The complex relationship between Iran and Iraq stands at the heart of two of the thorniest issues confronting President Barack Obama during his first few months in office.
While the new administration has signaled its interest in engaging elements of Iran's government, it is dealing with a regime that was emboldened by the United States’ post-invasion setbacks in Iraq and possibly pursuing nuclear weapons. Complicating matters is Tehran'sbellicose stance toward Israel and its support of Islamist militant factions elsewhere in the Middle East, including in Iraq, Lebanon and even the Palestinian territories.
For its part, Iraq is still grappling with militants while at the same time trying to form a stable government and balance the competing interests of Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and others. It also faces the possibility of an upsurge in violence as thousands of American troops leave the country in the coming months and years, in line with the 2008 security agreement between the United States and Iraq.
Iran and Iraq also have a unique relationship with each other. The neighbors hold regular security meetings, underlining their ongoing ties. Meanwhile, the Pentagon accuses Iran of supplying militias in Iraq with improvised explosive devices — particularly the especially lethal armor-piercing variety.
Given that Iran is predominantly Shiite and now ruled by a theocratic government, in contrast to Iraq where Sunnis, until the U.S. invasion, long ruled the Shiite majority, the schism between the major branches of Islam has played a major role in relations between the countries. This split dates back to disputes over the succession to the Prophet Mohammed. For the Shiites, Mohammed's son-in-law Ali was the rightful heir to the Prophet, while the Sunnis followed his father-in-law Abu Bakr, who became the first Caliph.
And while ethnically and linguistically distinct — Iran’s population is predominantly Persian and Farsi-speaking, while Iraq’s is dominated by Arabic-speaking Arabs — the two share an intertwining history and a border spanning about 1,000 miles.
Different but next door
The history of Iran, formerly known as Persia, spans many centuries. Its rulers battled the ancient Greeks and its series of empires have stretched as far as western and central Asia and the Caucasus Mountains.
In contrast, Iraq as part of the larger Arab "nation" has been a recognized and distinct country for a much shorter time. Even so, the area known for centuries in Europe as Mesopotamia has in the region been referred to as al-‘Iraq — the shore of a great river and the grazing land around it — since about the eighth century.
Sunni vs. Shiite
It has been Iraq’s fate to be caught in the middle between Persia and subsequent competing powers, according to Middle East expert Dr. Jubin Goodarzi, the author of the "Syria and Iran: Diplomatic Alliance and Power Politics in the Middle East."
“Both during the Romans and the Ottomans, Iraq became a battleground of empires," he says.
An important turning point for both came in 1501 when Shiite Islam became the state religion in Persia (Shiite Islam is distinct from the religion’s other major branch, Sunni Islam). Najaf and Karbala in Iraq, two of Shiite Islam’s most important centers, for which Iran pays for much of the upkeep, are still visited by thousands of Iranian pilgrims and clerics every year, as well as local Iraqi Shiites.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, Iraq became part of the Sunni Ottoman Empire, which stood in contrast to Persia’s Shiite one. Ottoman control over Iraq waxed and waned over the centuries but was finally relinquished in the years following the end of World War I in 1918 and the empire’s subsequent dismantlement. While Iraq was considered a backwater province during Ottoman times, Sunnis were elevated as the local ruling class. The British followed suit.
The victorious European powers carved up Ottoman holdings, with the British occupying the cities of Baghdad, Mosul and Basra in Iraq. In 1920, the League of Nations granted the United Kingdom the mandate for Iraq, and borders were drawn between the countries with little consideration to the communities being split up by them. Subsequent revolts were suppressed and Prince Faisal bin Husain al-Hashemi was placed on the throne within two years.
In 1932, the League of Nations granted Iraq its independence, although Britain left Iraq’s Sunnis very much in charge.
Path to revolution
During World War I, Persia was the scene of intense fighting despite having declared its neutrality, and the decades between the wars were also defined by great political tumult. By 1941, by which time it had changed its name to Iran, the country had sided with the Axis powers, leading to a brief Anglo-Russian occupation of the country at the end of the war.
Its great size, natural resources and, especially, its strategic position on the Caspian Sea ensured that Iran would be a battleground between the Soviet Union and the United States early on in the Cold War.
In 1950, nationalist Mohammad Mossadeq became prime minister of Iran, which led to tension with pro-Western Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who fled the country to Iraq in 1953. Later that same year, the intelligence services of Britain and the United States, which feared that Tehran might turn toward Moscow during that crucial stage of the Cold War, helped engineer a coup that deposed Mossadeq and reinstalled the shah.
While there was some tension between Iran and Iraq in the 1940s and 1950s, the countries were mostly governed by conservative, pro-Western regimes.
That changed dramatically in 1958 when a military coup deposed Iraq’s monarchy and established a republic. The secular Sunni government became a center of Arab nationalism, and in the following years struggled to grapple with and suppress its Kurdish minority and largely disenfranchised Shiite majority. Iran maintained ties to both restive groups during this time.
In neighboring Iran, the shah embarked on a modernizing and westernizing campaign in 1963, but in the process became increasingly dependent on the country’s brutal secret police. The shah’s policies alienated the clergy, and later the middle classes and the poor, which led to strikes, riots and mass demonstrations.
It was the shah’s repression of populist democratic movements that led to widespread resentment not only against the regime but also his backers, namely the Americans.
Meanwhile, relations between the two countries soured as Iran lent support to the Kurds in the north of Iraq. Iraq, in turn, aided Iranian Kurds.
During this time the conservative Shiite clergyman Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Ruhhollah Musavi Khomeini, a long-time opponent of the shah, was sent into exile for about 14 years. Khomeini spent most of this time in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf, which posed a challenge to Iraq's government given the problems it was having with its own Shiite population. Ultimately, then-Vice President Saddam Hussein forced Khomeini to leave the country in 1978.
1979: A catalyst
The year 1979 was momentous for both Iraq and Iran. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein consolidated his rule of the Baath Party in a bloody putsch that eliminated possible competitors.
It was also the year that the shah and his family were forced into exile and the Iranian revolution installed a theocratic state led by Khomeini. Following the abduction of 52 American hostages in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the country found itself largely isolated internationally. (The hostages were released after 444 days.)
The toppling of the shah’s secular, pro-Western regime had a major impact not only on Iran’s standing in the world but also its relations with Iraq.
“The Iranian revolution was a catalyst, and it changed the equation overnight,” says Goodarzi. Saddam benefitted by convincing the West that he was a follower of the foreign policy doctrine that "my enemy’s enemy is my friend" and shored up support for his rule internationally.
From that time on the relationship between the two countries was defined by Iraq's Baathist secular Sunni government versus Iran's theocratic Shiite one, he says, although several events paved the way to hostilities breaking out.
In 1980, an Iran-backed militant Shiite group tried to kill Iraq's foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, and was suspected of trying to kill the minister of culture and information. The response was swift and ruthless: more than 40,000 Shiites of Iranian origin were deported. The government later executed Shiite religious leader Ayatollah Sayyid Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr, and his sister, Bint al-Huda.
During this time, Saddam tried and failed to sever the close ties between the religious hubs of Najaf and Karballah in Iraq and Qom in Iran.
Tensions soon spilled over into outright war when Saddam invaded Iran in September 1980. The war’s ostensible reason was to settle a border dispute involving the Shatt al-Arab waterway, or Arvand-Round in Farsi, which runs into the Persian Gulf and helps delineate the border between Iraq and Iran.
Saddam saw the Iranian revolution as an existential threat to his ambitions of making Iraq the dominant power in the Persian Gulf, and by the regime’s links with Shiite hierarchy, Kurdish rebels and Islamic organizations within Iraq. Many also see the war as yet another phase in an ancient struggle between the Persians and Arabs.
Saddam had reason to feel confident that the war would be short and Iraq victorious — his intelligence services reported that the Imperial Iranian Army was in shambles after most of its highest ranking officers were executed. It also lacked parts for its American-made weapons and equipment. Rallied against that was Saddam’s huge and well-organized and army.
The West also supported Saddam, knowing that the war would preoccupy the Iranians from exporting their revolution elsewhere in the Middle East, especially in Saudi Arabia. Saddam had something else on its side: In 1975, the U.S. government had helped Iraq get the technology to build a chemical warfare plant. It is widely believed that these were eventually used on Iraqi Kurds and Iranian border towns.
The new Iranian regime saw the war as a test to the government, which helped mobilize society. But here too there were miscalculations. Khomeini counted on Shiites, who constituted the bulk of Iraqi conscripts, to defect. He was disappointed when it became clear that most Iraqi Shiites saw themselves as Iraqis and Arabs first.
So instead of a swift victory for Iraq, the war dragged on for eight years, shattered both countries’ economies and left hundreds of thousand, if not more than 1 million, dead. The two countries agreed a truce in 1988.
Iraq and Kuwait
Saddam was not done with war, however, and in 1990 invaded and annexed Kuwait.
This effort came to an end when U.S.-led forces liberated the small Gulf state and invaded Iraq. While American troops did not occupy the country, Shiites saw an opportunity and rose up against Saddam at the end of the war. The revolt was crushed by the government, which had stayed in power. What followed was over a decade of international sanctions and isolation, with the Kurdish north of the country given increasing autonomy.
Iran and Iraq also resumed diplomatic ties in 1990, although both remained in relative international isolation during the following decade given their alleged pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.
While Iran may have been alarmed at the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 — it already had the United States close in Afghanistan, which borders Iran to the east, after the Taliban was toppled by U.S.-led troops — it is generally agreed that the government feels it has gained from the new status quo.
“For Iran, Iraq has always been an important neighbor, and now it has a government that is friendly, that is important to them — they could not have asked for anything better,” Goodarzi says.
Iran has several reasons to be pleased with the government of Iraq: The government is dominated by a Shiite bloc, with a prime minister who is a member of the al-Dawa party, which has long been supported by Iran; the countries have conducted high-level security meetings, culminating in March of 2008 with an unprecedented visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Iraq. During his visit, he called on foreign troops to leave and said his country wanted to help rebuild Iraq.
“But at the same time, because of animosity between Iran and Washington, Iran is basically sticking its hands in the Iraqi pie as a way to say to Washington 'We can cause trouble if you don't stop causing trouble in other areas,'" Goodarzi says.
“Causing trouble” could mean the assumed support for Shiite militias that have allegedly received Iranian weapons, which have been used to kill not only Iraqis but Americans. Iran is also assumed to be supporting Muqtada al-Sadr, a firebrand cleric who comes from a prominent line of religious leaders but whose militias have long battled the foreign forces. Tehran denies that it is training and arming militias in Iraq.
Goodarzi says that by its actions in Iraq, Iran is telling the United States: "If you continue this way we can cause mischief here or there.”
“It is a very complex game,” he says.