Iran & Iraq: From Enemies to Neighbors to Partners

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26 years ago, the UN Security Council resolution 598 put an end to the Iran-Iraq war which cost over a million lives and nearly $600 Billion. Since then, relations between the two countries have been mostly chilly and formal…until now.

“Close ties between Tehran and Baghdad will serve the interests of regional countries“, said Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking directly to appease the fears of the Gulf and nearby states, like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, which I wrote about previously in this blog.

An eye opening piece by Ali Hashem in Al monitor explained Iran’s type of political game with its neighbor: “It is a matter of common interests, indeed. The Iranians proceeded according to a playbook with their eye on the long game. Tehran backed the US political process adopted by the Shiite Iraqi groups that had sought refuge in Iran during Saddam Hussein’s rule, but at the same time supported the armed insurgency against the US occupation”.

Iran’s strategy in Iraq is in line with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s overall  “beyond boundaries” defense policy which is based on exporting the revolution to its neighbors, especially those with substantial Shiite populations,  and to any countries with “anti-Imperialist” forces. Iraq fits that description on all counts.

Iran has also another motive to strengthen ties with Iraq which is the home of a large community of exiled members of Iranian opposition groups. According to the latest report from the National Council of Resistance of Iran, Iran is behind the Iraqi forces who have killed 116 refugees and wounded 1,350 in refugee camps. Furthermore, Iran has formally requested the extradition of these exiles in order to give them a “fair trial” back in Tehran before sending them to rot in prison or hang from the gallows.

In fact, a source in the know of the relations between the two countries, explained further: “All the other countries in the region stabbed Iraq in the back. Iran’s decision was to help Iraqis in whatever they wanted to do, and that’s why today Iran and Iraq have a $12 billion trade exchange, and in a few years this will be $30 billion.” Iran’s bet seems to have been successful or as Iraq’s Deputy PM Rowsch Nuri Shaways explains: Iran is now Iraq’s “most trustworthy neighbor”.

But the Iranian foreign office and other notables high in the hierarchy might have bigger fish to fry: the US State Department officials are considering an investigation into the presence of Iranian weapons in Iraq. The Iranian interest in Iraq is paramount, and it recently reached what some spectators might call a boiling point: the Iraqi elections.

On the 19th, Iran issued a statement congratulating Iraq on a well-organized and successful election. And yes, Tehran backed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for his 3ed term.

Iran is searching for reliable allies and Iraq in 2014 seems to be one of its best potentials. You can bet on the fact that part of the trade between these two countries in the future will include military dimensions.

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Trouble Brewing in the Gulf

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The Gulf as a Microcosm

As Iranian diplomats battle their way into a nuclear agreement in Vienna, trouble is, once again, brewing much closer to home: lines are being drawn in the oil-soaked sands and the Gulf states are choosing sides.

And although this might seem far away and irrelevant for most people, this conflict is not going to be contained within the Gulf – in fact, it is being played out in countries as far away as Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, India and the US. Because what happens in the Gulf definitely doesn’t stay there.

The Red Corner: Iran-Oman-Qatar

Oman is a natural partner of Iran and has been so since the Islamic revolution. The ties are strong and are fuelled by their control of the Straits of Hormuz as well as money – a lot of money. Last year, Iran inked an agreement with Oman to export gas and Iran is setting up a deal with Oman and India for an underwater pipeline bypassing the current land route through Pakistan. Since relations between Iran and Pakistan are on the rocks right now, such a pipeline would be a double blessing for Iran.

Qatar was not always pro-Iran and, in fact, was at odds with Iran as far as Syria is concerned by backing the rebels (to the tune of 1-3 Billion dollars) as befitted the will of the country’s ex-monarch – Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. But since the crown-prince of Qatar, Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani is an avid supporter of Assad, sentiments have changed up to the point where Qatar has decided to take a step back from the conflict in Syria and actually back Iran. In the meantime, Qatar and Iran are planning to establish a “Joint Free Trade Zone” which is sure to sweeten the relations between both countries.

The Green Corner: Saudi Arabia-Bahrain-UAE

The nuclear negotiations never did not sit well with Riyadh quite simply because the Saudis do not believe Tehran’s claims of a peaceful nuclear program. Consequently, the Saudis believe that the nuclear deal was a green light for them to buy a nuclear bomb from none other than…Pakistan.

The growing conflict between Tehran and Riyadh is not contained in the Gulf but is being battled out in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq through proxy-terrorist groups being financed by both sides. The Saudi backing of Al-Qaeda troops against Iranian-backed Hezbollah has resulted in an upsurge of terrorism in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq at the expense of civilians and Iranian diplomats caught in the crossfire.

This conflict is about money as well – Iran is trying to mobilize Iraq to form a front against Saudi Arabia’s control of OPEC, a move which is certain to add fuel to an already growing explosion in the making.

The Saudis are visibly upset with Qatar’s siding with Iran in this political tug of war, recalling its ambassador a week ago. True, relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been on the rocks for a while (since Qatar openly backed the Muslim Brotherhood) but the context of their relations is definitely Iran.

And then, of course, there is Bahrain which is, with the UAE, a natural ally of Saudi Arabia and a victim of Iranian attempts at subversion and terrorism. Bahrain never supported Iran and will definitely not do so in the future.

The Future of the Gulf

Iran has never hid its aspirations to become a leader in its neighborhood. After decades of sanctions and animosity with the West which definitely benefitted the Saudis, its rapprochement through a nuclear deal has raised many questions and anger levels between the neighboring countries. Their calls for diplomacy with Saudi Arabia by Iran are repeated in the same breath as accusations and there seems to be no end in sight.

One thing is certain – this won’t be a clean fight: Tehran will use all its resources to topple the Saudis balancing grip and judging from the past, be prepared to read about exposed spy rings, IRGC/Qods/Hezbollah operatives, shipment of munitions etc…

Tehran’s Glass House Syndrome 2 – Terrorism In The Eye Of The Beholder

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Iran is Against Terrorism?

It always seems strange to hear Iranian leaders speaking against terrorism while Tehran supports and feeds a number of terrorist organizations.

What seems stranger is that the more involved Iran is with terrorist organizations and actions, the more its diplomats and leaders bad-mouth terrorism.

Subversion and Terrorism in Lebanon

An Iranian delegation in Lebanon is trying to find ways to “confront…uncontrolled terrorism” while the Iranian ambassador in Lebanon, Ghazanadar Roknabadi “reiterated…that his country is ready to contribute with any kind of aid to Lebanon in its war against terrorism”.

Tehran’s definition of “fight against terrorism” is simple: anyone ready to kill and die for an opinion different from Iran’s is a terrorist, and therefore Iran is fighting many terrorists. They use terror to fight these so called terrorists.

Suffice to mention that Iran is in virtual control of Lebanon through its Hezbollah proxy-terrorist stronghold over the country at an estimated cost to the Iranian taxpayers of  $1 billion a year.

Subversion and Terrorism in Syria

Meanwhile, Iran is pledging to provide humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees while at the same time reinforcing support to the Syrian resistance (meaning Assad) thus causing refugees. In the same breath they blame the “flow of arms by the US terrorists” for the “spread of terrorism in the region and across the world”.

Again, one should remember that Iran is physically, economically and financially involved in the Syrian civil war through Hezbollah and IRGC troops as well as billions of dollars worth of arms shipments and bank guarantees.

Subversion and Terrorism in Iraq

And while Iran is moaning and groaning about terrorist factions working in and from Iraq, Iranian IRGC and Qods generals, including Qassem Suleimani himself, are visibly staking out Baghdad , heading at least three Tehran-backed militia brigades: Kataib HezbollahAsaib al-Haq and the “Promised Day Brigades“.

Formally, Iran is trying to deter Sunni terrorists but Iraq’s potential to buy Iranian weapons and its huge Shi’a population are definitely major targets for Iranian shadow diplomacy as always.

Subversion and Terrorism in Pakistan

Of course, the biggest target for Sunni terrorism can be found in Saudi Arabia but unlike Baghdad, Riyadh is not playing ball with Tehran.

In fact, Saudi Arabia is not sitting idly by as Iran makes its moves – they try to garner their own set of regional allies. As Iran is successfully wooing its Gulf neighbors (specially Kuwait, Oman and the UAE), Saudi Arabia is extending its friendship to countries such as Pakistan, much to the displeasure of Tehran.

Having inked a security agreement with Pakistan last month, Iranian diplomats were visibly upset when a terrorist group from Pakistan abducted five Iranian border guards and two weeks later, an additional Pakistani terrorist tried to blow up the Iranian consulate in Pakistan.

Iraq to Join Lebanon and Syria

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It seems that, at least for now, the specter of the Iran-Iraq war is buried deep in the past with Iraq’s former dictator Saddam Hussein. And while Iraq has been steadily imploding for the past few years due to internal strife, Iran’s world smile offensive has placed it in a unique position to take the Tehran-Baghdad relationship to the next level – a level which will place Iraq in company with Lebanon and Syria.

Iran is investing in its Northern neighbor – ideologically, militarily and financially. Iraq’s Shia population is a powerful incentive for Tehran’s Islamist regime and such populations usually preclude subversive efforts by Iran such as in the case of Bahrain.

But in the case of Iraq, as in Lebanon and Syria, subversion is supported by military might in efforts to fight Al Qaeda Sunni terrorism operating relatively freely in Iraq.  Essentially, Iran has evolved into a key player in the Iraqi landscape, a terror-infested country that is undergoing a radical change since its dictator has fallen. Right now, Iranian Qods and IRGC forces are involved in fighting in Iraqi territory while Iraq, on its part, is keeping Iran’s interests closely guarded.

And as befits the Rouhani presidency, money is a key issue and Baghdad seems geared to become a business partner for Tehran’s economic ambitions.Iran’s interests in Iraq are mostly economic – it wants to export its gas across the border, since the regime is short on cash. Also, the two countries want to team up and take on the Saudis in the international oil market.

This situation should alarm everyone in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. Iran, riding on waves of its smile diplomacy, is gaining strength, both politically and economically. It wants to sell weapons to Iraq (Iraq Is actually buying weapons from the US) and to expand its control over the region.

Iran’s influence in Lebanon and Syria are long-standing: its influence in Iraq is still in its infancy but Iran needs to take control over Iraq quickly – a weak Iraq will create pockets of unruly terrorism close to Iran and a strong Iraq will place its Sunni might against Shia Iran.

Furthermore, Iraq is much closer to home and fits in with Iran’s world vision of dominating the Middle East. You can expect a lot of Iranian shadow diplomacy in Baghdad in which diplomats and Qods forces will pull strings and set up infrastructures of rule.