The dangers Iran faces in dealing with communal politics in Iraq

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Abu Dharr

Jumada' al-Ula' 05, 1427 2006-06-01

Guest Editorial

by Abu Dharr (Guest Editorial, Crescent International Vol. 35, No. 4, Jumada' al-Ula', 1427)

Since the death of Imam Khomeini (ra), a group of parasitical politicians have worked their way into position to influence the policies of government of the Islamic State of Iran. They may not hold the highest offices in the government, but they appear to hold sway over some of those offices. It seems that a combination of sectarian and nationalist elements, who felt that they were marginalised during the years of the Imam, have rough-armed their way through the various ministries and departments of the government. Among these sectarian elements are some of the "Iraqi brothers", who have found allies in the Iranian foreign ministry. To be more precise, this element could be categorised as the "Iraqi, Shi‘i, pro-Sistani brothers." Unfortunately, scanning the rank and file of the pro-Sistani crowd, is is quickly apparent that the majority of them do not share the fundamental ideals of the Islamic Revolution particularly the idea of the Wilayat-e-Faqih. Despite this, some senior figures in the Islamic state clearly have a soft spot for the custodians of Najaf and Karbala' (the major hawzahs of the Shi‘is in the world), even if they are reactionary Shi‘is, nationalist Shi‘is, or even secular Shi‘is. The Shi'is, like all other communities in the world, come in all shapes, sizes and qualities, from the excellent to the mediocre and the rotten. Unfortunately, a misplaced sense of sectarian solidarity is now associating the Islamic State, which should be defined by the most fervent followers of Imam Khomeini, with Shi‘is who never were his followers, or at best were feigning.

It is in this shady area that they find such dubious figures as Ayad ‘Allawi, Ahmad Chalabi, Muwaffaq al-Rubei‘i, and even some members of Hizb al-Da‘wa, and al-Majlis al-A‘la. Lest we cause offence, we should acknowledge that there are many sincere and dedicated Iraqi brothers, particular in the aforementioned Islamic movements, and that we risk igniting tempers and inflaming nerves by discussing these issues. So let it be clear that we are not speaking about the many genuine and committed Islamic activists in the Hizb al-Da‘wa and al-Majlis al-A‘la. But having said that, there are some in those parties who have not risen above their "Shi‘ism". Some of them still consider Shi‘is to be Shi‘is first, and anything else afterwards, be that Islamic, nationalist or secular. Sectarianism is proving a hard nut to crack, even in circumstances where everyone should be able to identify those who camouflage themselves with sectarianism or nationalism as standing out like sore thumbs.

Let us take Ahmad Chalabi. He is one of those "soft-spot Shi‘is" who has been in and out of Iraq and Iran as much as he has been in and out of the US and Britain in the past years. At one time he is said to have passed classified information from the American intelligence community on to the Iranians; and at another time he is described as the provoker of the US's invasion of Iraq. He is the shadowy figure in the neo-conservative "attack-Iraq" crowd; now you see him, now you don't. Yet despite his record he seems to have supporters among fellow-Shi'is extending from the Sistani circle in Iraq all the way to the bureaucrats and functionaries in the Iranian foreign ministry. The fact that Chalabi moves equally easily, and is equally welcome, among the pro-American secularisers from Dick Cheney's office staff all the way through the maze of neo-conservative figures who now are scattered all over the Washington political scene seems not to affect the "Shi‘i" support for Chalabi in Iraqi religious and Iranian diplomatic circles.

Who says that Washington and Tehran are not "playing ball"? They are; and the bouncing ball is none other than Mr Chalabi himself – a "Shi‘i" first, if we are to believe the Iranian foreign ministry hacks; or a broker or even a federal agent, if we see how he is portrayed in American circles. We do not know how many roles he has played so far; there is an cloak of secrecy about his shuttles and travels back and forth between his "Shi‘i" connections and his neo-conservative connections. His latest known role appears to be that of conduit between the cold US ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, and the warm "Shi‘i" co-religionists inTehran. The appointment of Farsi-speaking Khalilzad as the US ambassador in an Arabic-speaking country is a strong indicator of the US’s concern with the Islamic state. Away from the camera-flashes and the media fanfare, Khalilzad has nightmares about political and insurgent opposition in Iraq finding common ground with the no-nonsense Revolutionary Guards in Islamic Iran.

If truth be told, there are at both ends of this axis – the Iranian foreign ministry and the neo-conservative movers and shakers inWashington – a growing disillusion and cynicism about Chalabi's ever-changing faces. But Chalabi is tailor-made for this role: a shameless, faceless weathervane, always going with the prevailing wind. Remember, it was he who provided native credibility to the American script about Iraq's stockpiles of nerve-gas and other weapons of mass-destruction. Chalabi was among the first Iraqi émigrés to return to Iraq after the US invasion, accompanied of course by his own small army of militia men, courtesy of the Pentagon. His nephew Salem, another Shi‘i riding the growing wave of belligerent sectarian communalism, was given millions of dollars to stage-manage a show trial of Saddam Hussein that is designed not to provide justice for the 2 million people killed under his rule, but to focus on the murder of Iraqi Shi‘is in al-Dujail in such a way so as to feed the growing tension between Sunnis and Shi‘is in Iraq.

This is the inescapable background to the current sectarian strife and nationalist conflict in Iraq. The Islamic State has every reason to be concerned and interested in what happens within the borders of its western neighbour, both because of fellow-feeling with Iraq's Muslims and because of the threat that Iraq could pose to Iran should the US get its way there. Nonetheless, they should know better that to be associated with such shady and unreliable characters as Chalabi. It is frankly astounding how people who should be able to recognise a crook and a charlatan from miles away are blinded if that same crook happens to belong to the same community as themselves. From Washington's point of view, Chalabi is another Bandar ibn Sultan: a useful tool or as long as they can use him, but as dispensable as a used tissue once they decide that they no longer need him.

At the same time, we must worry that when we can see the shortsighted and narrowminded functionaries of the foreign ministry in Iran playing diplomatic ball with the Americans through such dubious figures as Chalabi, might also the defence ministry in Iran be playing military ball with the occupation forces in Iraq through figures in what the Americans call the insurgency?

We must not jump to conclusions and should not doubt our brothers, but we can only hope that the Iranians are aware of the dangers of pragmatism and political game-playing in Iraq, because it appears all too often that the right hand in Islamic Iran is unaware of what the left hand is doing.

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