BERKELEY, California, Nov 7 2006 (IPS) — As the sectarian conflict in Iraq escalates, along with stepped up attacks on U.S. troops and civilians, Dr. Houchang E. Chehabi, an international relations professor at Boston University and expert on Persian Gulf issues, says Iran could step in to stabilise Iraq – if offered an incentive to do so.
U.S. officials have repeatedly accused Iran of supporting the insurgency in Iraq, a charge Iran denies.
The U.S. refused to negotiate with Iranian officials about security issues in Iraq last March, when Iraqi Shiite leader Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim asked the Iranians to meet with the United States.
Two days later, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Larijani, announced that Tehran was ready to talk, after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei approved direct contact with Washington for the first time since the 1979 revolution.
Iranian officials later stressed that they wanted a broader agenda to include security issues beyond Iraq. But instead of any negotiations, Washington pushed to bring Iran before the U.N. Security Council to face possible sanctions for its uranium enrichment programme.
Since then, the rhetoric in Tehran and Washington has become increasingly bellicose. Just last week, the U.S. began military maneuvres with 27 other countries in the Persian Gulf, including Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, under the “Proliferation Security Initiative”. While Iran claimed it did not view this as a provocation, the country’s Revolutionary Guard and Basiji forces launched their own exercises on Nov. 1.
In a recent conversation with IPS, Chehabi warned that if the United States or Israel launched a strategic attack against Iran’s nuclear installations, Tehran could send suicide bombers to Iraq and other countries in the Middle East like Bahrain, and could distribute weapons to client groups in Iraq.
“It could also mine the Straits of Hormuz, through which much of the world’s oil flows,” he said.
At its narrowest, the strait is 33 kilometres wide, with two 1.6-kilometre-wide channels for marine traffic separated by a 3.2-kilometre-wide buffer zone. It is the only passage to the open ocean for large areas of the oil-exporting Persian Gulf states. Some 20 percent of the world’s oil supply passes through the strait every day.
Dr. Chehabi has taught at Harvard, Oxford, and the University of California at Los Angeles, and has published several books on Iranian politics. He is the editor of the recently published “Distant Relations: Iran and Lebanon in the Last 500 Years” (Oxford, 2006).
IPS: What is the relationship between the Shiite Iranian seminaries and Iraqi seminaries, and how would a stable Iraq affect the clergy system in Iran?
H. CHEHABI: There is no institutional relationship, as there is no unified leadership in Shiism. But individual teachers and students move from one to the other. Throughout the last two centuries, every time Shiite clerics were in trouble in one country, many would move to the other. The best known example was Ayatollah Khomeini, who went into Iraqi exile from 1965 to 1978.
If a stable state emerges in Iraq, some Iranian clerics who feel uncomfortable about the Iranian state’s interference with religious life in Iran might be tempted to go and live in Najaf, a city in Iraq which has for centuries been the centre of Shiite learning. Najaf could also attract more clerics and students from outside Iran and Iraq, diminishing the clout of Iran’s regime among Shiites elsewhere.
IPS: What is the influence of Iranians in Iraqi politics and society?
HC: Many leading members of Iraq’s government spent some time in Iranian exile. But it is by no means certain that those were happy times for them, and one should not assume that they are therefore beholden to the Iranian government.
IPS: Is there any chance for the Iraqi regime to develop into a Shiite theocracy?
HC: Not really, because they lack a Khomeini. Khomeini’s blueprint for theocratic government is not acceptable to the vast majority of Shiite clerics in Iraq. Moreover, about half the population of Iraq is non-Shiite, which makes a Shiite theocracy impossible to implement in practice. What will probably happen is that secularism is pushed back, and that the state will increasingly insist on the observance of Islamic norms. This trend began very soon after the ouster of Saddam Hussein, when alcohol was banned from public places, women came under pressure to cover themselves, mixed gatherings were attacked, and so on.
IPS: Is there any truth to claims of the emergence of a Shiite axis in the Middle East?
HC: There is as much a Shiite axis in the Middle East as there is a Sunni axis going from Morocco to Saudi Arabia. Arab Shiites are becoming more assertive as a result of the recent events in Iraq, but ultimately their demands are made and will have to be addressed within the distinct states. If you are a Shiite in Bahrain, a country whose Shiite majority is oppressed in some ways by the ruling Sunni state, it is easier to make demands on the government if there is an Arab Shiite state in Iraq, for as long as Iran was the only Shiite state, any Arab Shiite could easily be accused of being pro-Iranian and therefore a “bad” Arab.
IPS: Do you think the U.S. will use the ethnic minorities in Iran to destabilise the country? And what will be the impact of such a destabilisation in the region?
HC: The U.S. is already discreetly encouraging minority nationalists in Iran. This will not lead to the break-up of Iran but to a growth of violence and insecurity throughout the country, further diminishing the prospects for democracy in Iran.
IPS: Can the U.S. ignore Iran’s influence in Iraq? Can they succeed without Iran in Iraq?
HC: No, it cannot. I don’t think they can succeed with or without Iran. At this point the disintegration of Iraqi society has advanced too much.
IPS: What kind of interests do Iranians have in Iraq? Is the insurgency and destabilisation of Iraq having a negative impact on Iran’s security?
HC: The main interest of Iranians in Iraq is to ensure that no regime hostile to Iran comes to power. The insurgency and the destabilisation of Iraq play into Iran’s hands, as it ties up American troops that might otherwise be used against Iran.
IPS: What are the effects of federalism in Iraq?
HC: It might tear the country’s constituent communities farther apart or it might provide a key to their peaceful coexistence. This depends on how the federal units are designed, and what powers are granted to them as opposed to the central government.
IPS: Is there any possibility that Kurdistan will become an independent country?
HC: In practice, Iraqi Kurdistan is already an independent country.
IPS: How do you see the future of Iraq?
HC: I am quite pessimistic at this point. The moment the Anglo-Americans leave, there will be a full-fledged civil war. If that happens, there will be another flow of refugees to Iran.