Uneasy Iraq Weighs Implications of Unrest in Neighboring Iran

By Ernesto Londoño and Nada Bakri
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 22, 2009

NAJAF, Iraq, June 21 -- As post-election unrest roils neighboring Iran, Iraqi officials are warily contemplating the potential ramifications of the crisis in a country with which Iraq shares a tumultuous past and an 800-mile border.

Iran is Iraq's top trading partner, has been deeply involved in Iraqi politics since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and is widely suspected to have fueled violence in Iraq in recent years. As a result, Iraqi officials say, a sustained political crisis in the Islamic republic could have lasting consequences for Iraq.

"No one is more worried and sad about what is going on in Iran than Iraq," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told reporters last week during an official visit to Japan. "Iran is an immediate neighbor and a powerful neighbor, and what happens there will affect us all."

The reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on June 12 triggered mass rallies and protests by rivals and their supporters, who allege the vote was rigged. The street violence and intense political confrontations that followed have rattled the country and called into question the resilience of its complex power structure. Iran is a democracy, but unelected clerics hold ultimate power.

Iraqi officials say it is impossible to predict how -- and to what extent -- the unrest in Tehran will affect their country.

In interviews, several politicians said they hope the crisis will make it harder for Iran's government to meddle in Iraqi affairs in coming months. Iraq is gearing up for a national election and is asserting more control over security as U.S. troops continue to draw down.

"All their energy is diverted to how to deal with the situation," Kurdish lawmaker Tanya Gilly said. "I think this is keeping them busy with their own affairs, rather than getting involved with other people's affairs. Maybe we'll have some quiet."

Mahmoud Othman, another Kurdish lawmaker, said he was heartened by the apparent rise of a strong reformist bloc in Iran. "A reformist regime is better for Iraq," he said. "It is not good for us to have a conservative Islamic regime [next door], because it will strengthen Islamists here, and that could create problems."

Two Iraqi Shiite politicians said the unrest in Iran will be short-lived, as Iranian leaders continue to clamp down on political opponents.

Ahmad al-Saoudi, who belongs to the political movement led by anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, currently based in Iran, said Western governments are fueling the unrest.

"The regime is strong and democratic," he said. "In fact, it is the only democratic regime in the Middle East. It is an organized campaign against Iran, and it will fail."

A senior Shiite leader from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party said he was concerned because Iran has a history of fueling conflicts abroad to divert attention from its domestic problems.

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