While the new Iraqi government owes its existence to the United States, it remains religiously and politically tied to Iran, whose refusal to stop its nuclear program has made it an enemy of the Bush administration.
Iran is Iraq’s main ally in the region and both nations now have Shia leadership: Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The two governments have displayed cooperation over the past year, even meeting to discuss stabilization of Iraq.
But the Bush administration announced in February that Iran is arming Iraqi Shia militias that are attacking and killing U.S. troops and destabilizing the country.
In a Feb. 14 speech, President Bush accused the Quds Force, an Iranian paramilitary unit, of providing the weapons.
“What we don’t know is whether or not the head leaders of Iran ordered the Quds Force to do what they did,” the president said.
Mohammed Ali Hosseini, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, rejected the accusations of militant support and accused the United States of continuing a “long history in fabricating evidence.”
Iraqi leaders, for their part, have tried to stay out of the dispute, highlighting the uncomfortable position of the government.
“We have told the Iranians and the Americans, ‘We know that you have a problem with each other, but we are asking you, please solve your problems outside Iraq,'” al-Maliki told CNN in early February.
The U.S. administration has consistently warned Iran to pull back involvement of any kind in Iraq, including Iranian offers of military and economic assistance, but in late February Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice opened a door for diplomatic relations between the three countries.
On February 27, Rice announced that the United States will take part in meetings between Iraq and its neighbors, including Iran, a major change in policy.
The Iranian support of insurgents will be a major topic at the talks, though Ahmadinejad has denied having any involvement with Iraqi insurgents and said peace in Iraq is in Iran’s interest.
Brendan O’Leary, a professor and director of the Solomon Asch Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said few in Iraq would deny that Iran has been involved in supporting Shia militia, but it is unclear if the country is conducting a coherent, deliberate plan of support.
“The most likely truth is that different factions and agents in Iran are helping different factions in Iraq,” O’Leary said.
Flynt Leverett of the New America Foundation told the NewsHour on Feb. 12 that the possibility of Iranian involvement should be no surprise.
Before the U.S. invasion, Leverett said, Iran had “a 20-year record of providing support, including military training and equipment, to Iraqi opposition groups,” including current Iraqi political factions.
“It should not surprise us that Iran has worked hard to maintain very active ties … with all of the major actors in Shia politics,” Leverett said.
Iran cannot afford to stay out of the political situation in Iraq, said Nezar AlSayyad, chairman of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California Berkeley, because the Iraq Ahmadinejad would like to see prosper is different from the Iraq the United States is trying to build.
If the U.S. plan for a democratic Iraq with peaceful coexistence among groups were ever to be successful, it would be “destabilizing to Iran,” AlSayyad said. “If it works, it would be an alternative that some Iranians would want.”
By staying engaged with Iraq, unlike Iraq’s fellow Arab countries, AlSayyad said Iran is pressuring Iraq to face one of its biggest problems: that many Iraqis doubt the legitimacy of their own government.
“What Iran is doing with the current government in Iraq is to say ‘At least they are Shias like us so we will put pressure on them to choose between their American lords and us,'” said Alsayyad.
And while the Iraqi public has become disillusioned with the flagging U.S. attempts to rebuild the country and its economy, Iran has won allies through economic investment in the Shia south.
The Shia connection is an important one, but Iran is a Persian state and Iraq is an Arab state — a significant cultural divide.
“In both of these countries you have a lot of cultural background that is very different because of the empires that existed before,” said author and Middle East expert Joseph Kechichian.
Iran and Iraq both have “heavy cultural baggage” that sets them apart, said Kechichian, and their similarities come more from a revulsion to foreign occupation than from natural cultural connections.
In addition, Iran and Iraq have had a violent history at times, which has carried through to a pervading suspicion between the two countries and their governments, Kechichian said.
Iran and Iraq fought a bloody war from 1980 to 1988 over border disputes and demands for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The war had more than a million casualties, leaving long-standing wounds on both sides.
Iraq’s new government has made efforts to acknowledge that Saddam was the aggressor for that war and condemn his actions. There has also been some recognition of the difficult choices Iraqi civilians faced during that period.
Most of the Shia in Iraq were conscripted to fight for Saddam, according to O’Leary, and if they had transferred to Iran’s side their families would have been in danger.
With the governments of Iran and Iraq looking to move forward as allies, Iran is competing hard with the United States for political influence there, Salameh Nematt, the Washington bureau chief of the Arab daily newspaper Al-Hayat, told the NewsHour.
“The Iranians will always be there. And they feel that, once the Americans leave, the Iraqi government is going to be more willing to cooperate on matters that serve Iran’s regional policies,” said Nematt.