Talisman Gate

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Red and Blue States in the Middle East

Copyright 2004 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

December 2, 2004 Thursday


LENGTH: 1280 words

HEADLINE: Red and Blue States in the Middle East

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


Plenty of interested parties are freaking out as the elections approach in Iraq. The January 30 deadline is looming large and some, mostly Sunnis and Arab governments, are counseling a delay. The White House and the Shias are against the delay and as such share a common agenda, but there is increasing wariness within the American government about who among the Shia would actually win the elections and what that would mean for American interests in Iraq and any future policy course on another Shia-dominated country, Iran.

Polls that have been recently conducted in Iraq are closer in spirit to alchemy than science, and are being tailored to influence policy back in Washington. Most polls are now showing that the Iran-backed Islamic (Shia) parties such as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Da'awa Party are poised to carry the vote in the upcoming elections. These two parties are beholden to the powerful theocrats in Iran.

Even the most talked-about and likely candidates for the post of prime minister are current Finance Minister Adel Abdel-Mahdi and ex-nuclear physicist and political prisoner Hussein Shahrestani, who has emerged as the troubleshooter for Grand Ayatollah Sistani's ambitious and increasingly meddling son, Muhammed Ridha. Both Mr. Mahdi and Mr. Shahrestani are close to the Iranians; close not in the "let's meet some time for a drink" sense, but rather "Sure, I'd be glad to help you move" type of bosom-buddy close. Hint, hint; wink, wink. I won't say any more because the finance ministry may revoke my food ration card, which is a prerogative of his excellency the minister.

Such Shia religious parties are indeed popular, since they carried the anti-Saddam banner when Shias were being persecuted for their sectarian identity. However, this popularity will wane as more Shias feel less threatened by the Iraqi state, which is likely to be dominated by them after the votes are tallied.

Yet the subtle feedback from whoever (likely has something to do with Baghdad's CIA station) is subsidizing and tweaking the poll results is that beyond January 2005, Iran will be in effective control of Iraq. This is being used as another argument for delaying the elections.

The obsession with Iran has been an early CIA activity in Iraq: the first of Saddam Hussein's cronies to be offered a job after liberation were intelligence officers who had handled the Iraqi espionage networks operating against Iran, much like Reinhard Gehlen's ex-Nazis employed by the Americans against the Soviet Union. Even the notorious Mujaheddi-Khalq Organization, Iranian terrorists and murderers hosted by Saddam and used by him from time to time against the ayatollahs in Tehran and Iraqi civilians in places like Kirkuk and Ramadi, have been resurrected as a practical tool for Washington's agenda of annoying the Iranians. The border crossing to Iran from Iraq is the only place where the Iraqi passport officers take your digital photo on the way in and out and seems to be a very sophisticated anti-terror operation; contrasted to the Iraqi side of the Syrian and Jordanian borders where they don't even bother to look at your document before stamping it.

But as the spies are busily collecting whatever scraps of information on Iran they can dredge up, I wonder what the intelligence analysts are saying about Iranian ambitions in Iraq. The CIA already has their own men dominating the interim Iraqi government, and elections are likely to change all that. They are pointing to the turbaned Iranian bogeyman and its track-record of exporting Islamic revolution to forestall Iraq's democracy.

The Iranians have demonstrated that they have three strategies for Iraq: Don't let the Sunnis run things again, make plenty of money off a strong Iraqi economy, and get back on talking terms with the Americans. What is certainly not on their agenda is turning Iraq through hook or crook into an Islamic Republic, and there's a simply reason for that: God does not like the Iraqis, and can't trust them to rule in His name. At least that is what the Iranians think.

The Iranians have long ago given up on turning Iraqis into Iranians. Iraqis are seen as materialistic, money-grubbing hooligans with a penchant for wickedness and blasphemy, whereas Iranians see themselves as hard-working, neat, and God-fearing folk. Iranians at a shrine would beseech the higher powers for nicer real estate in the hereafter's heaven; the Iraqis would demand, and not ask for, a better deal in the here and now, plus an option for a pox to befall their pesky neighbors next door. In fact, the Shia equivalent to the Christian concept of the patron saint, Imam Ali, is on the record some 14 centuries ago berating the people of Iraq as "the likenesses of men" and those who "cannot do battle in the winter for it is cold, or during the summer for it is hot." Some historians believe that such statements are traditional trash-talking of Iraqis planted on the Imam by over-zealous Iranian pamphleteers some centuries ago.

Making judgments on the relative religiosity of nations is a difficult enterprise, much like the recent debate in America delineating Red States high on values and faith, and Blue States likened by some on the extreme rights as Sodom (California) and Gomorrah (New York). But Iraq - even if the Islamic parties whose stated agendas are evident in their names like "Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq" carry the day - is unlikely to turn into an Islamic Republic.

Such intangible reflections can be made while walking through the inner labyrinths of Tehran's Grand Bazaar on a Thursday afternoon. Iranian merchants who operate in the bazaar spend decades making a name for themselves as pious, trustworthy folk whose reputation is beyond reproach. They usually seek to become early philanthropists and community figures through the local mosque and get on good terms with the local mullah. That is why, on the afternoon preceding the Muslim Sabbath of Friday, the ancient and monolithic bazaar is shuttered up as the faithful go about getting themselves in God's good books. How very Iranian.

Take a couple of left turns at the bazaar and you'll end up, by following the commotion, at the Merwi market, or the Alley of the Arabs. This is the hub of the exiled Iraqi mercantile class. They are open for business, and thriving, on Thursday afternoon, and you'll find them peddling their wares on Friday as well. Their measure of success is car, house, and trophy wife. Sounds familiar? This is also the part of town where the odd street urchin will also offer "hashish, whiskey, and women." I also note, with some pride, that Tehran's black-market currency exchange is controlled by Iraqis from my home town of Kazimayn. How typically Iraqi.

Many arguments have been made to suggest that there is a very wide discrepancy between Iraqi Shias and their coreligionists in Iran, even though they share much in common. Old Tehran looks aesthetically and architecturally very similar to Old Baghdad. Iraqis and Iranians like the same food, too, and over millennia have swapped Farsi and Arabic words to spruce up their vocabulary. But that is also true of red and blue towns throughout America that share McDonald's and the English language.

The mullahs in Tehran believe that the upcoming elections in Iraq will ensure that a coterie of unthreatening Iraqis comes to power, and that Iranian good behavior during this period will earn them brownie points with the American government to be cashed in for a benign and long-standing detente. As for their values-challenged Iraqi co-religionists, well, what ever else happens in Baghdad, will stay in Baghdad.