IRANIAN President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrives in Bagh dad tomorrow for what both sides call an "historic visit."
He'll be the Islamic Republic's first president to visit Iraq and only
the second Iranian government head to do so in 32 years.
Under normal circumstances, an Iranian leader's visit to Iraq would arouse no apprehensions - but these are not normal times.
The two countries are neighbors linked by tight historic, religious and
cultural ties. And they share important water resources, not to mention
some of the world's richest oilfields sitting astride the border.
More than 90 percent of Iraqis live within 60 miles of the Iranian
frontier. Millions of Iraqis share blood ties with Iranian tribes and
clans across a 1,000-mile border. Shiites are 60 percent of Iraqis and
87 percent of Iranians.
And Shiites regard several Iraqi
cities as "holy." Since Saddam Hussein's 2003 fall, some 6 million
Iranians have visited these "holy" cities, nearly half of all visitors.
(Indeed, Ahmadinejad hopes the trip can improve his own position for
Iran's March 14 parliamentary elections. He wants TV footage of the
meeting he's requested with Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani,
Iraq's top Shiite clergyman. That would boost the visitor's religious
credentials and weaken the Iranian mullahs opposed to his radical
Iran also has emerged as Iraq's biggest foreign
investor, mostly via religious endowments and private venture-capital
groups. (One example, former Islamic President Hashemi Rafsanjani,
reputedly the richest man in Iran, is reportedly investing $150 million
in new hotel facilities in Najaf, the main Shiite "holy" city.)
Iran-Iraq trade, estimated at less than $1 billion a year before
Saddam's fall, has risen tenfold, partly via smuggling networks with
cross-border political connections.
Arab countries have
virtually boycotted post-liberation Iraq - enabling Iran to project
itself as the only Muslim power sympathetic to the sufferings of the
Iraqis under Ba'athist tyranny.
Iran's ties with some of
Iraq's new leaders precede the Khomeinist regime. Iran started
supporting Iraqi Kurds against successive Baghdad regimes as early as
1958. The Al-Daawa (The Call) party, of which Prime Minister Nouri
al-Maliki is a member, was created with Iranian financial, political
and religious support in the early '60s. Iraq's main Shiite political
group, the Supreme Assembly of Islam in Iraq, was founded in Iran with
the Islamic Republic' support in 1981.
Yet there are those abnormal circumstances.
depends on the United States for protection against domestic and
foreign enemies. As long as a danger existed that Iraq might fall to
radical Arab Sunni groups led by al Qaeda, Tehran didn't object to that
dependence. Now, however, the picture is different.
possibility of al Qaeda and its allies winning recedes, Iran is
starting to focus on the prospect that a Shiite-dominated but
pro-American Iraq might offer Iranians a rival model. So the Islamic
Republic has determined not to let the Americans and their Iraqi allies
succeed beyond defeating al Qaeda and the Sunni insurgency.
As Ahmadinejad has put it several times, Tehran won't allow Iraq to have an "American future."
In Tehran's eyes, America's historic mission was to remove the
Khomeinist regime's mortal enemy Saddam from power so that Iran could
But Maliki and the other new Iraqi leaders don't want
their country to become an Iranian satellite; they're trying to
negotiate a long-term arrangement to keep America committed to Iraq
until it can defend itself.
Ahmadinejad believes the United
States lacks the staying power to consolidate its victory in Iraq.
Encouraged by Sen. Barack Obama's promise to withdraw all US troops by
the end of 2009 if he wins the White House (which the Iranians expect
him to do), Ahmadinejad's message to Iraqis is simple: The Americans are leaving, wouldn't you like to join our side?
During his visit, Ahmadinejad is expected to offer billions in aid and
investment. (Still unknown: Will he travel to Samarrah, where the
"Hidden Imam" is believed to have disappeared in a well in 941 AD? Al
Qaeda destroyed the golden-domed mosque housing the well more than two
years ago. Ahmadinejad, who claims the "Hidden Imam" blesses his
administration, has promised to rebuild it.)
Ahmadinejad will also offer military assistance, including troops, to replace "the fleeing Americans."
Those promises come coupled with implicit threats. Last week, Iraqi
police uncovered an Iranian-sponsored plot to kill Basra Gov. Muhammad
al-Wanli and his brother. Also last week, Tehran ordered Muqtada al
Sadr, one of its pawns on the Iraqi chessboard, to issue a public
threat that his Mahdi Army would break a self-imposed cease-fire and
resume killing anti-Tehran elements.
This visit will let
Iraqis take a close look at Ahmadinejad. He hopes they'll find him a
model to follow; Iraqi leaders hope that he'll appear more like a