Many thanks to Anita for this most interesting contribution!
My comments in green italics inside the text of the original article
`Angry’ Iran sharpens tone with Baghdad’s leaders
BAGHDAD (AP) — When a group of Iraqi envoys headed to Iran recently, they were fully prepared for some tense moments. But they also hoped to come away with something to show for it: pledges of cooperation on weakening Shiite militias in Iraq.
Instead, they got a scolding from some of Iran’s most powerful voices — accusing the Iraqi leadership of bowing to Washington and forgetting about Tehran’s support for Shiites persecuted by Saddam Hussein.
The swipes during the April 30-May 2 meetings — described to The Associated Press by members of the Iraqi delegation and other senior officials — signified more than a passing spat between the main Shiite centers of gravity in the region.
Relations between Iraq’s Shiite-led government and the rulers in neighboring Iran have come under unprecedented strains as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki moves against rivals and negotiates long-term pacts with Washington.
There’s almost no chance it could lead to a full-blown rupture. Iran’s influence runs too deep in Iraq: from the main political bloc in al-Maliki’s government to elements within the powerful Mahdi Army militia.
But the friction points to increasingly mismatched priorities: Iran is desperate to undercut the U.S. role in Iraq while Iraq’s leaders are looking for American help to bolster their hold on power.
It also comes as Iran’s alliances and ambitions stir new jitters around the Persian Gulf and beyond, where Sunni leaders have held the upper hand for decades.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, warned Tuesday that Iran risked souring its relations with Arab and Muslim countries because of Tehran’s backing for the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which he accused of seeking a “coup” against the Lebanese government.
Iran’s muscle flexing is expected to be on the agenda during President Bush’s trip to the Middle East, which began Wednesday in Israel. Bush’s schedule did not include a stop in Iraq, but such trips are not announced in advance.
Iran, for its part, is not sitting back quietly.
On Monday, the hard-line Iranian newspaper Jomhuri-e-Eslami accused al-Maliki of lacking backbone in alks with Washington, which include the long-range status of U.S. military operations in Iraq. The daily, which is considered close to Iran’s ruling clerics, claimed Washington wants a “full-fledged colony” in Iraq.
It was a rare public jab at al-Maliki, a Shiite. But it was mild compared with the closed-door recriminations during the high-level Iraqi visit, according to accounts by Shiite politicians close to Iraq’s prime minister.
The five-member delegation sought to pressure and cajole the Iranians into cutting suspected support for Shiite militias that have battled U.S. and Iraqi forces. But the Iraqis mostly received a scolding, the politicians said.
“The Iranians were very tough and even angry with us,” said one of the delegates in the Tehran talks. “They accused us of being ungrateful to what Iran has done for the Shiites during Saddam’s rule and of siding with the Americans against Iran.”
The Iraqi politicians, five in all, spoke to the AP in separate interviews on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. Two of them took part in the talks with the Iranians. The rest were briefed on the meetings.
At one point, a key leader within Iran’s Revolutionary Guards accused the Iraqi delegation and their leaders of being tools of Washington and showing ingratitude for years of Iranian support to Iraqi’s majority Shiites, who suffered attacks and persecution under Saddam, the politicians said.
Brig. Gen. Ghassem Soleimani, commander of the elite Quds Force unit of the Guards, accused the Iraqis of offering U.S. forces “a permanent home on our doorsteps,” the politicians told the AP.
The Iranians also rejected what the Iraqis called “evidence” of Iranian ties to Shiite militiamen, including seized weapons that bore Iranian markings, the politicians said (one should probably put Talabani’s recent statement denying that Iran was sending weapons to any Iraqi militia in the context of this Iranian stance).
Responding to accusations that Shiite militiamen were training in camps outside Tehran, the Iranians claimed the facilities were being used to house members of the Mahdi Army who fled Iraq to escape arrest.
The leader of the Mahdi Army, militant Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has lived in Iran for the past year — partly because he fears for his life in Iraq and because he is studying for the high clerical rank of ayatollah. (Which means that he feels perfectly safe in Iran. What does that tell us about Iran’s support for the Sadrists?)
The suspected degree of Iranian links with Shiite militiamen depends on who is making the accusation.
The U.S. military is careful to distinguish in its public pronouncements between the mainstream Mahdi Army and breakaway “special groups” (there are no “special groups” in Iraq, that is just a US invention to avoid admitting that the occupation forces are fighting the Sadrists. Neither Sadr nor the Iranians would ever tolerate any breakaway groups) with alleged closer ties with Iran. Iraqi authorities are less specific and suggest that al-Sadr’s entire movement is drifting more into Iran’s orbit.
This week, al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army agreed to an accord to end clashes in Baghdad’s Sadr City district. But fighting has not fully subsided, suggesting that some militiamen now operate out of al-Sadr’s control (no, its the US occupation forces which kept on bombing Sadr city, not any “militiamen”)
In late March, however, Iran helped broker an end to battles between Iraqi-led forces and Mahdi Army fighters in the southern city of Basra.
The mixed signals from Iran underscore the complexity of Tehran’s role since the fall of Iran’s archenemy Saddam more than five years ago.
Last year, a senior Iranian envoy, Ali Larijani, told al-Maliki that Iran considers the U.S. troop presence in Iraq a “serious danger” to Iran’s national security. Then at the recent meetings, Iranian authorities said they opposed al-Maliki’s goal to crush the Mahdi Army, arguing it would rob Tehran of a key ally, the Iraqi politicians told the AP.
But Iran also has taken part in groundbreaking one-on-one talks with U.S. diplomats in Baghdad on ways to calm Iraq’s violence.
Vali Nasr, an Iranian-American expert who closely monitors Shiite affairs, said Tehran saw the timing of the Mahdi Army crackdown as particularly harmful — coming as more Sunni armed groups forge alliances with the United States against al-Qaida in Iraq.
“The (Iranian) argument is that the destruction of the Sadrists will weaken Shiites at a time when Sunni tribes are being armed and getting stronger,” said Nasr, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Commentary: Bottom line? I was correct when I wrote on May 6th – two days after the meetings between the Iranians and the Maliki representatives ended – that the Iranians have understood that Maliki & Co. have changed bosses and are now doing the USA’s bidding:
Yes, Iran does officially support the ‘democratically elected government of Iraq’ and some Iranian officials have even expressed their support for the “crackdown on armed militias” (a codeword for a war on the Sadrists). Still, I am getting a strong sense that Iran only sees the Maliki government as a useful tool to prevent the Americans from putting a CIA-stooge like Alawi or even a Sunni in power. By declaring its support for the Maliki government Iran is, in reality, declaring its support for the majority Shia in Iraq. However, I believe that Iran is fully aware of the fact that the Maliki government is hated everywhere in Iraq, including by most Shia, and that Maliki and al-Hakim are becoming pawns in the anti-Shia ‘redirection’. While there is no doubt that the Iranians has reservations about the personality of al-Sadr, they also realize that he is, by far, the most popular figure in Iraq and that he, unlike Maliki and al-Hakim, truly opposes the occupation. My guess is that the Iranians, who are fully cognisant of all this, are covertly switching their support from Maliki to the Sadrists (while quite possibly pressuring al-Hakim and the Badr organization to be prepared to ‘drop’ Maliki at a moment’s notice). The Iranians simply cannot officially refuse to support the ‘democratically elected government of Iraq’, but they sure as hell do not need to give it more support than lip service statements. Think of it as a ‘redirection’ of their own, if you want, the quiet but crucial adaptation by Iran to a new reality on the ground.
This AP article fully confirms what I have been suspecting. Furthermore, it begs the question of what means of putting pressure Iran has on Maliki and his regime? After all, they are now under US protection, safely tucked away in the Green Zone, no?
I am standing by my guess that while Maliki and his government have been bought by the occupation forces al-Hakim and, even more relevantly, his Badr Organization cannot follow his example. It is quite possible that al-Hakim himself might be tempted to go the Maliki route, but there can be no doubt that the Badr Corps itself is deeply, deeply penetrated by Iranian agents and that these will, if Tehran gives the order, “drop” Maliki and even possibly al-Hakim himself. An accusation of treason coming from Tehran and Qom might spell out the end of the entire Hakim clan, both politically or even physically. They know that and they cannot afford to let that happen. This is why they will rather put pressure on Maliki on Tehran’s behalf.
While one can speculate about what exactly has been going on behind the scenes, one thing is now certain: Iran is now quietly, but nevertheless fully, backing the Sadrists and not the Maliki regime.