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Iraq and Iran: From Foes to Confidantes

7/1/2019 4:07:00 PM

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Luqman Hma Salih
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On the evening of September 22, 1980, with a sonic boom four fighter jets unexpectedly passed over our home in Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdistan Region. That night my whole family was sitting in front of the television, Saddam Hussein appeared on the screen and declared war between Iraq and Iran. That war was the longest war of the 20th century, starting in September 1980 and ending with him being defeated in August 1988. However, after eight years of being foes, now the two countries are allied.

Even though the Iraqi leaders distinctly do not dare say that they are allied with Iran, sometimes their maddening remarks against the United States are evidence of sympathy for Iran. In addition, the fact that the red, white, and green flag of Iran’s revolutionary government billows over some buildings and on some military vehicles is symbol of a clear intervention by Iran in Iraq. But, Iraqi Shia leaders know as well as that the United States has been close to coming into conflict with Iran and they are scared to death as their co-religionists might get annihilated. 

The Iran-Iraq War bankrupted both nations during the 1980s and all the world demanded a ceasefire. But they did not listen to anyone, so a price was paid by millions of innocent Iranians and Iraqis. In my opinion, the continuation of this battle was because the Shia doctrine did not circulate fully within the Iraqi and Iranian nations. Additionally, Saddam Hussein did not allow the conflict between Shia and Sunni to be widespread, but nevertheless persecuted Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, who was an Iraqi Shia cleric, because Hussein felt directly threatened by the Islamic Dawa Party in Iraq. As a result, on April 9, 1980, by Hussein’s decision, al-Sadr and his sister were killed after being severely tortured by the Baath regime.

As for how the Shia became a part of the quarrelsomeness in the region, Iran was becoming a foe of the Gulf countries. If the regime of Iran could gain regional influence, Sunni Gulf states worried about a similar scenario to the Iranian Revolution repeating itself in Iraq. The Iraqi Shia masses could go to the streets to praise Allah and then occupy the roads, government buildings, and police stations, as happened in Iran. The Gulf countries soon leaned towards Iraq and became the closest allies of the Baath regime, encouraging Hussein to attack Iran. As a result, the war was anticipated by the Gulf regimes.

As for Iran, it had the same sense of looming conflict, according to correspondence between Saddam Hussein and Ruhollah Khomeini. Iran had been working towards that war since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s overthrow of Mohammad Reza Shah in February 1979. Saddam sent a congratulatory message to Khomeini on the success of the revolution and wished that relations between them would be based on the principles of the Islamic religion, including good-neighborliness. Khomeini interpreted from the letter that Saddam was afraid of him because of the assumption that a large proportion of the Iraqi people would support the overthrow of the Ba’ath regime if Khomeini called for it, as he had lived in Iraq for thirteen years. Khomeini replied to Saddam with a letter that was full of threats and promises to seal it with a phrase "peace be upon those who follow true guidance" – a phrase known to be used with non-Muslims as an insult.

After years of hostilities between the two countries, that aggressiveness has turned to friendship. Iranian leaders have toed the line of violating Iraq sovereignty with their familiarity. But over the years, that friendship and cooperation has become a threat to the United States’ interests. The US has felt that Iraq will almost become a part of a threat to the oil-rich Gulf States. Iraq relies on 90% of its economy to export oil, so that economy is a great source of fund to support the Popular Mobilization Force, which is blatantly controlled by a special unit in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the Quds force.

Regrettably, the fall of Saddam Hussein caused the Shia to find a pole of support, which was the Iranian regime. Iran sought to widen the division between the Sunni and Shia communities. This prompted Iraqi Shia to emphasize sectarian identity at the expense of the ideology.

Iran considers Iraq a natural ally because much of Iraq’s population is Shia, allowing them to monopolize political influences in Iraq. Conversely, no one believes that the United States can turn a blind eye to this policy. When the Bush administration dislodged Saddam, the Shia leaders found friendship from the United States, but after that they were delighted to meet an old friend in Iran and have come to see the United States as a strange mass on their land.

Luqman Hma Salih is a Kurdish writer and student at the Minnesota State Community and Technical College in the United States. You can reach him at  luqman.hmasalih@go.minnesota.edu

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of NRT.