“Don’t let my Iraq become Khomeinist”
Iraqi journalist Erfan Rashid, interviewed by Alessandra Spila 7 March 2007

How have relations between Iran and Iraq changed following the fall of Saddam Hussein?

Relations between Iran and Iraq have changed as much as is possible for relations between two countries to change when one regime falls, especially considering that Saddam Hussein was Iran’s foremost enemy. Further contributing to this change in relations is the almost total control which Shiite political parties have held in each of the three governments which have ruled from 2003 to the present day. We ought to remember that the majority of Shiites – or, rather, the majority of Shiite political parties – were ‘hosted’ by Iran for almost a quarter of a century. Aside from this closeness between the Iraqi Shiite parties and Iran, another factor to consider is the consolidation of their political relations during the years of Saddam’s regime, which became friendly because of their shared interests.

Has Iranian interference in Iraq changed?

Iranian interference in the political life of Iraqis is more marked and has a greater influence now than before. This will lead, not only now, but also in the future, to a great imbalance between one part of Iraq and Iranian policies. Arab Iraqis, even those belonging to the Shiite ranks, do not want Iranian interference in their affairs, yet the absence of a strong and stable government representative of all sections of Iraqi society, allows Iran to continue to exert a negative influence. This is especially true in the south of the country, where the majority of the population is Shiite, and in a part of Baghdad.

What are the differences between Iraqi and Iranian Shiites?

Firstly one difference must be carefully defined – Iranian Shiites are of Farsi origins, and Iranian culture, whilst Iraqi Shiites, even if they share a common faith with their Iranian brothers, are mainly Arabs or Kurds. Their shared faith may initially prevail, but, as time goes by, conflicts will begin to emerge between Iranian policies, which aim at gaining control of the Middle East region, and an Iraqi tendency, surely in the interests of the country, towards remaining within the Arab world. And so the fundamental difference between Iraqi and Iranian Shiites, that is, between the Arabs and the Farsis, is at present lessened – or perhaps it is better to say masked – by faith. But one day it will certainly be brought out.

What would an American war in Iran mean for Iraq?

It would be a further disaster to worsen the present one. Iraq already constitutes a battlefield for the United States, both with Iran and with Syria. The outbreak of war with Iran, however, would transform Iraq into a frontline hostage. Iran would be able to use many of its followers in Iraq, beginning with the vast number of Shiites, to carry out attacks against the Americans, or even against Iraqi institutions.

What can be done, therefore, to prevent the outbreak of war?

At the moment there is a lot of optimism – even if it is a very cautious optimism – surrounding the conference which is due to take place in Baghdad on the 10th March. Iran and Syria will be taking part, as well as the United States and the other permanent members of the Security Council. This conference represents a first step in the finding of a diplomatic solution to the crisis, and is the result of the Baker-Hamilton Commission’s report. Naturally, President Bush could not accept straight away the suggestion to involve Iran and Syria in the Iraqi peace process. But only a few months after the drawing up of the report he is attempting to do what was in fact suggested. This issue also goes hand-in-hand with the problem of Iran and its nuclear development. If the negotiations succeed in alleviating the tension, it will certainly be in Iraq’s advantage. And in the opposite scenario it will suffer the consequences.

The United States claim to have proof of Iranian involvement in Iraq. Do you believe it’s possible to talk of a military and economic involvement in support of the anti-American guerillas?

Without a doubt there is Iranian involvement – it would be stupid to think otherwise. And I think that the Iranians are no longer even trying to hide it. The economic, military and political support offered is evident from the offensive capacity of the various Shiite militias, and from the control that they have in the south of the country and in Baghdad. If this were not the case they could not be so effective.

Could a pacifying or lessening of the tension between Washington and Tehran have positive effects?

Of course, although I don’t think that these would be immediate. But certainly, if Iran were to build some kind of diplomatic bridge with the United States, it would not let the opportunity of defending the Iraqi militias slip away. The opposite is equally true, that Iran will not leave Iraq so easily precisely because it remains the most important strategic area to protect its own territory from a potential American attack.

Do you believe that there is a division amongst the ruling powers in Iran?

Some of the internal dynamics are not as automatic as the mass media would have us believe. Ahmadinejad has never had the support of the majority of the Iranian population, and neither is he isolated today. It is rather a question of a politics which represents a specific tendency, supported by the Iranian politico-religious nomenclature. He certainly does not act alone, having the forces of political society behind him. And so he is subject to ‘highs and lows’.

And is he therefore weaker?

The way in which he heightens the tone of populist propaganda is proof of weakness. The most recent elections have also given a clear indication of this. But time will tell whether he is really isolated. At any rate, he remains president of Iran and the issue is too complicated to give a definitive response at the moment.

Do you believe there is a possibility that Iraq could become a fundamentalist state, like Iran?

Unfortunately, yes. If Iraq remains a country almost entirely controlled by Shiite political parties or militias, from Baghdad down to the south of the country, we run the risk of Iraq becoming a photocopy of Iran in the early years of Khomeini’s revolution. There are already entire zones plastered with huge photographic images and Shiite religious slogans, zones where women are obliged to cover themselves entirely from head to foot, and where children live according to the ‘respectful’ criteria of the written, prescribed Shiite dictates. Furthermore, the impact of the Shiite militias is such that instances of opposition to the ‘fundamentalisation’ of the country never come to light. And so the risk is there, and the democracy in the country, if we can call it democracy, is weak, and lame, because it is based on confessional and ethnic parameters; and therefore when a particular religious party is in power it will certainly decide to enforce religious dictates rather than political programmes.

So how can we prevent this process of ‘fundamentalisation’?

Hoping that this period of tension and insecurity passes, we need to ensure that the secular and democratic forces within the state – which are at present experiencing a greater repression than under Saddam Hussein’s regime – are able to be expressed. This country must move, but it cannot do so without the support of the world’s democratic nations. If we continue to consider Iraq as a tricolor flag, Sunni-Shiite-Kurd, we run two risks: the division of the country and the ‘fundamentalisation’ of Iraq. I hold faith in the secular and democratic force of Iraq.

Translation by Liz Longden