Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 4   No. 11 Table of Contents
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November-December 2002 


Iranian Views on Regime Change in Iraq
by Mahan Abedin
Mahan Abedin is an analyst of Iranian politics, educated at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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As the United States advances steadily toward a confrontation with Iraq widely viewed as inevitable, Iranian government officials have made statements ranging from adamant opposition to the use of American military force next door to cautious expressions of neutrality. The Islamic Republic in Tehran will never officially approve of an American war against any Muslim country - to do so would violate its core ideological foundations. Unofficially, however, most Iranians across the political spectrum are as keen on regime change as the United States itself.

This is not to say that Iranians are not apprehensive about the looming American confrontation with Iraq. But the main concern which preoccupies Iran's leadership is not that the Bush administration will make good on its threat to forcibly bring down the Ba'athist regime in Baghdad, but that it will pursue an objective well short of that. Iran's worst fears coalesce around the prospect of US forces ousting Saddam Hussein, while leaving the broader Sunni-dominated regime apparatus intact. In light of the past salience of so-called "silver bullet" proposals in the American foreign policy establishment, this fear is not likely to subside until a broad-based provisional government actually assumes power in Baghdad.

Another concern weighing heavily on the minds of Iranian policy-makers is that the emasculation of the Iraqi regime will be the first stage in an offensive against the other Mideast regime in Bush's "Axis of Evil." While some elements have loudly warned that the US will turn its attention to Iran after dealing with Iraq, it is doubtful that even the most radical anti-Americanites see this as a forgone conclusion. The Iranian security and foreign policy establishment has long adhered to the belief that the United States is highly unlikely to engage in any military conflict with Iran. It is a widely held belief in these circles that the Islamic Republic and the US have successfully negotiated the most strained and tension ridden periods in their history. The threat of military conflict reached its peak in the summer of 1989, at a time when Western hostages in Lebanon were under threat of execution, and has been steadily declining since.

In any case, the fundamental concerns are that the American campaign against Iraq will turn out to be much less, or much more, than it is billed to be. Regime change in Iraq is, all else being equal, squarely in the interests of Iran. Not only would this eliminate the Islamic Republic's most dangerous and proximate security threat, but Iran is well-poised to exert influence in the country once Saddam falls - and the Iranians, who have close ties with the Iraqi opposition, are keenly aware that this not likely to happen without a strong push from the outside.

Deep-rooted Antagonisms

Iraq's ruling Ba'ath Party, a branch of the party established in Syria by Michel Aflaq, Saleh Bitar and Zaki Arsuzi in the 1940's, espouses the forging of a pan-Arab entity with Iraq at the helm. This linkage between a broader Arab nationalism and a local Iraqi nationalism, vividly manifested by Saddam Hussein's obsession with ancient Mesopotamian civilizations, has had grave consequences for Iran. Since it took power in 1968, the Iraqi Ba'ath has expressed disdain for "Persians" - indeed, the constant use of this term, rather than "Iranians," is meant to deny the historical legitimacy of the Iranian nation-state. Iraq justified its assault on Iran's Khuzistan province in 1980 as a struggle to free its Arabic-speaking minority from Persian domination. The eight-year war which ensued was characterized by the regime as a second Ghadissiya, postulating a historical continuity of expansionist Arabism.1 Explicitly racist terminology and imagery were used during the war. Iranian soldiers were often referred to as magus (fire worshippers) needing to be exterminated.2

Although such anti-Persian slurs were an integral part of Iraqi Ba'athist ideology prior to the 1979 revolution in Iran, the establishment of an Islamic Republic actively seeking to export its revolution widened the mutual ideological antagonism. The new Islamic regime was openly dismissive of the Ba'ath, characterizing it as the "Takriti gang," a reference to the concentration of members of Saddam Hussein's tribe in the Iraqi government. The Islamic Republic not only found the chauvinistic ethnic profiling of the Ba'ath to be offensive, but unlike the Pahlavi dynasty, was openly hostile to its virulent form of secularism. Indeed one of the first political-ideological pamphlets produced by the now disbanded Islamic Republican Party in 1979 was entitled: "Know the enemies of Islam: Michel Aflaq." Iranian propaganda portrayed Aflaq as a Jewish Freemason who had plotted to direct the intellectual and political climate of the Arab world away from Islam and maintained that, despite its virulently anti-Zionist pretensions, Iraq's regime served Israeli interests by Arabizing and de-Islamicizing the Palestinian issue. The Ba'ath, on the other hand, deploy the opposite argument - that as a non-Arab power, Iran could never be expected to adopt a genuinely anti-Israeli position in the conflict. Recent comments by Taha Yassin Ramadan, a veteran Ba'athist ideologue and vice president of Iraq, that the "Persians" have never been known to side with the Arabs against the Zionists are indicative of Ba'athist thinking.3

It would be erroneous, of course, to presume that this sharp ideological antagonism continues to define the relationship. Iranian foreign policy is no longer being couched in the purist idiom of the Islamic revolution, but has come to be understood in terms of national interest, particularly by reformists. But all Iranians are keenly aware of the material threat that Iraqi ambitions pose to their well-being. The lingering memories of the devastating war in the 1980's and Iraq's continuing belligerence towards Iran, couched in the language of irredentist Pan-Arabism, mobilizes Iranian public opinion against the Iraqi regime.

Iran and the Iraqi Opposition

From Iran's perspective, the history, religion, ethnicity and culture of southern Iraq place it squarely within its natural and rightful sphere of influence. Dating back to the days of the Ottoman Empire, Iran has been prevented from exerting influence in the area. The ouster of Saddam Hussein would allow for the reversal of over 300 years of history.

Iran has close ties with Iraqi Shi'ite groups organized under the umbrella of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq (SCIRI), headed by Ayatollah Baqr al-Hakim. This relationship is much deeper than the usual sort of patron-surrogate relationship. Several establishment clerics in Iran today were among over one million Iraqi Shi'ites who fled to Iran during the 1970s. The chief of the judiciary, Ayatollah Seyed Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi was born in Iraq and served as head of SCIRI in the early 1980s.4 The reformist press in Iran exposed the inconsistencies of Shahroudi's current position on this issue by highlighting that in his previous role with SCIRI, he had been supportive of cooperation with America in order to engineer the downfall of the Ba'athist regime. Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Taskhiri, the head of the powerful Organization of Islamic Culture and Communication (OICC) is also Iraqi.5

The Iraqi Shi'ite opposition enjoys influence in the highest echelons of the Iranian establishment and significantly direct Iranian policy towards Iraq.6 The SCIRI and its subsidiaries maintain an army , Al-Badr Corps, which is organizationally linked to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Both IRGC Intelligence and the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security (VEVAK) influence SCIRI operations inside Iraq.7 In a recent interview, Hakim confirmed that SCIRI-affiliated armed fighters in Iraq target the MKO. Moreover, he did not rule out SCIRI support for a unilateral US strike on Iraq. "That depends on the political situation and timing of the attack," he said. "We cannot prejudge future events before they happen."8

Iran also has influence with the Iraqi National Congress (INC). Ahmad Chalabi, the INC head, is keenly aware of this and maintains links with SCIRI. Chalabi, who visited Tehran on two occasions during the summer, said after his return that "the Iranian government will not stand in the way of the United States' efforts to help the Iraqi opposition."9 Chalabi's meetings with Hakim during the summer could have influenced SCIRI's decision to send Hakim's brother Said Abdelaziz al-Hakim and the group's main political advisor, Ibrahim Hamoudi, to Washington in August. This was the first time since 1993 that the SCIRI leadership had met with an American administration.

The Kurdish factions in the north are also influenced by Iran. The PUK has always maintained excellent relations with the Islamic Republic and has even offered assistance with security and intelligence.10 Furthermore the PUK has not had any aversion to enabling Iran to launch military strikes into Iraqi Kurdistan. The last major offensive of this type occurred in July 1996 when Iran targeted the KDPI in PUK-controlled territories of Iraq Kurdistan. The KDP has traditionally been more wary of Iranian influence. The Barzanis enjoyed good relations with the Shah, but their relations with the Islamic Republic have been strained. However, the KDP no longer shelters the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (DPIK) and largely severed its links to it after the assassination of DPIK leader Sadegh Sharafkandi in Berlin in 1992.

The Iranian Opposition in Iraq

An American invasion of Iraq would seriously weaken Iranian opposition groups that enjoy the protection and patronage of the Ba'athist regime. The DPIK maintains links with the Iraqi regime. Indeed one of their senior members, Ghafour Hamzei'i, was assassinated in Baghdad in August 1994. Iranian monarchists have also courted the Ba'ath - the late Shapour Bakhtiar established links with the Iraqis during the Nozheh coup project of 1980.11 There are persistent debates in Iranian academic circles on the extent to which the exiled monarchist officers influenced Iraq's decision to invade Iran in September 1980.

The most prominent beneficiaries of Ba'athist patronage have been the Mojahedin-e-Khalq Organization (MKO). High level contacts between the MKO and the Iraqi regime were established in the early 1980s, culminating in a landmark 1983 meeting in Paris between MKO leader Massoud Rajavi and Tareq Aziz.

The MKO army in Iraq,the National Liberation Army of Iran, was established in 1987. While the MKO's claim to represent a substantial portion of the Iranian population is clearly exaggerated, it remains an organizationally sophisticated entity, with a hard-core group of dedicated supporters. The MKO military apparatus consists of 7,000-10,000 fighters in around 16 bases in the southern and central areas of Iraq. The Iranian military has struck at MKO bases in Iraq on several occasions.12

It is virtually inconceivable that the MKO will maintain an armed presence in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. A post-Ba'athist Iraqi regime will undoubtedly be keen on establishing cordial relations with its neighbors - few will regard permitting the MKO to maintain a private army on Iraqi soil as a smart move. Moreover, the MKO is universally hated by Iraqi opposition figures, many of whom believe that it played a significant role in the suppression of the Kurdish and Shi'ite uprisings in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War.13 The Americans may be inclined to send strong signals to the MKO to desist from aiding a doomed regime so as to remove any temptation Iran may have to strike at its bases once Saddam loses his grip on the south. In the aftermath of the Persian Gulf war of 1991 Iran sent several elite units of the IRGC into Iraq, tasking them with the twin strategy of aiding the Shi'ite uprising and inflicting military blows on the MKO.14 Clearly the Americans would be keen to prevent a reoccurrence of a similar scenario.

There are clear signs the MKO is feeling unsettled by the looming conflict. A recent edition of its weekly Mojahed lists the names and details of 36 alleged agents of the Iranian Intelligence services said to have infiltrated the group.15 Some of these alleged spies have since maintained they are dissidents purged from the ranks of the organization. The MKO experienced a similar problem with internal dissidence during the Gulf War. It seems that pressure on the host country undermines the morale of the MKO rank and file.

Conclusion

Suspicions regarding the broader geo-strategic objectives of the US do not invoke the same kind of alarm in Iran as they do in the Arab world. Even if the main objective of regime change in Iraq is to diminish American energy and logistical dependence on Saudi Arabia and use the newly-democratic (or in any case less autocratic) Iraqi regime as leverage for applying political pressure on its autocratic allies, Iran still stands to gain. The demotion of Saudi Arabia as an American ally could potentially promote Iran's long-term strategic interests and ambitions in the Persian Gulf. Moreover, Iran does not have a clear, abiding stake in the perpetuation of authoritarianism in the Arab world. Indeed, Iranians have long complained of American alliances with autocratic regimes.

Mohammad Reza Khatami, the deputy parliament speaker and brother of the Iranian president, spoke for many when he declared in October that the day Saddam Hussein is ousted "will be among the happiest days for the Iranian people, no matter how this occurs."16 Abbas Maleki, a former deputy foreign minister, went further, telling a British newspaper that "a pro-US government in Baghdad would not be worse than Saddam Hussein."17

While Iranian government representatives and so-called "hard-liners" may be less willing to openly make such statements, it would be a mistake to presume that they see the situation that much differently. Those who talk of "hard-liners" losing out to "reformers" in the event of American intervention in Iraq ignore the underlying consensus among the population - it is so strong that no domestic political actor in Tehran will, once war becomes imminent, want to be seen as forsaking an opportunity to play a role in building the post-war Iraqi regime.

Notes

  1 The Battle of Ghadissiya in 637 A.D witnessed the defeat of the armies of the Persian Empire by the Arab Islamic force led by Sa'ad Ibn Abi Waqqas.
  2 A famous case involves Major General Mahir Abd al-Rashid, the commander of the Basra-based Third Army Corps, during a sustained Iranian operation in February and March 1984 that resulted in the fall of the Majnoon Islands. The General reportedly cabled Saddam Hussein to inform him of the "elimination of insects" through the use of "insecticides" (i.e. poison gases). Quoted in Dilip Hiro's The Longest War.
  3 Al-Jazeera Television (Qatar), 31 August 2002.
  4 See biographical data on the Iranian Foreign Ministry web site.
  5 The OICC is a vast academic and cultural organization tasked with promoting the culture and values of the Islamic Republic around the world. The OICC maintains large offices in many European capitals. Its chief in London, Ayatollah Araki, is also the official representative of the Islamic Republic's leader, Ali Khamenei, in the United Kingdom.
  6 The fact the Iran-based Iraqi opposition is not seen in Tehran as a mere bargaining chip emerged immediately after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. There were persistent reports the Iraqi regime had offered to disarm and expel the Mojahedin-e-Khalq Organization (MKO) from Iraq, provided that Iran reciprocate with SCIRI and its armed affiliates, as part of a final peace deal. Apparently the late Hafez Assad's trip to Tehran in October 1990 revolved around this issue. Iran rejected the offer.
  7 The genesis of the Al-Badr can be traced to the Islamic Army for the liberation of Baghdad (IALB), which was formed in late 1979. The IALB was apparently responsible for the failed assassination attempt on Tareq Aziz in April 1980.
  8 Questions and Answers: Iraqi Opposition Leader Seyyed Hakim, Newsweek web, 26 December 2001.
  9 United Press International, 13 August 2002.
  10 The MKO has accused the PUK of abducting and assassinating several of its members on behalf of Iranian security services. In particular they cite a prominent case involving the killing of 10 MKO operatives immediately after the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Refer to the "National Liberation Army of Iran", National Council Of Resistance publications, June 1995.
  11 Nozheh is the name give to an aborted coup attempt by Royalist officers in the Iranian Air Force in 1980. The coup plotters were loyal to Bakhtiar and hoped to engineer the downfall of the Islamic Republic by bombing strategic sites.
  12 In April 2001, Iran fired around 60-70 missiles at their training camps.
  13 Hakim alludes to this in his interview with Newsweek.
  14 The MKO itself contends that Iran sought to destroy them by attacking their bases with large numbers of IRGC fighters and Iraqi opposition fighters seconded to the IRGC. The MKO asserts it launched operation "Morvarid" to repulse the attack, and characteristically, it asserts the attackers were routed ("The National Liberation Army of Iran", NCRI publication, June 1995).
  15 It is unlikely that Iranian ambitions back in 1991 were of such magnitude. Iran's maneuvrability in Iraq was constrained by the potential reaction of the Iraqis and American warnings to desist from meddling in Iraq.
  16 Mojahed, No. 592, 2 July 2002. All the alleged spies were detected in the main bases of the MKO in Iraq.
  17 The New York Times, 3 November 2002.
  18 Financial Times, 12 September 2002.


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