Iraqi Leader Feels Out Relationship with Iran
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Two developments this week, an increase in violence in Baghdad and a visit by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to neighboring Iran, his first state visit there. The Iraqi prime minister, a member of the newly empowered Shiite Muslim majority in his country, used to live in Iran when he was in exile. He met with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad this week at a time when the U.S. accuses Iran of stoking sectarian conflict in Iraq by supporting Shiite militias.
Ray Takeyh has written extensively about Iran. He is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.
Mr. RAY TAKEYH (Council on Foreign Relations): Thank you.
SIEGEL: How would you describe the role that Iran now plays in Iraq?
Mr. TAKEYH: Well, it's rather an extensive role in the sense that Iran has a lot of pilgrims going over there, has increasing level of trade and, of course, on the more perhaps nefarious side, the Iranians are provision of arms and assistance to various Shia groups. So it a country that's trying to exert both political, economic and even cultural influence on its neighboring state.
SIEGEL: If Tehran could see an ideal result in its neighbor Iraq, what would that be and how would it conflict with what Washington would consider an ideal result in Iraq?
Mr. TAKEYH: Well, in some ways their visions are rather compatible in a sense that Iran would like to see Iraq remain as a cohesive state, territorially intact, dominated by a Shia majority. And the avenue of that domination would be the political process, particularly the electoral cycle, as opposed to violence or an insurgency.
SIEGEL: But does that mean that Iran sees its current support for Shiite parties and their militias as a temporary phase toward a more stable situation in Iraq or as something more enduring, like Iranian support for Hezbollah in southern Lebanon?
Mr. TAKEYH: Iran essentially views Iraq the same way it operated in Lebanon in the early 1980s, when it viewed the Shia community as potentially coming to power and has sought to organize the Shia community thereby, again, provision of economic assistance, financial assistance and yes, arms as well.
So in a sense what Iran is doing today in resembled very much what it did in the early 1980s in Lebanon when they tried to organize the Shia community into a strong component of a potential Lebanese government.
And that has worked and Hezbollah has emerged as a representative of the Shia community. It has maintained its militia and it's maintained its economic influence, social services and so forth. So the vision is the same.
SIEGEL: I'm trying to imagine if 25 years from now the Shiite militias in Iran enjoy as much autonomy in parts of the country as Hezbollah has enjoyed 25 years after the early 1980s in southern Lebanon. That doesn't sound like it will mark tremendous progress toward a strong central Iraqi government.
Mr. TAKEYH: Well, Iraq is not going to have a strong central government. Iraqi constitution itself recognizes that Iraq will have strong provisional governments and a weak central government. In the future in ideal terms Iraq is likely to have a federated structure, where there will be much autonomy for the provinces. The Kurds are not about to relinquish their autonomous structure.
And nevertheless, these contending federal enclaves would come together in the central government and deal with some core issues as well. But the future of Iraq as envisioned by the constitution and as developments on the ground are moving is likely to be a state with strong provinces and a weak central government.
SIEGEL: When the Iraqi prime minister goes to the Iranian president, President Ahmadinejad, and asks for some help in trying to cool things down in Iraq, is he asking somebody who is in a position to actually improve matters?
Mr. TAKEYH: Yes. And I should note that this is not the first time that Shia political leaders have come to Iran and ask it for to have a greater role in terms of mediating some of the disputes. Iran does have not just influence over the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution, it has influence over the Sauder movement.
And one thing that's not always discussed, and Iran has a rather good relationship with Kurdish leader Talabani and some of the members of the Kurdish community. So it's important and influential external power, whose good offices can be used for brokering deals and arrangements within Iraq's fractured system.
SIEGEL: So far as you know, does Washington, or for that matter Ambassador Khalilzad, the ranking ambassador in Baghdad, do they look kindly upon Prime Minister Maliki going to Tehran, or do they think he's walking out of bounds for an Iraqi leader?
Mr. TAKEYH: Well, I think there's been some degree of Washington being displeased with Prime Minister Maliki, and I think the close intimacy between the current Iraqi regime and Ahmadinejad government in Iran does tend to bother the United States. Americans did not invade Iraq in order to bolster Iranian power. The enlargement and enhancement of Iran's role in the region is not something that the United States sought, but it is a derivative of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
SIEGEL: That's Ray Takeyh, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Mr. Takeyh, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. TAKEYH: Sure, thank you.
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