Iranian Strategy in Iraq
Posted: Monday, July 16, 2007
University of Haifa (Haifa, Israel)
Publication Date: March 13, 2007
The stakes for the Islamic Republic of Iran inside Iraq are greater than those of the United States. While Washington's international prestige is on the line, the Islamic Republic of Iran faces an existential crisis. U.S. success in Iraq and the establishment of a stable, democratic government in a majority Shiite country along Iran's borders would undercut the theological legitimacy which the Iranian regime claims. While Western diplomats and journalists emphasize the struggle within Iran between political hardliners and reformers, the real Achilles' heel for the Iranian regime is the theological challenge to its system of governance.
Any new order in Iraq would also pose a number of other challenges to Iran, as various communities within the Islamic Repubic might use the Iraqi precedent to seek change. The desire to curtail any such threats emerging in Iraq underpins Iranian motivations and strategy, and leads Iranian officials to seek to mold Iraq not into a mirror image Islamic Republic, but rather into template upon which to exert informal influence.
The Islamic Republic's Religious Vulnerability
When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1901-1989) led the Islamic Revolution, he not only ended centuries of monarchy but, when he imposed his own minority interpretation of Shia jurisprudence upon the country, he also turned traditional Shiite practice on its head. Traditional Shia believe that the 12th Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, who went into occultation in the year 874 AD, will return to rid the world of evil and injustice. By extension, therefore, generations of Shia scholars held that temporal authority prior to the return of the Mahdi must, by extension, be considered unjust and corrupt. This interpretation became the basis for a loose separation between mosque and state that lasted for centuries in Shia societies. While religious authorities might advise kings and pashas or issue fatwas (religious rulings) when rulers pursued policies that contravened religious sensibilities, ayatollahs shied away from daily involvement in temporal politics. This is best illustrated by the 1891 and 1892 tobacco protests when the religious clergy objected to the Shah's grant of an intrusive commercial concession to a British company. Their fatwas received an audience even in the Shah's own harem. When the Shah relented and cancelled the contract in question, the clergy turned once again to spiritual matters, leaving the Shah and his aides to conduct the daily business of governance.
While Khomeini accepted the traditional separation between spiritual and temporal rule in his early years, his views shifted with time. In 1970, six years into his Iraqi exile, Khomeini delivered a series of lectures which he published the following year in Hukumat-i Islami (Islamic Government). These outlined his concept of vilayat-i faqih (Guardianship of the Jurisprudent), in practice, the theocratic rule of clerics as place-holders for the Hidden Imam.
Upon taking power in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Khomeini implemented his theories with fervor. He silenced with brute force both lay opposition and traditional Shia theologians who opposed clerical rule. Intolerance to dissent--especially religious dissent--continued after his death on June 4, 1989. His successor, Ali Khamenei, met any challenge to the concept of vilayat-i faqih with the full wrath of Iran's security services. He kept Grand Ayatollah Hossein 'Ali Montazeri, once Khomeini's deputy, under house arrest and, on October 8, 2006, Khamenei's security forces arrested Ayatollah Sayed Hossein Kazemeyni Boroujerdi, after several days of pitched street battles with Boroujerdi's followers.
Even the reformists celebrated in the West pursued a zero-tolerance policy toward those who would question Khomeini's justification for clerical dictatorship. Mohammad Khatami, for example, banned publication of Montazeri's memoirs. In 1994, 'Ali Araki, the only Grand Ayatollah sympathetic to Khomeini's philosophy, died. Araki's views on governance might have been heterodox for most Shia scholars outside Iran, but few could doubt his religious credentials. After his death, Khamenei laid claim to Araki's status as a Marja'-e Taqlid (Source of Emulation), the ultimate religious authority for Shiites irrespective of national boundaries. Khamenei's claim was tenuous; individual Shia select their Marja'. Few would choose Khamenei whose religious credentials did not approach those of Araki, Montazeri, or Iraq-based Grand Ayatollahs like Muhammad Shirazi (1928-2001) and Ali Sistani (1930- ).
Khamenei's aborted attempt to assume Marja' status underlined the vulnerability within the system: While Khamenei could claim ultimate political authority within Iran, any subordination of his authority to religious counterparts would belie his status. So long as Saddam Husayn ruled Iraq, the Islamic Republic could paper over the inherent contradiction in the Supreme Leader's claim to authority: Saddam ruled Iraq with an iron first. If Shia jurists wished to survive, they had to maintain silence. The Iraqi regime eliminated those who became too outspoken. In 1980, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr died in an Iraqi prison after he defended the Islamic Revolution in Iran. In 1999, assassins gunned down his cousin, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr and two of Muhammad Sadiq's sons.
Iraq's liberation upset the balance. Suddenly, Iraqi Shia could exert themselves. Several hundred thousand Shia participated in the April 22, 2003 Arba'in pilgrimage, the first time in two decades in which they had performed the ritual. Scholars in the Shia shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala could speak and preach freely. They need not issue an overt political challenge to upset the Iranian leadership. This was encapsulated by an episode ignored by the Western press, but with profound consequences in Iran: Islamic months begin with the sighting of the new moon. Khamenei, in his role as Supreme Leader, reserves the right to make the final decision on when months begin and end. In order to exert authority and highlight religious differences, he often declares months to begin the day after religious authorities in other countries do. In 2003, most Shia clerics declared the end of Ramadan to be on November 25. Khamenei decreed its end to be the following day. The problem was, though, that Iranian journalists had already interviewed Sistani and published his answer. While innocuous to the Western audience, Sistani's contradiction of Khamenei's pronouncement shook the political establishment in Iran. How could Khamenei be the Supreme Leader if many Iranians looked toward Sistani for guidance? Belying their authoritarian nature and insecurity, the Iranian government responded with a crackdown on the journalists.
Compounding Iranian concern is historical precedent: Whether during the Tobacco Régie on 1891-1892, the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1909, or the Islamic Revolution seven decades later, Najaf and Karbala have often served as bases from which exiled Iranians could coordinate opposition to the ruling Iranian order. Iranian authorities are well aware that the pattern could replicate, especially given the economic inefficiency and tenuous popularity of the Iranian regime.
Iranian strategic concern extends beyond the religious component. In terms of demography, Iran is more an empire than a country. It is an ethnic patchwork. Half of Iranians speak a language other than Persian at home. Many Iranian minorities, for example, the Kurds, Azeris, and Baluch, span borders.
The federalism debate in Iraq has repercussions in Iran. The federalism question touches a raw nerve across Iranian society. While Iran escaped the colonial era without formal colonization, it did lose territory as a result of conflicts with Great Powers. In the early nineteenth century, the Shah lost much of what is now independent Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia in wars with Russia. This year marks the 150th anniversary of Iran's loss of Western Afghanistan in a war with Great Britain.
Separatism has been a consistent concern throughout modern Iranian history. The Soviet Union sponsored local and ethnic insurgencies in Iran as early as the 1920s. The Azerbaijan crisis, sparked when the Red Army refused to evacuate from Iran's northwestern province and instead laid the ground work for regional independence as a SovietSocialistRepublic, was the first major crisis of the Cold War.
Many Iranians, whether proponents of their theocracy or not, rally around the flag at any suggestion of federalism, seeing it as a code or precursor to Iran's dissolution into component parts. During Iraq's 1980 invasion of Iran, Iraqi propaganda promoted federal autonomy if not outright independence to Iran's various ethnic groups.
Here, the Iraqi Kurds pose a potent, even if indirect challenge. The Iranian state is sensitive to Kurdish separatism. Kurdish tribal leaders battled for autonomy in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. In the wake of World War II, the Kurdish separatist MahabadRepublic maintained independence for a year. Among the predominantly Sunni Kurds, Iran faced acute resistance during the initial months of the Islamic Revolution. During the Iran-Iraq War, perhaps the only common point between Khomeini and Saddam Husayn was their distrust of their overlapping Kurdish minority. Today, Iranian Kurds complain both of discrimination and heavy-handed security presence.
In a move replete with symbolism, the Kurdistan Regional Government has adopted the MahabadRepublic's flag as its own. The ruler of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masud Barzani, is the son of the MahabadRepublic's army commander. While Iraqi Kurdistan has been de facto autonomous since 1991, it formalized its federal, self-governing status in the March 8, 2004 Transitional Administration Law, the precursor to the constitution adopted in the October 15, 2005 referendum.
The Iranian government fears that autonomy in Iraq might translate into corollary demands within Iran. Their concern is genuine: Upon the adoption of the Transitional Administration Law, Iranian Kurds in Marivan and Mahabad rioted, burning state banks, overturning police cars, and demanding similar rights and freedoms. For Iranian Kurds, Iraqi federalism is compelling. Why should their neighbors enjoy language rights, religious freedom, and self-governance absent inside the Islamic Republic? The Iranian regime has no ready answers, and so wishes instead to derail the process which might lead to such questions being asked.
The Iranian Response: Implementing Hezbollah Model
The Iranian strategic response to threats arising from the new situation in Iraq has been to replicate the Hezbollah model. Step-by-step, Iranian authorities are implementing in Iraq the strategy which allowed Hezbollah, Iran's proxy, to take over southern Lebanon in the 1980s. The playbook--military, economic, and information operation--is almost identical.
At the center of the Hezbollah strategy are the militias. Just as the Revolutionary Guards helped hone Hezbollah into a deadly force, so too have they trained the Badr Corps, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI)'s militia and the core of Shia firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr's Jaysh al-Mahdi (Mahdi Army). Iranian replication of the model was both deliberate and well-planned. Badr Corps infiltrated Iraq even before U.S. forces reached Baghdad. In the black market of SadrCity, the price of Iraqi documents rose while those of Iranian passports fell, a result of rising demand for Iraqi papers and increasing numbers of Iranian documents on the market. In July 2003, a joint Free Iraqi Force and U.S. patrol confiscated Iranian passports and significant sums of cash at an illegal Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) checkpoint, after KDP peshmerga allowed Iranian operatives to exchange Iranian documents for KDP-provided Iraqi papers.
Tehran's choice of representations further reflected its strategy. Its first ambassador in post-Saddam Iraq was Hassan Kazemi Qomi, the Revolutionary Guard's former liaison to Hezbollah in Lebanon. After Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leader Jalal Talabani became Iraq's president, foreign diplomats met him to present formally their credentials. PUK officials said it was comical, as every Iranian "diplomat" they had known for years in their intelligence ministry or Revolutionary Guards capacity.
SCIRI did not hide its relationship with Hezbollah. In January 2004, a yellow Lebanese Hezbollah flag flew from SCIRI's headquarters in the southern city of Basra. Badr Corps offices in al-Amara and Nasiriyah sported slogans endorsing the Lebanese group.
Iraq's subsequent experience reflects the evolution of Hezbollah tactics. In Lebanon, Revolutionary Guard advisers imbued young Lebanese with a cult of martyrdom. Hezbollah suicide bombers moved with deadly accuracy, ultimately driving U.S. and multinational peacekeepers out of Lebanon. In 1984, Hezbollah added kidnapping to its repertoire. The Revolutionary Guards provided intelligence to the kidnappers and, in some cases, interrogated the victims. The group seized several dozen foreigners, including 17 Americans. Journalists received no immunity. In 1987, Hezbollah held ABC's chief Middle East correspondent hostage for two months. Just as in Iraq today, the kidnappers sought both to win material concession and shake Western confidence.
Increasingly sophisticated bombs also accompanied Hezbollah's rise. The improvised explosive device has become the bane of Coalition patrols. In October 2005, Prime Minister Tony Blair confirmed that bombs used to kill eight British soldiers in Iraq were of a type used by Iran's Revolutionary Guards and its Hezbollah proxies. The U.S. military has made available to the press captured insurgent and militia weaponry manufactured in Iran after the U.S. occupation of Iraq began. Iraqi Sunni insurgent leaders acknowledge the "possibility" that some Iraqi Sunni insurgents took Iranian money, albeit unknowingly through cut-outs.
While Washington wrings it hands over the bombings of the al-Askari mosque in Samarra, it should not play into Iranian hands and repeat the mistake of Najaf: Following the August 29, 2003 bombing at the shrine of Imam Ali, Coalition authorities acquiesced to demands to empower militias for security. Once implanted, militias metathesize. The Iranian leadership is patient. While Washington rejoices in short-term calm, Tehran looks forward to long-term influence.
Neither Hezbollah nor Iraq's Shia militias tolerate dissent. Constitutions mean little and law even less. In southern Lebanon, Hezbollah is judge, jury, and executioner. In Iraq, the Shia militias do likewise. Militias exist to impose through force what cannot win through democratic means. Take, for example, segregation of the sexes: Many educated Iraqis meet their spouses in secondary school or college. In Iraqi high schools and universities, annual class picnics are a major social event in which men and women can mingle and flirt. Unencumbered by family tradition or religious interpretation, many did so. On March 15, 2005, though, as University of Basra students enjoyed their picnic, armed Shia militiamen arrived, beat students, and kidnapped some. Likewise, throughout the same school year, Badr Corps militiamen stationed themselves in front of girls' primary schools in Kadhimiya and other Shia neighborhoods in Baghdad to enforce a strict interpretation of Islamic dress, denying girls their right to education under the law if they were not dressed in accordance to the militiamen's beliefs. Both militias operate their own parallel justice and penal systems irrespective of Iraqi law. Had Iraqi Shia subscribed to the same beliefs as the militiamen, there would have been no need for such militia presence. Iraqi Shia continue to chafe under their rule, often complaining of their imposition as a "Persian" phenomenon.
Force, though, is not the only component of the Hezbollah playbook. As in southern Lebanon, what cannot be won through bribery is imposed through intimidation. In Lebanon, Hezbollah used Iranian money to create an extensive social service network. It funded schools, food banks, and job centers. It's a tried and true strategy which Iranian authorities have applied from Tajikistan to Bosnia. Toward the end of the Tajik civil war in 1997, babushkas in Dushanbe would each morning line up under Ayatollah Khomeini's portrait to pick up food from the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee. Ten years later, Tajik society has changed. What once was a bastion of secularism has transformed into an Iranian-style social order.
Driving through Shia neighborhoods of Baghdad, similar scenes unfold. While the U.S. Embassy boasts billions of dollars spent, it has little to show ordinary Iraqis for its efforts. Not so the Shia militias. Al-Hakim's son Amar has opened branches of his Shahid al-Mihrab Establishment for Promoting Islam throughout the towns and villages of southern Iraq. The establishments distribute free food and gifts of money, so long as patrons pledge their allegiance. For impoverished Iraqis lacking electricity and livelihood, it's an easy decision. In SadrCity, the Jaysh al-Mahdi prohibits any non-governmental or aid organization to conduct development or social work without its blessing. Those wishing to conduct aid projects must agree to employ Jaysh al-Mahdi labor and give sole credit for the project to Muqtada al-Sadr.
U.S. officials have no strategy to counter Shahid al-Mihrab or similar charities' influence. At a January 18, 2006 American Enterprise Institute panel, Ambassador James Jeffrey, the State Department's Iraq coordinator, said only, "We don't believe in bags of money in the middle of the night like [the Iranians] do." While on principle a noble stance, in reality it is a recipe for defeat: While Tehran understands the importance of patronage networks, Washington does not. While U.S. funds go to Bechtel and Halliburton, Iranian-backed groups address Iraqis' immediate needs.
State Department ineptitude has bolstered Tehran's success. Bayan Jabr, a SCIRI functionary became, with U.S. acquiescence, Iraq's Interior Minister. He used his portfolio to transform the Iraqi police into a Badr Corps employment program.
From Militias to Insurgency
Beyond their use in transforming society, Iranian authorities utilize the militias to neutralize the religious and ethnic threats arising from Iraq's new political order. Threats to the Islamic Republic's religious legitimacy remain the Iranian leadership's most potent challenge. Tehran uses the Iraqi militias to replicate the strategy utilized by Saddam against the Shia religious leadership in Iraq. At its core, the strategy is to control through intimidation. The Badr Corps and Jaysh al-Mahdi permeate Najaf and Karbala, intimidatin