Iran's Concerns for Iraq's Future

Few countries in the Middle East are as immersed in debate and contemplation about future policy options and choices towards Iraq as Iran.

Few countries in the Middle East are as immersed in debate and contemplation about future policy options and choices towards Iraq as Iran.  Iran's geographical proximity, an intense and bloody history of war and conflict with Saddam's Iraq; the religious and emotional connection with the Iraqi Shi'a;, and the inevitable interaction with United States are all threads that connect Iran to Iraq, to its post-Saddam future and to questions about American regional preeminence. A discussion of Iran's current stance inevitably involves a few key issues and a major lesson to be learned.  

Paramount among the concerns of Iran with regard to the situation in Iraq is the preservation of Iraq's territorial integrity. (1)  This phenomenon includes, but is not limited to, a few key issues with which Iran is concerned. It should be pointed out that there are large indigenous Kurdish and Shi'a populations within Iran itself. The Iranian Kurds, as with Kurds in Turkey and Iraq, have had a tendency for separatism in the past. Although the political situation for Kurds in Iran is certainly different than that in Iraq, a separate independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq would be too extreme a solution to the Kurdish problem from Iran's perspective. Unlike Turkey, however, Iran's willingness to see Iraq's Kurdish population gain more of a voice in government exists. Both of Turkey and Iran, along with Syria, consider an independent Kurdish state out of the question.  But the federal system that has been proposed with regard to Iraq (2) will not likely be a problem, as far as Iran is concerned. (2)

Since Iraq's creation, the Shi'a population has been predominant in number, yet marginal in power.  Moreover, Iran sees America's post-Saddam policy as based on values and interests other than the promotion of democracy. Iranians believe that U.S.  policy will in fact be driven more by stability, strategic considerations, oil and the opinions of Arab allies. As a result, they think that U.S. will not, in the short run, support a fully democratic government in Iraq based on the concept of ‘one individual-one vote'.  Such a system would mean that the Shi'a population would gain power as the majority, and this is contrary to the interests of the U.S. and its principal Arab allies, all of which have strong Sunni influence.  Iran is conscious of these concerns and is seeking rather a fairer share of power for the Shi'a population than they possessed in pre-war Iraq, with adequate representation in the central government and grassroots democracy in the localities.

Besides Iran's concerns with Iraq's domestic structure, Iran must also be wary that Iraq is not left again to assume its familiar form as a nation possessing a weapons of mass destruction capability and vague and hostile intentions toward Iran. Iran has an interest in seeing Iraq disarmed and de-fanged, as it has traditionally been at the fore of Iran's threat perception.  Additionally, the Iraqi Ba'ath leadership developed cordial relations with the Mujahedin-e Khalq (3), an organization that is bent on the destruction of the Islamic Republic. Iran is unsure of the U.S. intention with respect to the Mujahedin-e Khalq after the Ba'athi regime is disbanded. Generally, Iran is afraid that America's lack of experience in a multi-ethnic and multi-tribal landscape will leave Iraq vulnerable if the U.S. does not follow up on its promise of state- and nation- building. Iran is also concerned that mafia-esque organizations will appear in Iraq's power struggle, and that the resulting wave of crime and instability will eventually spill over into Iran.

Already in Iran, there is the realization that Saddam's overthrow indicates that the state was too highly centralized predicated on the personality of one individual. Many Iranians have pointed out in the last few days that there was no civil society to come seriously to the defense of Saddam even as he was confronted with a foreign invasion. Instead, the Iraqi characteristic of "Saddam and everything Saddam" hindered the country's cohesion in a time of need. Implicitly, the Iranian elite are trying to indicate that without a bustling civil society--- political parties, volunteer associations, a free press, and significant social movements that mediate between the state and society-the Tehran government will lack support in the case of foreign invasion or internal unrest. Thus a number of Iranian elites and political activists indicate that Iran must increase its efforts to promote pluralism if it stands to avoid the fate of Iraq.  

1. See, for example, Zeyno Baran, "Turkey's Difficult Balancing Act," in In the National Interest, January 29, 2003, at

2. See the comments of Dr. Barham Salih, at

3. See the comments of Ambassador L. Paul Bremer about the links between Saddam's regime and this organization, at


Nasser Hadian-Jazy is a professor of international relations at Tehran University in Iran.   He is currently a visiting professor at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.