Building bridges

Published : Apr 11, 2008 00:00 IST

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (left) with his Iraqi counterpart Jalal Talabani at a reception in Baghdad on March 2.-DAVID FURST/AFP Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (left) with his Iraqi counterpart Jalal Talabani at a reception in Baghdad on March 2.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (left) with his Iraqi counterpart Jalal Talabani at a reception in Baghdad on March 2.-DAVID FURST/AFP Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (left) with his Iraqi counterpart Jalal Talabani at a reception in Baghdad on March 2.

Ahmadinejads landmark diplomatic foray into Iraq proves Irans expanding influence in the Gulf region.

PRESIDENT Mahmoud Ahmadinejads two-day visit to Iraq from March 2 was the first ever by an Iranian head of state to the country and the first by any regional head of state since the American occupation of Iraq five years ago. Unlike United States President George W. Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Ahmadinejad did not undertake a stealth visit. Nor was he airlifted in utmost secrecy to the high-security Green Zone or to a military base. He appeared in full public glare and drove down the highway of death, as the road connecting Baghdad airport and the capital city is called.

Ahmadinejad was greeted on arrival by his Iraqi counterpart Jalal Talabani and other top officials of the Iraqi government. U.S. military personnel and diplomats were nowhere in sight. The Iraqi government had provided a contingent of 30,000 troops for the visiting Presidents security. The security detail included 1,000 militiamen of Pesh Merga, the Kurdish group that treated Saddam Husseins Baathist government as its sworn enemy.

Talabanis faction of Kurds had fought alongside Iran against Saddam. Iraqi Kurds are also supposed to be staunch allies of the Americans. Talabanis effusive words of welcome for the visiting dignitary must have come as a shock to them. He even proposed that Ahmadinejad address him as Uncle Jalal to symbolise the closeness of their relationship.

Diplomatic niceties did not prevent Ahmadinejad from launching a broadside against the U.S. With Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki by his side, he declared that Iraqis had no liking for the Americans.

The presence of foreigners in the region has been to the detriment of the nations of the region. It is nothing but a humiliation. The people of this region have got nothing from the occupation except damage, sabotage, destruction, insults and degradation. We believe that the forces that came from overseas and travelled thousands of kilometres to reach here must leave the region, he said.

Al-Maliki described his talks with the Iranian President as friendly, positive and full of trust.

During the course of his visit, Ahmadinejad pledged to strengthen further his countrys economic and political ties with Iraq. Teheran has pledged $1 billion for the reconstruction of Iraqs shattered infrastructure. Iran already is Iraqs biggest trading partner. Most of Iraqs imports are now from Iran.

Bilateral trade between the countries already is over $8 billion annually. Among other things, Ahmadinejad promised to supply power from the Bushehr nuclear power plant when it is completed. The Bush administration has been alleging that the Bushehr plant is part of Teherans clandestine nuclear programme.

Ahmadinejads visit symbolised the dramatic changes that have taken place in the relations between the two neighbours. Iran and Iraq were at loggerheads from the late 1950s. The Sunni-dominated governments in Baghdad looked at Iran with suspicion.

During the reign of the pro-Western Shah of Iran, the U.S. used Iran as a base to destabilise the secular governments in Baghdad. The Arab-Persian rivalry was exploited to the hilt by many key players of global politics. However, better sense seems to prevail in the region today. Iran was for the first time invited to a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council late last year. Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said recently that more efforts should be made to solidify Saudi-Iranian relations and that both sides should stand vigilantly against all conspiracies.

Relations between Baghdad and Teheran took a long time to mend. Both sides lost more than a million people in the senseless eight-year war. The late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini said that ending the war without inflicting a comprehensive defeat on Saddam Hussein was like drinking from the poisoned chalice. Iraq never recovered from that war. Saddam Hussein was deserted by his fair-weather friends in Washington and in the Arab capitals. The first Gulf War in 1991 set in motion the chain of events that led to the occupation of Iraq by the Americans.

Although the Iranian government formally condemned the American invasion of Iraq, it was not saddened by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. For that matter, it had no love lost for the Taliban either, another sworn enemy of the Islamic Republic. Iran had not stood in the way of the overthrow of the fundamentalist regime in Kabul.

The ouster of Saddam Hussein and the secular Baath government left a big political vacuum in Iraq. And as many knowledgeable commentators had predicted, it was inevitable that the parties representing the Shias, who comprise more than 60 per cent of the population, should emerge at the top.

Most of the Iraqi leaders who are in power today had lived in exile in Iran. They returned only after the Americans had rid Iraq of the Baathists. The largest political parties in Iraq today are the pro-Iranian Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Dawa.

In short, the American invasion of Iraq presented Iran with a win-win situation in the region. From being an enemy, Iran was transformed overnight into a friend and benefactor of Iraq. Washington had very little choice in the matter. The cooperation of the pro-Iran Shia parties was essential for the Bush administration to stave off at least temporarily the inevitable political and military defeat that the U.S. occupation faced in Iraq.

The neoconservatives in Washington had hoped that the occupation of Iraq would have a domino effect, climaxing in the total domination of the region and control over its hydrocarbon wealth. Iran, the second axis of evil country, was next on the U.S. radar. But all evidence until now indicates that the Bush administration has shot itself in the foot.

The $5 billion the U.S. spent every month to finance the Iraqi occupation has gone down the drain. Paul Stiglitz, winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, has estimated that this year the war in Iraq could cost the U.S. $12 billion every month.

Bush, though, is not admitting defeat. In his latest State of the Union message, he reiterated the need for American troops to stay on in Iraq. Otherwise, he said, it would strengthen Iran. Top Bush administration officials, meanwhile, continue to insist that Iran is arming and training Iraqi resistance forces, without providing any clinching evidence.

In his speech, Bush once again threatened Iran: America will confront those who threaten our troops. We will stand by our allies, and we will defend our vital interests in the Gulf. On his recent trip to West Asia, Bush kept harping on Irans being a threat to world peace and the worlds leading sponsor of terror.

The threats from Washington do not seem to worry Teheran too much. The U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), released last year, removed any imminent threat of an American military attack, notwithstanding the presence of three U.S. aircraft carriers in the Gulf. Iran has also been seemingly unruffled by the passage of the third round of United Nations Security Council sanctions in the first week of March.

The new sanctions are an incremental increase on the ones proposed in the Security Council meetings of December 2006 and March 2007. Russia and China saw to it that the tougher sanctions sought by the U.S. did not go through.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry characterised the Security Council action as one based on political intentions and double standards. The statement noted that the Security Council ignored the February 22 report of Mohamed ElBaradei, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief. The IAEA report had no mention of Iran diverting its nuclear research for military purposes. The IAEA had also not proposed any sanctions on Iran.

In the wake of the latest U.N. sanctions, Teheran has announced that it would no longer hold talks with the EU3 (France, Germany and Britain) on the nuclear issue. All further negotiations, the Iranian government has emphasised, will only be held with the IAEA.

If you want to continue on the path of sanctions, we will be not harmed. They can issue resolutions for a hundred years, a defiant Ahmadinejad said in a television address after the latest round of sanctions.

Iran had indicated to the EU3 that it would be willing to suspend its uranium enrichment activities provided security guarantees were forthcoming from the West and the threat of pre-emptive action was removed. The U.S. had committed in the 1980 Algiers Accord (which ended the American hostage crisis) of not interfering in the internal affairs of Iran, either politically or militarily.

The results of a BBC World Service opinion poll released in the second week of March showed that international public opinion was overwhelmingly in favour of a diplomatic solution to stop Irans nuclear programme. Economic sanctions or military strikes were not favoured by the majority of those polled.

India was one of the countries surveyed in the poll. Most Indians are for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear debate involving Iran.

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