Iran's New Iraq

By Takeyh, Ray | The Middle East Journal, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Iran's New Iraq

Takeyh, Ray, The Middle East Journal

The US invasion of Iraq has revolutionized the strategic architecture of the Persian Gulf in a manner that is still difficult to fully appreciate. Among the relationships that have been dramatically altered by America's move are the ties between Iran and Iraq. A critical examination reveals that more than territorial disputes or contending hegemonic aspirations, it was ideology that caused tension and ultimately war between these two states from 1980-88. While the earlier monarchical governments managed to contain their disputes, the ideological regimes of Saddam Husayn and the Iranian mullahs ultimately waged a devastating war against each other. Today, for the first time, ideology does not seem to be a source of friction between the two states, portending a more favorable relationship. The question then becomes, can the United States transcend its visceral suspicions of Iran and recognize that its long-term nemesis may be a source of stability?

Iran's relations with no other country have been as complicated and tortuous as its ties with Iraq. It was once assumed that Iran and Iraq were natural antagonists, destined to have relations marked by friction and tension. Given the countries' prolonged war in the 1980s and their sustained attempts to assert influence in the Persian Gulf, such a narrative has a degree of historical justification. Still, today there are emphatic voices suggesting that post-Saddam Iraq with its empowered Shi'ite majority is likely to emerge as a close ally, if not an actual subsidiary, of the Islamic Republic. The question then becomes, which of these two accounts actually come closest to reality?

The turbulent history between the two nations can alternatively support a variety of assessments and predictions. It is true that the two sides fought a vicious war that destroyed both countries' infrastructure and scarred a generation. And yet, how does one explain the long periods of cooperation between them in the years since Iraq assumed its formal independence in 1932? The answer lies in the domestic political complexion of the two states. When both Iran and Iraq were governed by conservative monarchies, they managed to regulate their competition, contain their differences, and even cooperate on issues of common concern. However, the revolutionary, Ba'thist regime in Iraq, which took power in 1968, found the Iranian Pahlavi dynasty objectionable, just as Iran's theocrats would later find Saddam Husayn reprehensible. All this is not to suggest that the two sides do not have territorial disputes or regional ambitions that may provoke difficulties. But such problems are much harder to resolve by regimes that are ideological antagonists.

Much in the Middle East has changed in the past few years, as Saddam's tyranny has been displaced by American military intervention. The rise of the Shi'ite community in Iraq is likely to portend better relations with Iran, as many of Iraq's leading Shi'ite political actors have close and intimate ties with the Islamic Republic. Despite the alarmist discussions regarding Iran's determination to spread its revolution next door, for Tehran the critical issue remains preventing the Sunni domination of Iraqi politics. Far more than religious compatibility, it was the Iran-Iraq War that seemingly convinced the theocratic elite that the Sunni monopoly of power would inevitably lead them toward an aggressive pan-Arabist posture as a means of justifying their political hegemony. The rulers of the Islamic Republic have no illusions that the Shi'ites in Iraq are likely to concede to their authority, but they are merely seeking a more amenable set of interlocutors next door. For the first time since the overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy in 1958, Iraq is no longer a revisionist state infused with discursive pan-Arabist pretensions. After all the diplomatic maneuvers and conflicts, it was the American invasion that finally opened the possibility of not just improved, but friendly relations between two of the Middle East's most bitter enemies. …

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