Ever since the allied occupation of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein in March 2003, Iran has been regarded by the Americans as well as by the new Iraqi leaders installed by Washington as a destabilizing power. Iran has been accused of harboring, financing, organizing and allowing its soil to be used by the terrorists operating against Iraq in the post-Saddam era. The most minimal charge that has been brought against Iran is that it is not preventing the insurgents from crossing its border and entering into Iraq.
The Iraqi information minister, Hazem Shalan, a staunch opponent of Iran, has repeatedly accused the Islamic regime of interfering in Iraqi affairs and supporting the terrorists operating against Iraq. During a press conference in January 2005 he repeated the charges against Iran and Syria and stated angrily that "Iraq, too, could bring to the streets of Tehran and Damascus the violence which these countries are causing on the streets of Iraqi cities. But Baghdad would refrain from taking such decisions against its neighbors". Both the Iraqi president and the prime minister have accused Iran of interfering in Iraq.
These Iraqi officials are not the only Arab leaders expressing anger or anxiety about the alleged Iranian role in Iraq’s future. The Saudi and Kuwaiti leaders have been anxious about Iran’s goals in Iraq, particularly the prospect of an Iraq run by an Iranian-backed radical Shi’ite regime. The Jordanian leader King Abdullah recently accused Iran of trying to create a "Shi’ite crescent, which would include Iran, Iraq and Lebanon". His remarks were so offensive in the eyes of the Islamic leaders in Tehran that the Iranian foreign minister boycotted the Amman gathering attended by Iraq’s neighbors as well as Egypt at the beginning of January 2005.
Iran’s interests and desires in Iraq have been grossly misunderstood, and Iran’s real intentions in Iraq have been marred by all kinds of misinterpretations and allegations. Before analyzing what Iran wants and does not want in Iraq, we must note that opinions are divided inside the Islamic regime. There are certainly some Iranians who look upon Iraq as a battlefield with the "Great Satan", the United States: now that the Americans have made the mistake of entering Iraq, they must not be allowed to depart so easily. In other words, these Iranians perceive the Iraqi situation broadly in terms of the ongoing 25-year conflict between Islamic Iran and the US.
This is by no means a majority view among the Islamic leaders, nor is it shared by many other Iranians. In fact many Iranians have argued that the US involvement in Iraq has created a unique opportunity for both countries to resolve their differences and cooperate with one another toward a prosperous and stable Iraq, which would be in Iran’s long-term interests.
With regard to the future Iraqi government, once again the Iranians are not united. Certainly there are some hardliners among the conservatives who desire to see a radical Shi’ite regime with a strong anti-western and particularly anti-US stance. They would love to see an Iranian velayat-e faghi regime in Iraq. The majority of Iranians, however, would prefer to see a democratically-elected government in Iraq with friendly ties to Iran.
The important question is "what is the Islamic regime doing in Iraq?" Is Tehran carrying out an active anti-Iraqi policy as claimed by some of the present Iraqi officials? Are the Iranian leaders trying to install a Shi’ite-dominated government in Iraq in order to suppress the country’s Sunni minority, as claimed by some Arab leaders?
Surprising as it may sound, the answer to both questions is negative. Of course many Iranians realize that if Washington could put the Iraqi crisis behind it, it would pursue a much tougher approach toward Iran than it is currently following. But this does not mean Iran would actively support the insurgents in Iraq, for the obvious reason that Iran is aware that the bulk of the Iraqi Shi’ites oppose the insurgency since it is led by hardline Sunnis both from within and outside of Iraq.
Caught between two opposing forces, namely an anti-US desire on the one hand and the long-term future of Iraqi Shi’ites on the other, even the hardline Iranian leaders have opted for the latter. While in the beginning Tehran dismissed any American-organized elections as a sham and an attempt to install an American puppet in Iraq, that line has been abandoned and the Iranian media, including the state-run radio and television, have adopted a strongly pro-elections attitude.
In other words, even hardline Iranians have realized that stability, security and law and order in Iraq serve their ultimate objectives there far better than suicide bombings and violence. The position adopted by the Iraqi Shi’ites, notably Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, was instrumental in changing the attitude of the Islamic leaders. Of course the Iranians are still showing their excitement at every US failure in Iraq. But the important point is they have realized that the future of Iraq is through the ballot box and not suicide bombings.
As for the charge of trying to create a Shi’ite regime in Iraq to suppress the Sunnis there, this too is naive and simplistic. Iran certainly prefers to see a Shi’ite regime in Iraq. But we must not forget that Iranian leaders are as motivated politically as they are religiously. That is to say, for them the anti-western and anti-American stance is as important as being Shi’ite. The last thing on the mind of Iranian leaders in trying to establish a Shi’ite-dominated regime in Iraq would be to suppress Iraqi Sunnis, particularly insofar as the latter prove to be anti-American.
Even the hardliners among Iranian leaders have realized that what Iran failed to achieve through eight years of war with Iraq, may be realized through another means: a democratic election in that country.