March 27, 2003 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 128

Iran and the War In Iraq

March 27, 2003 | By A. Savyon*
Iraq, Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 128


Iran's attitude towards the war in Iraq is complex. Iran repudiates Saddam Hussein, holding him responsible for the eight-year Iran-Iraq war[1]and for gassing Iranian citizens with chemical weapons. Nonetheless, Iran regards the U.S. presence on its borders as an even greater threat to the security of its regime and its national interests. As one of the three "axis of evil" countries, Iran monitors the United States' moves with regard to Iraq and North Korea, fearing that it might be next in line. As a result of this fear, Iran opposes the use of military intervention to bring down the Iraqi regime, whether on the grounds that it terrorizes its citizens, or on the grounds that it possesses a variety of weapons of mass destruction.

This being the case, Iran's policy towards an American offensive on the Iraqi regime is characterized by conflicting attitudes. While Iran has officially adopted a militant and hostile approach towards the United States and its intentions in the region, it simultaneously undertakes actions which contradict this attitude, such as holding talks with the Shi`ite and Kurdish opposition in Iraq in order to impact the nature of the future regime. Additionally, it stands behind the penetration of Kurdish forces from Iran into Iraq and appears to have reached a discreet understanding with the U.S. Iran is also promoting regional initiatives in an attempt to restrict the American presence in the Gulf, such as proposing elections in Iraq under the auspices of the UN and often acting with Europe and Russia against the United States.

Iran's Opposition to the War: Main Considerations

A. The American Presence on Iran's Borders Constitutes a Threat to the Iranian Regime and Its Interests

Iran fears that it will be encircled by American forces, and follows the continual American presence on its borders with apprehension: the establishment of Karzai's regime under U.S. sponsorship, increased cooperation with Turkey in the north-west and with Pakistan in the south-east, the strengthened American presence in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates, and the massive American military build-up in the Persian Gulf. Iran accuses the United States of expansion and of attempting to establish its political, military, and cultural dominance throughout the world, and in the Middle East in particular. Since the "axis of evil" speech of January 2002, Iran fears that it may be next in line. Iranian leaders say that Iraq is just a pretext. The United States' real target is Iran.

Perhaps because the fear that the accusation of possessing weapons of mass destruction will be leveled against Iran in the future, Supreme Leader 'Ali Khamenei maintains that the U.S.'s claims that it is acting against Iraq because it possesses weapons of mass destruction (as well as in the name of promoting democracy in the region) – are "big lies" which no one believes.[2]The United States' objectives, says Khamenei, are "to change the political map of the Middle East"[3]and to step up their plots against "Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia."[4]The former Iranian president, 'Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is now heading the Expediency Council, has also commented on the "ploy" used by the United States to justify attacking Iraq: "The uncalculated steps of Saddam and his likes can give America the necessary pretext to attack Iraq... even if there were no such a pretext, Americans would have created the necessary pretext."[5]

During Friday sermons in Tehran, speaking to thousands of worshippers, Rafsanjani said: "The U.S. presence in the Middle East is worse than Saddam's weapons of mass destruction,"[6]and, he added, the massive U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf reveals its "sinister" intentions. Rafsanjani defined U.S. attempts to establish a presence in sensitive areas such as the Persian Gulf and the Middle East as "dangerous" to peace and security in the region and to world peace,[7]and declared that America is trying to revive colonial rule.[8]

Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a leader of Friday prayers in Tehran and a high ranking associate of 'Ali Khamenei, proclaimed in one of his Friday sermons: "We are not against Iraq's disarmament, but this is different from U.S.'s military occupation of that country." He declared that Iran is "100 percent opposed to a probable U.S.-led attack on Iraq even if the UN Security Council endorses a military action."[9]

The Iranian President, Mohammad Khatami, also emphasized that Tehran "is opposed to any military attack on Iraq."[10]At the conference of the Non-Aligned Movement countries Khatami stated that the United States had cast itself in the role of "a Big Brother driven by fanatic [Christian] fundamentalism."[11]He added, "an attack on Iraq is in line with the America's unilateral policy [the objective of which is] illegitimate intervention in other countries' future," and warned the U.S. not to support opponents of the Iranian regime.[12]

The Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Hujjat al-Islam Hassan Rowhani, a leading conservative, speaking on the occasion of the Ashura celebrations, emphasized the cultural aspect of Iranian fears of America: "The American administration has planned [to wage] a 'software war' against Iran after Iraq which includes [destroying] people's belief and changing their behavior, striking at our national unity and obliterating the national and religious identity of the [Iranian] people."[13]

B. Fear of Losing Shi`ite Primacy Should the Iraqi Regime Change

Iran fears that the fall of Saddam's regime will affect its control over the Shi'ite spiritual center. Iraq has a large Shi`ite population, and the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf (holier even than Mecca for Shi`ites) lie within its borders. With the establishment of Saddam Hussein's regime in the 1970s', the Shi`ite leadership was forced out of Najaf - the prime Shi'ite spiritual center - and into exile in the Iranian city of Qom. Since then, Qom has been the seat of the Shi'ite ayatollahs and established itself as the leading Shi`ite religious center.

As a regional power and patron of Shi`ites throughout the world, Iran, under the leadership of the clerics of Qom, seeks to preserve its influence and centrality, particularly since Iranian leader 'Ali Khamenei's qualifications as the religious jurist of Iran are deficient. The Shi`ite leadership in Qom fears that, under a different regime in Iraq (and under the auspices of the U.S.), Qom will lose its ascendancy and will cede its influence in the Shi`ite world to Najaf, as the ayatollahs of Iraqi extraction will move from Qom to Najaf.[14]

Indeed, a number of reports have recently maintained that a split has developed between Iran and Hizbullah's spiritual leader, Sheikh Fadhallah, who is linked to Najaf. The pro-Iraqi Arabic weekly Al-Watan Al-Arabi reported that conservative leaders in Iran were planning to assassinate Sheikh Fadhallah whose influence has spread beyond the borders of Lebanon. According to this report, a secret meeting was held in Tehran between conservative clerics close to Khamenei, representatives of Iranian intelligence and the Supreme National Security Council, and a prominent Lebanese figure connected with a Lebanese Shi`ite group, to discuss the future of the Shi`ites, Iran, and Hizbullah in face of the American threats. One of the main topics on the agenda was their disapproval of Sheikh Fadhallah's growing power and influence over Shi`ites outside Lebanon. The report further added that Iran is acting to discredit Sheikh Fadhallah among his supporters in order to declare him "an apostate," in preparation for his assassination. Reports concerning the split appeared also in independent papers such as the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat which quoted Fadhallah as saying that he did not fear assassination attempts by Iran.[15]

C. The U.S. Wants to Control the Oil Resources - Against Iran and Saudi Arabia

Iran is concerned that the U.S.'s goal is to take control of the Middle East's energy reserves. Supreme Leader 'Ali Khamenei said that, "the people of Iraq are facing war threats, because the U.S. needs to be [militarily] present in Iraq... in order to dominate [all the] energy resources in the region and control all Middle East countries." He emphasized that, "Americans say they are going to overthrow Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi regime. They are lying. Their real intention is to control OPEC, [and] dominate oil fields in the region..."[16]

Rafsanjani has made similar comments on the U.S.'s objectives: "In America's eyes there is no better [energy] reserve than the Middle East. Thus, Washington thinks it has to have a physical presence in the region in order to control it..."[17]At a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, Rafsanjani announced that, "the U.S. has decided to attack Iraq in a bid to gain control over its oil resources."[18]The Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Hujjat al-Islam Hassan Rowhani, expressed himself in similar terms when he said that the United States' objective in occupying Iraq was "to turn it into an oil superpower versus Iran and Saudi Arabia."[19]

Iran's Willingness to Accept and Prepare for the War - Main Considerations:

A. The Need to Strip Iraq of Its Weapons of Mass Destruction

Iran is not opposed to the demand to disarm Saddam Hussein from weapons of mass destruction, but it insists that this should be carried out by peaceful means only, in accordance with a UN resolution and without any unilateral American military intervention. Former President 'Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani declared at a Friday sermon in Tehran that Iran "agree[s] with disarming the Iraqi regime, but [at the same time] is explicitly opposed to the presence of America in the Middle East region."[20]Rafsanjani added: "We believe that long-range missiles as well as chemical, biological, and nuclear arms must not be put at the disposal of the Ba'ath party, since they have shown that they are not committed [to any principles]."[21]

Iran's President, Mohammad Khatami, has emphasized on a number of occasions that Iran's opposition to the attack on Iraq "does not mean that we [approve of] the Iraqi regime... [But] a military strike, besides inflicting massive damage to the noble Iraqi people, will lead to tension and insecurity in the region."[22]He added in the same vein: "We do not approve of Saddam and the Iraqi regime, but we do not agree with dictatorship or threatening nations either."[23]

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi clarified this position at meetings in Europe. He declared during meetings with Austrian President Thomas Klestil and British Foreign Minister Jack Straw that, "It is definitely necessary to disarm Saddam, since he is responsible for igniting the flames of the two devastating wars in the region so far, but his disarmament should take place through peaceful political methods and by resorting to UN initiatives." He continued: "We have to do our best to resolve this crisis without the necessity of using force."[24]

Contrary to the traditional Iranian position, which rejects the use of force against a sovereign state, Defense Minister 'Ali Shamkhani stated that nothing short of a military defeat could depose Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. "The Americans," he said, "are pursuing a strategy of victory without recourse to war, but our experience in the Iran-Iraq war [1980-1988] shows that the Iraqi regime will not abandon power without being forced to by war."[25]A member of the Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee Hamid Reza Haji Babaie, also publicly adopted an unusual position when he said that "Saddam is a dangerous creature," and that if "he is controlled, it will benefit the entire region, including Iran."[26]

B. The Need to Prepare for the Future

Public remarks on this issue by high-ranking Iranian officials are not common, but the few that have been made reflect a practical Iranian approach. After the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Naji Sabri, visited Tehran,[27]government spokesman 'Abdullah Ramazanzadeh said: "We are trying to arrange our policy [on Iraq] in such a way that, if a new regime is to run things in Iraq, [it] will not feel hostility toward the Iranian people."[28]

Iran's Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi explained that Iran "is prepared for the worst scenarios. Thus, our plans have been arranged so that Iran will not face an unexpected situation or probable negative results [of the war]... For this reason protecting our national interests is important for us."[29]

Iran is preparing for events by taking action in a number of different spheres: it is holding talks with representatives of the Iraqi opposition - both Shi`ites and Kurds - and grants its auspices to meetings between them on Iranian soil. After the main opposition groups met in Tehran in early January, Iranian Foreign Minister Kharrazi rejected claims that the presence of these opposition groups in Iran violated Iran's neutral position towards Baghdad, saying: "We will maintain our neutral position, but this does not mean we remain indifferent." He added that it was "normal procedure that [the Iraqi opposition] wants to consult with us either in Iran or while crossing Iran."[30]

The Financial Times reported that some 5,000 members of the Iraqi Shi`ite opposition forces supported by Iran had crossed the border from Iran into northern Iraq. Iranian officials announced that the mission of these forces, who are under the command of Ayatollah Mohammad Bakr al-Hakim, a prominent Iraqi Shi'ite and a leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), who has lived in Iran since 1980, was purely defensive. These forces, known as "The Badr Brigade" were trained and equipped by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.[31]

The two main Kurdish opposition leaders visited Iran and held talks with the leaders of the Iraqi opposition. The leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Jalal Talabani, visited Iran and defined relations between his organization and Iran as "very good." He said that these relations were based on three pivotal axes: Iranian support for the Kurdish people, the Kurds' need for Iranian support, and their shared faith as Muslims. His sworn rival, Massoud Barazani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), visited Tehran a few days earlier and met with the leader of the Iraqi National Congress, Ahmad Chalabi, and with leaders of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, to discuss the future of Iraq.[32]

In a desperate attempt to prevent the war, Foreign Minister Kharrazi proposed to hold "a referendum in Iraq" and suggested that, "the Iraqi opposition reconcile with the current regime in that country under the supervision of the UN." He told Iraq that it "should not consider [this proposal] as interference in its internal affairs."[33]But the proposal met with criticism at home when reformist Majlis members described it as "unworkable and unrealistic."[34]

Iranian Attempts to Discourage the U.S. from Going to War

Apart from opposing the war on the one hand and preparing for the future by maintaining contact with Iraqi opposition groups on the other, Iran also tried to discourage and deter the U.S. from going to war. In a speech to mark the 24th anniversary of the Islamic revolution, Khamenei warned the U.S. that Iran would not permit "American highway robbers and savages in civilized clothing to rule our country again... they have disclosed a plan to install an American as the ruler for Iraq and to channel all Iraqi resources into the pockets of American and Zionist companies. Such a plan, of course, will not materialize," said Khamenei. "Even if the U.S. might get control of Iraq in the short term, the Iraqi nation will ultimately drive the Americans out of their country,"[35]he added. In a speech before the Revolutionary Guards' naval command, Khamenei explained that the U.S. would be bogged down if it launched a military attack on the region, which would only hasten its collapse.[36]

Rafsanjani, too, warned U.S. leaders not to remain in the region: "We shall not allow the Americans to stay in the area," he said, and advised them to consider the fact that the countries of the region would not allow them to "rob" their natural wealth.[37]At a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Ivanov, Rafsanjani said: "[Iraq's] neighbors, Iran included, will not permit the U.S. to rob Iraq of its oil."[38]He added that, while the U.S. regards itself as invincible, it is in fact vulnerable.[39]

Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a leader of Friday prayer in Tehran, attacked the American administration in a Friday sermon, saying: "A number of naive people in the U.S. Congress support the steps of their government [head], who acts like [Joseph] Stalin, [Adolf] Hitler and Genghis [Khan]... the people will deal with him soon."[40]

A number of top Iranian security officials have made statements intended to act as a deterrent, not against a U.S. attack on Iraq, but rather against an attack on Iran. The Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Hujjat al-Islam Hassan Rowhani, said that Americans are gravely mistaken since, even in the event of their victory on Iraq, Iran will invincibly stand up to them. There will be no "happy ending to the way the Americans have chosen."[41]

Iranian Defense Minister 'Ali Shamkhani announced that Iran would react "swiftly and decisively" should the Americans try to set foot within its borders. "We will not allow [the U.S.] to commit any errors against our country... given the trust which the Americans have in their equipment, if they make a mistake, we will confront the mistake by giving a swift and decisive answer."[42]

When asked if Iran fears an attack on Iraq, Minister of Intelligence 'Ali Yunesi said: "We are not concerned. It is the others who should be concerned about us."[43]

*Ayelet Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project.

[1]Former Iranian president Rafsanjani said that the Iran-Iraq war "caused [Iran] $1,000 billion in damage, with inestimable non-material damages - and we are still finding and burying thousands upon thousands of precious martyrs..." Letter from Sa`ai to Khamenei, See MEMRI, Inquiry and Analysis, No. 125, "Iranian Intellectuals Against Khamenei - Dr. Qassem Sa'adi: 'Your Regime Is Illegitimate, Your Foreign and Domestic Policies Are Failing and Despotic,'", February 28, 2003.

[2]Iran Daily, February 9, 2003. Despite this, Khamenei did not hesitate to attack the United States on this issue: "You try to justify military action... [on the grounds] that the Iraqis have 19,000 chemical bombs in their arsenals, used 13,000 of those bombs against Iranians, and now they are hiding the remaining 6,000 bombs. Who has provided all these chemical bombs and facilities for Iraq? Is there anybody else other than you and your allies who created this catastrophe in the history of mankind?" IRNA, February 9, 2003.

[3]Kayhan (Iran), February 18, 2003.

[4]IRNA, February 9, 2003.

[5]IRNA, February 26, 2003.

[6]IRNA, February 7, 2003.

[7]IRNA, March 3, 2003.

[8]IRNA, March 16, 2003.

[9]IRNA, February 22, 2003.

[10]IRNA, February 10, 11,15 and February 24, 2003.

[11]Tehran Times, February 25, 2003. The Iranian ambassador to Syria, Hussein Sheikholeslam, said that the American mobilization in Iraq was designed, among other things, to drive a geographical wedge between Iran and Syria and to prevent Iran, Iraq and Syria from forming a strategic front. IRNA, March 16, 2003.

[12]IRNA, February 10, 11, 15, and 24, 2003. Khatami's supporter, the reformist former Minister 'Ataollah Mohajerani, who heads the Center for Dialogue Among Civilizations, believed that America's second priority, after "ensuring its permanent presence here, would be planning for influencing the developments in Iran." IRNA, February 26, 2003.

[13]IRNA, March 14, 2003.

[14]See reports on this issue in Al-Hayat (London, Arabic), January 25, and February 4, 2003.

[15]Al-Watan Al-Arabi (pro-Iraqi, Arabic), February 7, 2003. See also reports of Fadhallah's remarks that he does not fear assassination by Iranians in the daily Al-Hayat, January 25, 2003 and in al-Safir (a pro-Syrian Lebanese daily), February 5, 2003. It is noteworthy that the tension between Iran and Fadhallah increased after Fadhallah recently issued a number of Fatwas rejecting any cooperation with the U.S. against Iraq. In this connection, one may recall that the Syrian President surprisingly canceled a planned visit to Iran, apparently because of differences of opinion over the attack on Iraq. Syria expressed opposition to the attack and rejected Iran's more moderate position.

[16]IRNA, February 9, 2003.

[17]IRNA, February 7, 2003.

[18]IRNA, March 11, 2003.

[19]IRNA, March 3, 2003. The commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Yahya Rahim Safavi, supported this position, claiming that the U.S. wanted war in order to seize control of Middle East energy resources, IRNA, March 10, 2003. Khatami's supporter, 'Ataollah Mohajerani, said that he believed that the Americans have come to the region to stay permanently. Their "first priority is to strengthen their hegemony over the oil reserves," IRNA, February 26, 2003.

[20]IRNA, February 7, 2003.

[21]IRNA, February 7, 2003; Iran Daily, February 8, 2003.

[22]IRNA, February 10, 11,15 and February 24, 2003.

[23]IRNA, March 4, 2003.

[24]IRNA, February 8, 2003. Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani a leader of Friday prayers in Tehran, said that Iran "is opposed to weapons of mass destruction and believes that both Iraq and the White House must be disarmed," IRNA, February 14, 2003.

[25]AFP report on the Iranmania website, January 16, 2003, The reformist daily Iran News, on the other hand, pointed out the difficulty of locating weapons of mass destruction in Iraq: "It is virtually impossible to find something like weapons of mass destruction that Saddam does not want... to be found in a country the size of Iraq," Iran News, as quoted in IRNA, February 16, 2003.

[26]Iran Daily, March 2, 2003.

[27]According to a report in the daily Al-Hayat, the Iraqi Foreign Minister proposed that Iran and Iraq discuss "strategic co-operation between the two countries," as it was possible that Tehran would be the U.S.'s next objective after Baghdad. A senior Iranian official declared that Sabri had come to Tehran "in order to discuss the outcome of the Iranian talks [on Iraq] with the European countries." Al-Hayat, February 10, 2003.

[28]IRNA, February 11, 2003.

[29]IRNA, February 9, 2003

[30]IRNA, January 29, 2003. Some hundred members of the Majlis demanded the impeachment Foreign Minister Kharrazi because of his unilateral policy of support for Iraq - citing as proof the sudden visit of the Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri, to Tehran "three days before President Bush's speech," and helping Saddam Hussein overcome his international political isolation. IRNA, February 16; February 23, 2003; Aftab-Yazd (Iran), February 18, 2003.

[31]Financial Times February 19, 2003. See also the report on the Badr forces in Iran daily, February 22, 2003. On March 6th Tehran hosted a conference under the title "The Future of the Shi`ites in Iraq," in conjunction with the Supreme Revolutionary Islamic Council in Iraq. The conference was attended by 250 representatives of Hezb al-Da`wa, the Islamic Amal organization and the leader of the Iraqi National Congress, Ahmad Chalabi. IRNA, March 1, March 8, 2003. The reformist daily Iran News called upon Iraqi Shi`ites to remain united, IRNA, March 8, 2003. It should be noted that the Supreme Revolutionary Islamic Council in Iraq took part in talks with the US on the future of Iraq. See also reports on cooperation between Iraqi opposition with representatives from Iran and the U.S. IRNA, February 26, 2003.

[32]IRNA, February 16, 2003.

[33]IRNA, March 5, 2003.

[34]Aftab-Yazd (Iran, Persian), March 5, 2003.

[35]Kayhan (Iran, Persian), February 18, 2003.

[36]Aftab-Yazd (Iran, Persian), March 12, 2003.

[37]IRNA, February 12, 2003.

[38]IRNA, March 11, 2003.

[39]IRNA, February 19, 2003.

[40]IRNA February 22, 2003. Ayatollah Mohammad Ha'eri Shirazi declared that the Americans' fate would be similar to that of the Pharaohs who wanted to conquer the world. Iran Daily, March 16, 2003.

[41]IRNA, March 14, 2003.

[42]IRNA, February 19, 2003.

[43]IRNA, March 8, 2003.

Share this Report: