between the (Sunni) Ottomans and the (Shiite) Persians that colored the Sunni-Shiite divide in Iraq! That conflict was so acute that when one of the Persian monarchs, Nadir Shah, decided to bring the sects together and managed to set up a major convention in holy Najaf in Iraq, the world ‘Capital’ of the Shiite faith for the leading clergy of the two sects… he was assassinated by his own bodyguards.

Religious Influences

A great deal of the influence in recent history was religious in nature.

Although they never admit it, Iraqis are generally and characteristically rather ‘casual’ about their religion and their adherence to it. This should not be taken at face value. They generally hold it in great esteem and will not tolerate any attack on it; they just don’t adhere to what they regard as ‘inconvenient’ aspects of it.

Iranians, on the other hand, are for some reason traditionally more attached to their religion - probably to the extent of being zealot about it! Iraq is almost universally seen as a holy land by many religious Iranians: It is the land where so many of the divine Imams are buried… and the land where the 12th Absent Imam, the Mehdi, disappeared. It was also the seat of the Shiite supreme clergy.

People sometimes tend to underestimate the influence of that establishment. Early in the last century, the Shah decided to give tobacco rights to some foreign concern. The clergy disapproved. The most senior ayatollah at the time issued a ‘fatwa’ (a religious verdict or opinion) that banned smoking for a while. The people abided. The Shah’s project failed and he had to back down!

Arabs, like many other people, generally take their names and lineage from their fathers only, in defiance of the laws of heredity! With so many of Imam Ali’s descendents living in Iran, many kept their claim to be Sayyeds (of Imam Ali’s blood). This is why Khomeni was a Sayyed… and this is why Ayatollah Sistani can claim to be an Arab, although of Persian birth and tongue.

I remember visiting Iran for the first time in the 1960’s when I was a young man. I took a taxi to go somewhere. Through the barrier of language, I tried to communicate with the taxi driver. He managed to find out that I came from Iraq. The man started crying and repeating words like “Hussein” and “Kerbala”. I was quite shocked by his reaction. It made a deep and lasting impression on me!

I find it sad that a country that had so much influence on another one (to the extent of being held in so much reverence by ordinary people) to waste it so recklessly. But that was exactly what the policies of Saddam did. [This is also reminiscent of the effect of the present US administration’s policies on many countries around the world]. He helped weaken the traditionally moderate center of Shiite religious reference which moved from Najaf in Iraq to Khomeini’s domain in Iran…Qum. Khomeini, who himself spent some 14 years learning in Najaf, was only too happy to oblige.

That simple sentiment of reverence for Iraq and its holy places was to be turned around and used again and again in the Iraq-Iran war to motivate simple people to be fodder for that war. I heard numerous accounts from Iraqi soldiers about simple Iranian soldiers being led to believe that holy Kerbala or Najaf was just beyond that hill or enemy encampment. In truth those places were usually across the two rivers… many, many miles away! In effect, they were frequently sent into certain death.

Reversal of Influence

In the lead-up to that war, Saddam figured that people of Persian extraction were a weakness in the home front. He quite mercilessly dumped hundreds of thousands of such people on the border with Iran. There were many stories of hardship; many grievances; many homes and businesses abandoned by rightful owners and taken over by the government and given to cronies; many personal tragedies of families separated; many people dumped in a foreign country penniless with no knowledge of language or any relations there! There were many people who were not even of Iranian origin displaced in this manner. However, all were Shiite. It was one of the many horrible tragedies many Iraqis had to live with during the past decades. Many of those who had some money or education went on to other countries, but those deprived of both had to remain in Iran. The deep resentment understandably felt by many of them, sometimes verging on the irrational, can be seen at play today.

Those people were augmented by political and religious refugees who fled Saddam’s heavy hand during and after the war with Iran. And all those people were joined by another group, of mostly activists, who fled Iraq following the failed uprising of 1991 that followed the first Gulf war and which Saddam crushed ruthlessly under the nose of the American army. Those groups were the breeding ground that produced some of the most influential movements and politicians now shaping the political arena in Iraq as well as its future. The soil was Persian.

Foremost among these forces is the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and its now-notorious Badr Brigade. The whole movement was conceived in Iran. It was nurtured, armed, financed and given very substantial support by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Their chief, al Hakeem, now leads the largest coalition in the Iraqi Assembly. One of their prominent members is now Minister of the Interior, in charge of all police forces outside of Kurdistan.

From the above account, it may be evident that the ‘direction’ of influence, particularly religious influence, between the two countries, has been quite abruptly reversed since Khomeini’s Islamic revolution in Iran.

Mistrust of a Foreign Power

The vast majority of indigenous Iraqi politicians, historians and much of the public believe that Iran sees itself as a regional superpower and has always had dreams of dominating the region. The Gulf, which they insist on calling ‘The Persian Gulf’, is a cornerstone in their foreign policy. The late Shah Mohammed Reza made no secret of his imperial aspirations and worked energetically to consolidate Iran’s influence in the Gulf. He raided and took 3 small islands belonging to Emirates in the ’70. Iran still holds to them.

That view of Iran’s ambitions was hammered into the general public’s consciousness using the media during the war with Iran (much like the way some of the American media was used to convince ordinary Americans of the threat posed by Iraq to America) until a whole generation accepted it as a fact. The mistrust still exists.

On a more social level, foreigners are called “Ajam” in Arabic. In Iraq, the word is almost used exclusively to refer to Iran. An Iranian is called Ajmi in a tone that is akin to the Japanese use of a similar term, “gaijin”, which is often considered insulting or demeaning.

Loyalties and Allegiance

Over the past two years, there has been considerable Sunni-Shiite polarization in Iraq. Some people assume that Shiites are generally inclined to lean towards Iran. The issue is quite complex. I will mention only two of the many opposing forces.

Because of the association with Iran through the Shiite faith, some misguided Sunnis sometimes insinuate that Shiites are more inclined to Iran. Such an insinuation is taken as a grave insult by an Arab Iraqi Shiite for it implies a denial of lineage and heritage. Again, it seems to me to demonstrate an ascendancy of ethnicity over religious sectarianism. This however is mainly a ‘city’ affair. I have never heard it in the countryside. For tribal people, lineage is not a suitable subject for insinuations!

On the other hand, a new major force has emerged since the invasion: Arab nationalism is attacked as racist and damaging to the country. This is at present a powerful lobby that boasts many influential members including, intentionally or not, the US administration. This has given some of the advocates of this theme, with a “Shiite” agenda of their own an opportunity to hammer the idea that most Arabs outside Iraq are Sunnis and it would therefore be in the interest of the Iraqi Shiites to side with Iran.

A small lesson from history may put this in context: Turkey is predominantly Sunni. Sunnis in Iraq were for some time associated with the Ottoman Turks. The Turks generally mistreated Iraqi Shiite for centuries. However, during the British invasion of Iraq in 1914, most of the Shiite clergy sided with the Turks against the ‘infidel’ English.

So, where does the allegiance of the Iraqi Shiites lie?

This question keeps coming up again and again. The first time I personally thought about this issue was immediately before the 1980 war with Iran started. Many people began to quietly question where Iraqi Shiites’ hearts would lie in that conflict.

Within a week of the beginning of that war, a wise old man told me that on the question of nationality and sectarianism, nationalism and patriotism would come first. He was proven correct on numerous occasions.

In one particular incident, that came out astonishingly clearly. During 1982, the tides of that war began to turn and the Iranian army invaded parts of southern Iraq. Iran was close to taking one particular village called Baidha on the edge of the Iraqi Marshes. Residents were predominantly devout, simple Shiite peasants. The Iranians expected to be welcomed as liberators by the local population. To their surprise, even housewives, wielding kitchen utensils, went out to fight them! They were repelled.

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