The leaders of Iraq and Jordan warned yesterday that Iran is trying to influence the Iraqi elections scheduled for Jan. 30 to create an Islamic government that would dramatically shift the geopolitical balance between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in the Middle East.
Iraqi President Ghazi Yawar charged that Iran is coaching candidates and political parties sympathetic to Tehran and pouring "huge amounts of money" into the campaign to produce a Shiite-dominated government similar to Iran's.
Jordanian King Abdullah said that more than 1 million Iranians have crossed the 910-mile border into Iraq, many to vote in the election -- with the encouragement of the Iranian government. "I'm sure there's a lot of people, a lot of Iranians in there that will be used as part of the polls to influence the outcome," he said in an interview.
The king also charged that Iranians are paying salaries and providing welfare to unemployed Iraqis to build pro-Iranian public sentiment. Some Iranians, he added, have been trained by Iran's Revolutionary Guards and are members of militias that could fuel trouble in Iraq after the election.
"It is in Iran's vested interest to have an Islamic republic of Iraq . . . and therefore the involvement you're getting by the Iranians is to achieve a government that is very pro-Iran," Abdullah said.
If pro-Iran parties or politicians dominate the new Iraqi government, he said, a new "crescent" of dominant Shiite movements or governments stretching from Iran into Iraq, Syria and Lebanon could emerge, alter the traditional balance of power between the two main Islamic sects and pose new challenges to U.S. interests and allies.
"If Iraq goes Islamic republic, then, yes, we've opened ourselves to a whole set of new problems that will not be limited to the borders of Iraq. I'm looking at the glass half-full, and let's hope that's not the case. But strategic planners around the world have got to be aware that is a possibility," Abdullah added.
Iran and Iraq have Shiite majorities. But modern Iraq, formed after World War I, has been ruled by its Sunni minority. Syria is ruled by the minority Allawites, an offshoot of Shiism. Shiites are the largest of 17 recognized sects in Lebanon, and Hezbollah is a major Shiite political party, with the only active militia.
Abdullah, a prominent Sunni leader, said the creation of a new Shiite crescent would particularly destabilize Gulf countries with Shiite populations. "Even Saudi Arabia is not immune from this. It would be a major problem. And then that would propel the possibility of a Shiite-Sunni conflict even more, as you're taking it out of the borders of Iraq," the king said.
Iran has bonds with Iraq through their Shiite populations. Thousands of Iranians make pilgrimages to the holiest Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala. Iraq's most prominent Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, is Iranian-born and speaks Arabic with a Persian accent. Yet Iran and Iraq fought a brutal eight-year war with more than a million casualties.
Iran has faced charges in the past of meddling in Iraq, but with the election approaching, Iraqi, U.S. and Arab officials have begun to make specific accusations and issue warnings about the potential impact.
"Unfortunately, time is proving, and the situation is proving, beyond any doubt that Iran has very obvious interference in our business -- a lot of money, a lot of intelligence activities and almost interfering daily in business and many [provincial] governates, especially in the southeast side of Iraq," Yawar said in an interview with Washington Post editors and reporters.
The interim Iraqi president, a Sunni leader from a tribe with Sunnis and Shiites, said Iraq's first democratic government must reject pressure to inject religion into politics. "We cannot have a sectarian or religious government," he said. "We really will not accept a religious state in Iraq. We haven't seen a model that succeeded."
The question of Iraq's political orientation -- secular or religious -- will come to a head when Iraq begins writing a new constitution next spring. Jordan's king said he had started to raise a "red flag" about the dangers of mixing church and state.