How Iran's Disputed Election is Playing in Iraq

It's been hard not to laugh at some Iraqi officials' poses of complete indifference to the upheaval in Tehran. They're trying their best to pretend they don't know or care what's happening there, unwilling to commit themselves until they know which side will prevail—but the act isn't very convincing. "Nothing is going on in Iran," says Sheik Jalal al-Deen al-Sagheer, a senior parliamentarian from Iraq's ruling Shiite coalition, the Unified Iraqi Alliance. And he says it with almost perfect seriousness. Some officials do admit when pushed hard enough that "nothing" may not be the precise term for street riots in Tehran, deaths, arrests, and signs of revolt among Iran's senior clergy. But beyond that, they don't want to say anything too specific. "The Iranian election is an internal issue," the Iraqi prime minister told local journalists a few days ago. "Any confusion that happens in it will affect Iraq because it is a neighboring country and its stability matters to us."

No matter what Iraq's leaders may think of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, they don't want to antagonize Iran's Supreme Leader. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the man who makes the big decisions, and after six years of war and insurgency, Iraq is in no condition to challenge him and his armed forces. "The government has no interest in rocking the boat by supporting one side or the other in Iran," says Joost R. Hiltermann of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. "They still have to live with whatever emerges there." For now, senior Iraqi officials are just waiting quietly to see how things shake out in Tehran. Still, says a Western adviser to the Baghdad government, who declines to be identified commenting on sensitive issues, the Iraqis aren't all that sorry for Ahmadinejad and Khamenei: "Some are secretly gloating because they don't like the way the Iranian regime has behaved in the region."

The silence isn't total; a few maverick Shiite officials are going public with criticism of Tehran. Shatha M. al-Musawi, an independent parliamentarian elected on the Unified Iraqi Alliance list, recently e-mailed Iran's Fatima Rafsanjani to express sympathy after authorities in Tehran detained Rafsanjani's sister, Faezeh. The two Iranian women's father is Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a past president of Iran and no friend of Ahmadinejad's or Khamenei's. "I asked her to accept my condolences about those killed in the demonstrations and the unfair procedures taken against her family and said that we all, as believers in democracy, support any peaceful activity that shows support for integrity and transparency of elections," Musawi told NEWSWEEK. "The e-mail came back: 'Failure to deliver.' " Musawi is convinced her message was blocked by the Tehran government. "I believe as Muslims, and especially Shia, we have the right to choose our leader," she says. "If Ahmadinejad stays, the consequences will be very bad for Iraq. He is more Iranian than Muslim. His priority will be Iranian influence in the region."

Not everyone shares that concern. Sagheer scoffs at Musawi's fears, saying other neighbors are worse threats to Iraq and to the region. "I believe Saudi Arabia will interfere to change [parliamentary] election results in Iraq," the sheik says. (The elections are scheduled for January.) "The Saudis have more funds than Iran. Why are people so concerned about the Iranian bogeyman?" Sagheer, who is imam of Baghdad's Buratha Mosque in addition to his parliamentary duties, is a top official with the Supreme Iraq Islamic Council, formerly the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. SCIRI was promoted by Tehran in the 1980s as a more malleable alternative to Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party, and the council's leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, is currently in Iran being treated for cancer. Sagheer insists there is no evidence of fraud in Iran. He concedes he does not have enough "details" to reach a conclusion and that "something wrong happened." But, he asks, if 11 million people voted for opposition leader Mir Hussein Mousavi, "why are only a thousand on the streets?"

Newsweek subscription offers >

By most accounts there were hundreds of thousands of protesters in the streets of Tehran before the crackdown. And many Iraqis are deeply distrustful of Iran in any case. Painful resentments persist from the eight-year Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Iraqi businessmen complain that Iran floods their country with cheap goods like appliances and electronics, making it tough to compete. And many Iraqis are convinced that Tehran deliberately foments disorder in their country with the goal of turning Iraq into an Islamic state just like Iran. Disapproval of Iran's theocracy is a sentiment that transcends sectarian lines in Iraq. "Iranian people are fed up with the religious policy of isolation," says Saad Kareem, a Shiite who works at a Baghdad Internet café. "They want to break that encircling policy of the mullahs." That's mild compared with what some non-Shiites say. "What's happening in Iran is a revenge on the mullahs' regime from the Almighty for their interference in Iraqi issues," says Saad Naji, a professional engineer and a Sunni. No one knows yet how Iran's troubles will end. Iraq's leaders can only hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

How Iran's Disputed Election is Playing in Iraq | World