“Wimps go to Baghdad”, they say in neo-conservative circles in Washington, “real men go to Tehran.” It sounds tough at dinner parties, and the macho intellectuals who talk like that never worry that genuinely hard men can overhear their silly chatter. But they can, and they are already taking measures to protect themselves. They live in Iran.
Iran’s Islamist government is split between the moderate reformers around the president, Mohammed Khatami, and the radical mullahs around Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but it is the mullahs who control the army and foreign policy. They are terrified by the imminent arrival of the American army on Iran’s western frontier, only a couple of hours’ drive from the country’s biggest oilfields, especially since George W. Bush has put Iran on his “axis of evil” hit-list. So the more trouble the US has in Iraq, the better.
The biggest problem facing an American occupation regime in Iraq is the fact that the Sunni Arab minority has dominated the government and the army for generations. The Shia Arabs have been largely excluded from power and are relatively poor, but they are almost two-thirds of the population and in a democratic Iraq they would automatically dominate the government. The problem is that their sympathies lie with their fellow Shias in Iran, and a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad is not exactly what the US had in mind.
Across the frontier
The first President Bush incited both the Kurds of the northern Iraq and the Shia of the south to revolt against Saddam Hussein at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, but both groups were betrayed when US forces did not support them. The Kurds managed to hold on to most of the traditional Kurdish areas of northern Iraq and have been free from Saddam Hussein’s control for the past dozen years — but the Shia in the south were massacred and utterly crushed.
Thousands of Iraqi Shia fled across the frontier into Iran, where the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq took responsibility for their lives. SCIRI was founded 20 years ago at the height of the Iran-Iraq war under the patronage of the Islamic revolutionary government in Iran. It is led by Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, who lives in exile in Tehran, and its purpose is to bring about an Islamic revolution, not a secular democracy, in Iraq.
SCIRI has an extensive underground network of support in the Shia parts of Iraq, and it has all the resources of the Iranian state behind it. SCIRI has no intention of allowing the United States of America to rule Iraq even for a day: it will resist, and it will do so in a distinctively Shia way.
The Iranian revolution of 1978 was in some ways a precursor to the wave of non-violent democratic revolutions that has transformed the world in the past couple of decades, but it had a special Shia twist. Every 40 days the unarmed crowds came out on the streets in mourning for the last group of non-violent protesters killed by the Shah’s army, taunting his soldiers to kill again. The soldiers did kill, time after time, with the civilians almost willingly submitting to martyrdom — until the Iranian army finally grew sick of so much blood and abandoned the American-backed monarch. It was an extraordinarily effective tactic, and within months of the inevitable American victory, we will probably be seeing it again in all the Shia cities of southern Iraq.
American troops will not respond with the clumsy and murderous tactics of the Shah’s army, for their leaders have all been taught more sophisticated methods of crowd control. But there will also be terrorism, and given US paranoia about “terrorists” and the Bush administration’s tendency to lump all its Arab and Muslim enemies together, the Shia extremists may get what they are seeking sooner or later. One massacre, and then they are in business. SCIRI’s leaders are moving back into Iraq right now. Two years from now, they will either be ruling Iraq or struggling to break away from it (and take most of the oil with them).