Religion, History Shape Iraq's Relationship with Iran

Fifth in a six-part series.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

hide captionIranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (right) shakes hands with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during their meeting in Tehran Aug. 8, 2007.

Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
Map of Iran i i

hide captionIran is a Persian state in a region dominated by Arabs, and a Shia nation surrounded largely by Sunni states.

Lindsay Mangum, NPR
Map of Iran

Iran is a Persian state in a region dominated by Arabs, and a Shia nation surrounded largely by Sunni states.

Lindsay Mangum, NPR

About this Series

Iran's leaders, both before and after the Islamic Revolution, have seen their nation as the key regional power in the Middle East. But since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has been consistently unable to fulfill this ambition. In this series, NPR examines Iran and its relationship with its neighbors. Read an overview of the series.

Iran's relationship with Iraq has always been torn between ties of history, religion and blood — and some of the bitterest hatreds in the Middle East.

Earlier this year, Iran's embassy in Baghdad was hit by three car bombings in two days, triggering a ban on nearby parking.

Even though much of the face of the building is hidden by a high concrete blast wall, its presence is felt in the mobile phone shop of Ali Mohammed Hussein, who tenses slightly when he's asked about Iran's influence on his country.

"It's negative, of course," he says. "Iran fights America here in Iraq; you don't need to be educated to know that."

Shiites in Iraq Connected by Religion

Hussein is an Arab Shiite, which gives him a religious kinship with Shiite-dominated Iran.

Iraq is, after all, the cradle of Shiite Islam, the scene of its epic battles and martyrdoms.

Iranian pilgrims come by the thousands to weep and pray at the shrines in Najaf and Karbala, which to them are second only to Mecca in religious significance.

Iran also was a refuge for Iraqi Shiite leaders when they faced persecution by Saddam Hussein.

Iran's Influence Inside Iraq

But Ali Hussein's religious kinship with Iran doesn't outweigh his deep suspicion of Iraq's bigger neighbor.

"Iran is interfering with us militarily, economically and politically," he says. "I've never in my life heard of a third country discussing Iraq's affairs with the invaders." Hussein refers to meetings that U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker has had with Iran's Ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi.

Although the United States and Tehran don't have diplomatic relations, Crocker said the Baghdad meetings were held to discuss only one topic – security in Iraq.

"We made it clear that the subject was security and stability in Iraq, not a broader agenda," Crocker says.

The United States has repeatedly accused Iran of meddling dangerously in Iraq.

Speaking in Baghdad earlier this month, Crocker said it's getting worse.

"We made it clear to the Iranians that in the two months since we had last met, we had actually seen an increase, not a decrease, of Iranian activities in support of radical militia elements and their violent activities directed against Iraqi security forces, Iraqi civilians and coalition forces," he said.

Talks Between Iraqi and Iranian Leaders

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been visiting with his Iranian counterpart, as well.

His talks with Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran, on the surface at least, were much warmer.

At a news conference in Washington, President Bush bristled somewhat on being told that Maliki had described Iran's stance as positive and constructive.

"Now, if the signal is that Iran is constructive, I will have to have a heart-to-heart with my friend the prime minister, because I don't believe they are constructive," Bush said. "I don't think he, in his heart-of-hearts, thinks they're constructive either."

Whatever Prime Minister Maliki has in his heart-of-hearts, it doesn't seem to be an unquestioning belief in Iran's good intentions.

NPR asked him recently whether Iran was doing all it could to ensure stability in his country.

"All it can do? I do not know," he said. "They promised us a lot in their last visit and expressed great readiness to do their best to prevent militants from crossing their borders and to prevent weapons from crossing."

Maliki is a Shiite and rose to power with the help of anti-American cleric Moqtada al Sadr, whose Mehdi Army militia is one of those the United States accuses of receiving money, weapons and training from Iran.

Iraqi attitudes toward Iran are shaped by sectarian perspectives.

Sunni politician Alla Mekki is a member of the Accordance Front, an umbrella group of Sunni parties that has withdrawn its members from Maliki's government.

Like many Sunnis, Mekki says he's anxious about what he sees as Iranian meddling.

"The evidences of interference are many, and the media announcing — the Americans are announcing all the time — and we hear and see many of the weapons discovered," he says. "It's Iranian-made even in the Sunni areas."

What Mekki alleges is that Iran is providing weapons to extremists on all sides of the conflict, with the intention of fueling the fighting and keeping U.S .forces tied down in Iraq.

That way, as the theory goes, Iran has less reason to fear that the United States will intervene to stop its nuclear program or its quest for greater influence in the region.

Unlike President Bush, though, Mekki endorses the idea of meetings between Iraq and Iran.

"And also there should be meetings between the USA leaders with Iranian leaders, rather than those sayings and statements between Mr. Bush and Ahmadinejad through the media," Mekki says.

But he also insists that Iraq must be a direct participant in those talks.

Iraqi Kurds Have Unique History with Iran

Iraq's Kurds are primarily Sunnis by religion, but they have a far more complicated relationship with Iran.

One of Saddam Hussein's reasons for his genocidal campaign against the Kurds in the late 1980s was that he believed Kurds were collaborating with Iran in the Iran-Iraq War.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zabari, an ethnic Kurd, disputes this view.

"We do believe (Iran's) interference in Iraq has never helped and it will always make things worse for us," he says." It will make the life much harder for us as Iraqis."

Zabari says the Iran-Iraq War is still a central part of the experience of Iraqis of all ethnic groups.

"Iraq and Iran have been at the war — took over eight years – and getting over that period, especially, will take time," he says. "So maybe the full trust is yet to be established with the two countries."

The two sides are thought to have lost more than a million men in the struggle.

In Iraq, it left a generation of widows and women who never could marry because there weren't enough available men.

And since the war ended less than 20 years ago, it's still a vivid memory for many Iraqis whose views were formed by years of unrelenting anti-Iranian propaganda.

Zabari also says Kurds have a special reason for concern about Iran — its alleged quest for nuclear weapons.

"We are one of the people who have suffered from the mass destruction weapons, just like it has happened in Halabja, which was chemical weapons was used against us," he says. "So we don't like anybody having this kind of mass destruction weapon because we are the face of people who have suffered from it."

No matter what happens with Iran's nuclear program, or its relations with the United States, the bottom line for Iraqis of all stripes is this: Iran will still be next door after the Americans have gone home.

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