IT had been billed as a "triumph" for the Islamic Re public and "a
slap in the face of the American Great Satan." However, President
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's two-day state visit to Iraq last weekend showed
the limits of Iranian influence in the newly liberated country.
Weeks of hard work by Iranian emissaries and pro-Iran
elements in Iraq were supposed to ensure massive crowds thronging the
streets of Baghdad and throwing flowers on the path of the visiting
Iranian leader. Instead, no more than a handful of Iraqis turned up for
the occasion. The numbers were so low that the state-owned TV channels
in Iran decided not to use the footage at all.
Instead, much larger crowds gathered to protest
Ahmadinejad's visit. In the Adhamiya district of Baghdad, several
thousand poured into the streets with cries of "Iranian aggressor, go
The visit's highlight was supposed to be a pilgrimage to
Karbala and Najaf, the "holiest" of Shiite cities in Iraq. There,
Ahmadinejad was supposed to become the first Iranian government leader
since 1976 to pray at the mausoleums of Imam Hussein and Imam Ali.
In the end, however, the tour was canceled amid reports that
Shiite pilgrims, including thousands from Iran, were planning to
demonstrate against his presence at the "holy" cities.
A more important reason motivated Ahmadinejad to drop his
planned visits to Najaf - his failure to arrange an encounter with the
leading ayatollahs of the "holy" city, especially Grand Ayatollah
Ali-Muhammad Sistani, the leading Shiite clergyman. For a president who
claims that he's the standard-bearer of a global Shiite revolution,
that was one photo-op to die for.
Initially, Ahmadinejad asked that Sistani visit him at a
villa that once housed the Iranian consul-general in Najaf. This is
because Ahmadinejad, as Islamic Republic president, mustn't acknowledge
the supremacy of any cleric apart from Ali Khamenei, the Iranian
"Supreme Guide." Under Iranian protocol, the president goes to the
"Supreme Guide other mullahs must go to the president.
But Sistani wasn't prepared to go to Ahmadinejad. That would have
acknowledged the superiority of a secular position to a clerical one,
something no grand ayatollah would do.
Eventually, a compromise was found: Ahmadinejad was to call
on Sistani supposedly because the ayatollah was in poor health. This
was to be an exercise in "visiting the sick," highly recommended in
At the last minute, however, Sistani's entourage insisted
that there should be no pictures and that neither side should issue a
statement at the end of the planned 20-minute meeting. This would've
deprived Ahmadinejad of his photo op and prevented him from claiming
Sistani's support for the Iranian policy in Iraq. The only solution was
for Ahmadinejad not to go to Najaf at all.
The Iranian thus ended up like a devout Catholic leader who goes to Rome but fails to visit the Vatican or call on the pope.
He had already been obliged to cancel a visit to Samarra, where
the "Hidden Imam" disappeared in a well on 941 AD. Ahmadinejad had
hoped to visit the ruins of the golden-domed Mausoleum of the Two Imams
that was bombed by al Qaeda in 2005 and 2006 and announce a plan to
rebuild the mausoleum.
The project is of special importance to Ahmadinejad, who
claims to be in direct contact with the "Hidden Imam." (Last year he
told his Cabinet that the "Hidden Imam" had accompanied him to the
United Nations and filled the General Assembly's hall with a green
light during his speech.)
But two days of demonstrations against Ahmadinejad's planned
visit by the people of Samarra forced him to strike the city off his
Nor did Ahmadinejad's presence in Baghdad go as smoothly as
he'd hoped. A good part of the Iraqi political elite, including Cabinet
ministers and members of the parliament, boycotted functions held in
his honor. Tehran has branded the boycotters as "Saddamites and Sunnis
in fact, a good number of Shiite politicians, including the leaders of
the Fadila (Virtue) Party, also stayed away.
Protest marches against Ahmadinejad weren't limited to
predominantly Sunni Arab cities such as Mosul, Kirkuk and Fallujah.
Thousands of people also turned out in Shiite-majority Basra, Iraq's
second-largest city, to oppose the visit and condemn the Islamic
Republic's intervention in domestic Iraqi affairs.
The visit's political side was equally disappointing for
Ahmadinejad. He failed to persuade the Iraqi leaders to stop
negotiations with America on long-term arrangements ensuring US
commitment to new Iraq for several more years. Nor did he succeed in
obtaining cast-iron guarantees that new Iraq won't seek to renegotiate
aspects of the 1975 Treaty with Iran. (Iraqi President Jalal Talabani
told an interviewer last year that the treaty, signed by Saddam
Hussein, doesn't reflect the interests of the Iraqi people.)
Ahmadinejad's visit also failed to produce results on such
perennial Irano-Iraqi problems as the fate of thousands from both sides
who remain missing in action since the 1980-88 war, and plans for
reopening the Shatt al-Arab border estuary to allow a revival of
maritime transport in that corner of southwestern Iran.
The Iranian visitor failed on another issue close to the
heart of Iran's ruling mullahs: the handover of some 4,000 members of
the Mujahedin Khalq (People's Combatants), an armed Marxist-Islamist
group who live under US protection in a camp northeast of Baghdad. The
Iraqi leaders paid lip service to the idea of getting rid of the
"terrorists" but offered no timetable for expelling them, let alone
handing them over to Tehran and certain death.
Ahmadinejad had come to Iraq to show it was an Iranian
playground. He ended up by showing that Iran's influence in Iraq is
To be sure, Tehran exerts influence through a number of
Shiite militias it has recruited, trained and financed for years. And
some insurgent groups depend on Iran as their main source of weapons,
especially sophisticated explosive devices. Iran also remains Iraq's
biggest trading partner and the second-biggest investor in the Iraqi
economy. Iranian pilgrims account for more than 90 percent of all
foreign visitors in Iraq.
Yet the visit highlighted one crucial fact: Few Iraqis wish to see their country dominated by the Khomeinist regime in Tehran.
Iraq proved too hot for Ahmadinejad. He had to get out as fast as he could.