Middle East

Iran's neutrality on the line
By Hooman Peimani

Iranian government spokesperson Abdullah Ramezanzadeh has condemned the American war on Iraq as "illegitimate" and "unjustifiable" and reiterated Iran's neutrality in the war. He has also demanded that both Iraq and the United States respect Iran's neutrality. However, Iran might find it increasingly difficult to remain idle when regional (Turkey) and non-regional (United States and United Kingdom) states are seeking to achieve long-term objectives in Iraq with potentially dire consequences for the Iranians.

Ramezanzadeh deplored the American government's initiating the war despite the international community's opposition, which he predicted to have grim consequences for Iraq, the Persian Gulf region, the Middle East and the entire world. In his address on the occasion of the Iranian new year (Nouroz) on Friday, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami stressed Ramezanzadeh's points as he stated, "We have opposed this move from the outset and today we again clearly condemn this military attack ... this military attack, apart from the destructive damage which it has for the oppressed Iraqi people, is dangerous for the whole region and the world." Despite its intention, though, Iran could be dragged into the American war on Iraq. Intentional, and more likely, unintentional military attacks on Iranian territory could push Iran into the war. On Saturday, an American cruise missile, presumably aimed at the Iraqi port of Basra, missed its target and hit the nearby Iranian port of Abadan. The Iranian government filed a protest for the incident in which two Iranians were killed. On the same day, the head of the legal affairs bureau of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mohammad Danesh-Yazdi, handed over his government's protest to the British and Swiss embassies in Tehran for the violation of its airspace by American and British aircraft. The Swiss embassy takes care of American interests in the absence of an American embassy in Iran. The continuation of such military incidents may well force Iran to take retaliatory action, a recipe for an unwanted involvement in the war.

The entry into Iran of Iraqi military personnel to seek shelter or to use that country for their attacks on the American and British forces could also provoke the latter's attack on Iran, which would drag it into the conflict against its will. To prevent that scenario, Ramezanzadeh stated that Iran had decided to seal off its borders to prevent any "illegal infiltration to its soil by Iraqi nationals", that is, Iraqi military personnel. Yet he announced Iran's readiness to help Iraqi refugees fleeing war-affected areas. As mentioned last week in Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi's appeal to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan for refugee relief assistance, "a growing number of Iraqi refugees" has been entering Iran.

Iran could more likely be dragged into the war as a result of an Iranian military intervention in that country in reaction to Turkey's move to achieve its strategic interests that could have an unacceptable impact on the regional balance of power. In particular, Turkey's determination to deploy a large military force in Iraq's Kurdish region now sanctioned by its parliament and/or its efforts to annex or control oil-rich Kirkuk and Mosul to which the Turks have territorial claims since the Ottoman Empire's disintegration could trigger an Iranian reaction. Turkey already has a few thousand military personnel in that region who control a 30 kilometer-wide "security zone" along the Iraqi side of the border, while amassing its troops estimated at 20,000 to 40,000 along its border with Iraq for a future massive deployment.

This situation also alarms the Iraqi Kurds who are on good terms with Iran. Last month, Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), one of the two main Kurdish armed groups governing northern Iraq, said that the Kurds would resist "all further Turkish intrusions" into their territory. Nechirvan Barzani, the KDP's second in command, went beyond that statement to say, "The Turks must be made to understand that their presence [in Iraqi Kurdistan] will be disastrous both for us and for themselves." Moreover, Barham Saleh, prime minister under Jalal Talabani, the leader of the other main Kurdish group, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), clearly hinted at a possible Iranian intervention, apart from a Kurdish reaction, when he held, "[Turkish] military intervention would only complicate matters. If one neighbor gets into Iraq, the others will too, and it will be a mess."

Iran's intervention could take a direct military form if it fails to dissuade Turkey from pursuing its objectives through diplomacy and/or by its Iraqi Kurdish friends and Shi'ite proteges. Iran's ties with the KDP and the PUK have experienced ups and downs over the past two decades. Nevertheless, the two sides have had friendly ties during the past few years as reflected in their receiving assistance from the Iranian government, which has let them maintain offices in Iran. The Iranians will likely seek to halt any long-term Turkish gain in Iraq through those Kurdish groups, which share Iran's concerns about Turkey.

Towards that end, the mentioned groups could count on the Badr Brigade's cooperation, which is the military wing of the Iran-based and backed Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). This pro-Iranian Shi'ite military force is reportedly have about 10,000 well-armed and trained militias. Late in 2002, Iran brokered an agreement between the Badr Brigade and the PUK in whose territory along the Iranian western border the brigade has bases. The latter aims to ensure a significant share for the Iraqi Shi'ites accounting for 60 percent of the Iraqi population in any post-Saddam Hussein Iraqi government. The Americans have warned the Badr Brigade to refrain from any move to control Iraqi territories when the Iraqi government losses control over them. Given the SCIRI opposition to an American domination over or occupation of Iraq and its close ties with Iran, its military wing's control of parts of Iraq will increase Iran's influence in a post-Saddam era, a scenario that the Americans want to avoid.

In the case of the mentioned Iraqi forces' failure to prevent the Turks from pursuing their objectives in Iraq, the Iranians might be forced to intervene directly. As well, the Americans' repeated expression of concern about a sudden boost in the power and status of the Iraqi Shi'ites with a positive attitude towards Tehran and the American government's predictable efforts to prevent them from securing a large share of a future Iraqi government may well force Iran to involve itself directly in Iraq. Undoubtedly, this scenario, if comes true, will further worsen already tense Iranian-American relations and may well contribute to a military confrontation between the two sides.

Dr Hooman Peimani works as an independent consultant with international organizations in Geneva and does research in international relations.

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Mar 25, 2003

Out with the US, in with the Turks (Mar 7, '03)

The Turkish military and northern Iraq (Feb 20, '03)


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