The Emerging Iraqi Polity: A Case for US-Iran Cooperation

Over the course of the last few decades, Saddam's Ba'ath party apparatus destroyed every feasible form of civil society and prevented the emergence of any autonomous associations and institutions.

Over the course of the last few decades, Saddam's Ba'ath party apparatus destroyed every feasible form of civil society and prevented the emergence of any autonomous associations and institutions.  He ruled through terror and fear.  The resemblance with pre-revolutionary Iran is striking.  The only remaining autonomous institution in 1970s Iranian society was the clerical network.  Mosques were an important public space available to masses and elites for debating and adopting goals and objectives for their collective actions and designing strategies to achieve them. This is the case in today's Iraq.

The Shiite clerical network, in Iraq as well as in Iran, is relatively hierarchical, with the Supreme Jurisprudent at the top, learned Ayatollahs in the middle, and the lower ranking clergy among the people in the rural areas and small towns.  The pinnacle of the hierarchy expands from Qum to Najaf (the two main centers of learning in Iran and Iraq respectively) and consists of deep relationships between the clerics of the two cities.  The structure, content and language of their training are almost identical.  Intermarriage between them further solidifies their relationship.  This establishment has influence within Shiite villages and towns in Iran and Iraq both.  Even withstanding the rivalry that exists between these two centers of learning, substantial influence can be transmitted from the Qum clergy to Iraq, and from the Najaf clergy to Iran.  Historically, this has indeed been the case.  The return of Ayatollah Hakim and a number of other senior clerics who have been residing in Qum as a result of Saddam's repression, along with the Badr Brigade and other Iraqi exiles, can seriously influence the course of events in Iraq.  It is reported that a number of Shiites who have returned from Iran are already in positions of governance in Iraq. 

This powerful clerical network presents an organized force with the ability to set objectives, and ultimately set an agenda for society.  Given the current power vacuum in Iraq, the clerics are best positioned to organize and mobilize the masses.  This is the case, not only among the Shiites but also among the more religious Sunnis.  Mosques are excellent resources at the disposal of the clerics' for facilitating these processes.  The potential exists for a very powerful socio-political movement to be generated by this force under the slogan of:  "No to occupation, yes to democracy."  A review of recent events in post-war Iraq underscores the potential power of this idea.  Demonstrations under this slogan are indeed becoming the most visible expressions of "homegrown" empowerment. 

Any government installed by the U.S. or U.S-appointed Governing Council which is perceived as a puppet by the majority of Iraqi citizens would fail.  This would only serve to strengthen the position of extremist forces within Iraqi society.  The credentials of the future Iraqi leadership will be of utmost importance:  an established history of anti-Ba'athi struggle within Iraq, of moderate religious background and no fundamental allegiance to the United States or any extremist party.  The failure of the Allies to establish this type of a leadership quickly will lead to the exacerbation of anti-Americanism and a possible split in the Governing Council.  The world and its media can expect to see millions of angry Iraqi citizens chanting anti-occupation slogans with a still pro-democratic leaning.

Iran is in the position to influence greatly the tide of events in Iraq.   It can, if it chooses, complicate the situation in Iraq by fueling the anti-American mayhem, or it can play a constructive role in containing extremism.  The initiative of calling for Iranian cooperation is now in the hands of the United States.  Iran and the U.S. share a number of crucial interests (territorial integrity, stability, fair representation for Shiite majority and WMD disarmament) in Iraq. The current climate of U.S.-Iranian relations does not lend itself to such a bold initiative. However, with the future of Iraq and the final verdict on the utility and legitimacy of U.S. intervention in the balance, this opportunity should be taken not only to improve relations with Tehran, but also to lay a more solid foundation to manage the ever-complex socio-religious and political fabric of the Iraqi polity and move towards a stable and prosperous Iraq.

The current momentum should be utilized for U.S.-Iranian rapprochement.  A concrete proposal from the United States to Iran that deals with issues of concern to both sides, especially on the question of Iraq's future, will undeniably be well received in Tehran at this moment.


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.