The former Iranian deputy oil minister, Mohammad Nejad-Hosseinian, argued in a recent interview that Iran should develop the oil fields it shares with Iraq as a method to receive what the Iranian leadership reasons are justly owed reparations. Many in Iran blame Iraq for precipitating the eight-year carnage during its mortal combat with Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime. While much of the global news focuses on the purportedly warm ties between Iraq’s Shiite-led government and the Islamic republic, the increasingly bellicose language emanating from Iran towards its Western neighbor belies that amicable image. While the current Iraqi-Iranian dispute is ostensibly about oil fields and war reparations, Arab Persian geopolitical rivalry stretches back to the Battle of Dhi Qar. It was in Dhi Qar where confederated Arab tribes visited a humiliating defeat on the imperial Persian army of Khosrau II in 609-610 C.E., just south of the Iraqi city of Kufa.
On Dec. 19, 2009, an Iranian parliamentarian and leading member of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Hossein Ebrahimi, led the charge against Iraq by arguing that due to its eight-year war with Iran, Iraq owes its neighbor at least trillion dollars in war reparations. In an escalation of the nascent animosity between the two countries, Iraq charged that in mid-December, Iran had occupied an Iraqi oil well in the Maysan province-al-Fakkah oil field-close to the border that separates these nations.
Even though Iran denied that it had occupied the territory, Gen. Ray Odierno, the US commander in Iraq, affirmed that a violation had taken place, but asserted that the Iranians had subsequently evacuated their troops. An Iraqi oil company employee disputed that version of events and asserted that the Iranians left a five man garrison inside the facility, along with perhaps an even more potent insult to Iraqis – an Iranian flag fluttering overhead.
Many observers assume that because both Iraq and Iran share Shiite- run governments, there is a natural affinity to cooperate on security, economic and political matters. While relations between the two countries are much warmer than when the secular Arab nationalist Baath party battled the theocratic Iranian state, the shared sectarian basis obscures the very real tension that bubbles underneath the two countries’ relationship.
The tension runs the gamut from a barely concealed ethnic antagonism that pits many Iranians, who harbor a haughty attitude toward their Arab neighbors, against a pro-Arab orientation amongst many Iraqi Shiites. Iran has been accused repeatedly of having a barely concealed discriminatory policy against its own Arab citizens, most notably the Ahwazi Arabs who reside in the Khuzestan province (homeland to five million Iranian Arabs). Iran believes that many of these Arabs are separatists, who are treasonous to the state and wish to form their own Arab-dominant nation.
In Iraq, Moqatada al-Sadr’s father, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, began his self-consciously pro-Arab Sadrist movement in the 1990s as a backlash against the allegedly bloated and corrupt Shiite parties that many disenfranchised Shiite Iraqis concluded paid excessive homage to Iran. Today, Moqtada al-Sadr continues his father’s brand of militant Iraqi nationalism that is both anti-American and anti-Persian. In a sharp rebuke to the image of Iraqi Shiites as passive subjects in the Iranian puppet theater, in 2007, more than 300,000 Iraqi Shiites reportedly signed a petition that condemned Iran for interference in domestic issues and for stirring violence in Iraq.
In addition to the ethnic bias exhibited on both sides, the very real theological rift between the so-called Najaf School in Iraq, and its Iranian counterpart located in Qum, has poisoned relations. This theological enmity has real-world ramifications, because it is centered upon the foundational philosophical tenets of the Iranian state, particularly the Velayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic jurists) religious and spiritual concept that the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini propagated.
During the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, who represented what is now popularly known as the Qum school of thought, authored a treatise titled Hokumat–e Islami: Velayat-e Faqih (Islamic Government: Authority of the Jurist), which argued that the true Islamic state is administered by those with a thorough understanding of Islamic law, i.e., Islamic clerics. Many Najaf adherents, under the guidance of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, criticized Khomeini’s attempt to bring clerical rule to Iran in the absence of the occulted Imam, also known as the hidden Imam. Ali al-Sistani, who advocates a quietest view for Shiite scholars, does not believe that Shiite religious leaders should assume overtly political roles.
Abdolkarim Soroush, the noted Iranian scholar of Islam, concluded that if al-Sistani’s followers played a more political role in the Iraqi government, Iraq – and perhaps Iran – may edge closer to a truly “democratic version” of Islam. The antipathy of al-Sistani’s followers toward a theocratic Islamic government brings to mind the opposition of some orthodox Jews, such as the Neturei Karta, to the state of Israel and political Zionism.
All the above demonstrates that while Iraq’s Shiites are fiercely religious, they have an ardent nationalism that does not lend itself easily to Iranian political or religious domination. Iraqi Shiite independence was most aptly illustrated in the first Gulf war, when Iraq’s Shiite soldiers disregarded Khomeini’s siren call to mutiny and spread his Islamic revolution to Iraq’s interior. Nearly all Iraqi Shiite soldiers loyally served their state, and defended their territory from Iranian incursions.
As any country, Iraq appears opaque to the outside observer. However, Iraqi Shiites are both nationalistic and jealous guardians of their sovereignty. While Iranian-Iraqi relationships usually defy facile classifications, all indications are that their relationship will be complex and challenging in the years ahead.