With President Mahmud Ahmadinejad set to pay a landmark visit to Iraq on March 2 -- the first by an Iranian leader since the 1979 Islamic revolution -- history's ironies are running thick and fast.
Two decades ago, after an eight-year war with Iraq that consumed some 1 million lives, Tehran stood largely defeated. Iran's ruling clerics, bitter foes of the United States, had achieved none of their war aims: they had failed to topple Saddam Hussein, to secure a border treaty, or to extract war reparations from Iraq.
Unlike the prostrate power it was in 1988, Tehran today is the most influential regional actor in Iraq. Its clout in Iraq extends across the board: in economic, political, security, and religious ties that deepen by the day -- despite the ongoing presence of some 158,000 U.S. troops nearly five years after the invasion. So influential is Iran in Iraq's Shi'ite regions that a leading British daily ran a darkly humorous headline over a story last year about the southern city of Al-Basrah: "Welcome to Tehran."
"If you travel to southern Iraq, you'll see it is the only place in the world, apart from Iran itself, where the Iranian currency, the rial, is used," says Anoushiravan Ehtashami, a professor of international relations at Britain's University of Durham. "That demonstrates Tehran's economic influence on its neighbor. Today, many personalities in Iraq's military and religious circles are those who were expelled from Iraq or threatened by Saddam Hussein. Iran offered them asylum and freedom. Some of them have families in Iran. It was obvious that when these people took power after Saddam, they wouldn't look south, north, or west. They would look east -- and they would see Iran."
Ahmadinejad's two-day trip -- which comes amid a major Shi'ite religious event in the holy city of Karbala attended by hundreds of thousands of Iranian pilgrims -- appears intended to drive home the message that Tehran is a major regional power able to play a positive, or negative, role in the neighboring Arab state. It is a message aimed in particular at Washington, which accuses Iran of arming and supporting Iraqi Shi'ite militias behind a number of attacks, including on U.S. forces.
Ahmadinejad's visit to Baghdad is also seen as a show of Iranian support for the Shi'ite-led government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. In another twist of irony, that same government's chief ally and security guarantor is the United States. Ahmadinejad is scheduled to hold talks with al-Maliki and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Other details of his visit, such as whether he will travel to holy sites at Karbala or Al-Najaf, are less clear.
But officials from both countries are expected to sign several bilateral agreements, including on oil, energy, and transportation, and investment. They are also expected to acknowledge progress made toward settling a border dispute and formalizing a peace treaty to replace the cease-fire that ended the war in July 1988.
For its part, the United States has sought to characterize the Iranian leader's visit as part of normal neighborly relations. "This is a bilateral visit," Philip Reeker, a spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, said this week. "These two countries need to have a relationship."
The United States has repeatedly accused Iran of fomenting instability in Iraq. In May 2007, Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, held the first of three rounds of unprecedented talks in Baghdad with Iranian officials. Crocker said the talks focused on Washington's "direct, specific concerns about their behavior in Iraq, their support for militias that are fighting both the Iraqi security forces and coalition forces, the fact that a lot of the explosives and ammunition that are used by these groups are coming in from Iran, that such activities, led by the [Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps'] Qods Force, needed to cease and that we would be looking for results."
The United States was also looking forward to a fourth round of talks, scheduled for mid-February. But at Iran's request, those talks were canceled. No date for a new meeting was given.
Aziz Jabur Shayal, a professor of political science at Baghdad's Al-Mustansiriyah University, says Ahmadinejad's visit has as much to do with Iran's ties with Iraq as it does with Tehran's troubles with Washington. Faced with intense international pressure over its nuclear program, including a possible vote on March 1 by the UN Security Council on fresh sanctions against Iran, "Iran has problems with the United States and with the world -- that is why it is seeking any outlet to relieve it of international pressure," Shayal says.
"That is why Iran is turning to Iraq in order to show the world that is a cooperative country, that it is regionally important, and that it has influence in Iraq that enables it to play either a negative or positive role that would affect American strategy and policy," Shayal adds. "This visit is aimed along these lines, in addition to bilateral cooperation. The visit is aimed at crisis management, or at managing relations between the United States and Iran."
Besides Iran's impact on Iraqi politics and security, there are growing economic ties, some of them related to the religious bonds the countries share.
Hundreds of thousands of Iranian pilgrims travel yearly to Iraqi Shi'ite shrines. Iran is building an airport for pilgrims to fly to Al-Najaf and Karbala, where millions of Shi'a gathered on February 28 to celebrate Arba'in, a religious ritual that marks the death in 680 of Imam Husayn, the Prophet Muhammad's grandson.
Still, not everyone in Iraq is thrilled with the economic results of what U.S. scholar Vali Nasr has dubbed the "Shi'ite Revival."
In interviews with RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq, hotel operators in Karbala this week complained that Iranians receive cut-rate deals arranged by an Iranian tour operator, the Shamsa Company, that has cornered the market. Adal Ra'uf, one hotel owner, echoes others in saying Iraqis would prefer to receive more Arab visitors.
"The rates paid by the Iranian pilgrims are very low and are not in proportion with the services provided to them," about $15 for one night with three meals, Ra'uf says. "Gulf visitors are paying between $30 and $50 for the same services. Hotel costs are very high: generator-fuel is commercial, as are consumables in the hotel, in addition to the cost of labor and foodstuffs."
Some Iraqi small-business men also complain that Iran has imposed stiff taxes on goods bought in Iraq, while flooding Iraqi markets with cheaply made Iranian goods. They say Iraq's government has done little to rectify a trade imbalance that one analyst told Radio Free Iraq may earn Tehran up to $7 billion a year.
But others note that Iranian investment is vital to Iraq's revival. "Trade relations between Iran and Iraq, particularly in Kurdistan, go back a long way," says Taha Zangana, a senior official with the Investment Agency of northern Iraq's Kurdish region. "We want a real partnership in investments, and I believe the Iranian president is bringing a proposal for investment in the Iraqi governorates bordering Iran. It calls for bold and willing Iranian firms to come to Kurdistan and embark on major business activity."
With contributions from RFE/RL's Radio Farda in Prague and Radio Free Iraq correspondents in Baghdad, Karbala, and Irbil.
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