US shuns Iran-style theocracy for Iraq
By Geneive Abdo, Globe Correspondent, 4/25/03
WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld declared yesterday that the United States would not tolerate an Iranian-style theocracy in Iraq.
"If you're suggesting how we would feel about an Iranian-type government with a few clerics running everything in the country, the answer is: That isn't going to happen," Rumsfeld said in an interview with the Associated Press.
Bush administration officials have accused the Shi'ite clergy who rule Iran of inspiring their brethren in neighboring Iraq to challenge the democratic and secular forces that the United States hopes will lead a postwar government. Huge Shi'ite religious gatherings in southern Iraq this week often had political overtones, including calls to replace the toppled government of Saddam Hussein with an Islamic state.
Some US officials who specialize in Iranian relations say the Iranian clergy maintain only minimal religious influence over Shi'ites in Iraq, who constitute more than 60 percent of the population. In their view, Iran is not out to undermine the democratic and secular forces who are vying for power with the Shi'ite majority.
These officials said the US warnings to Iran reflect the views of conservatives within the Bush administration who believe Iran is responsible for the rising tide of anti-American sentiment among Iraq's Shi'ites.
"There is confusion in the Bush administration that the Shi'ites in Iraq are like the Shi'ites in Iran. But they are not the same, and they view religion and politics differently," said one US official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "And then there are those in the administration who want to target Iran and believe the US made a wrong turn in recent weeks when it lashed out at Syria."
The accusations against Iran come at a time when key Iranian leaders have suggested that the two countries mend relations, after 24 years of hostility.
"The Bush administration's charges are creating the real possibility of a serious US-Iran confrontation," said Gary Sick, director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University.
Hashemi Rafsanjani, former president of Iran, suggested recently that a referendum be held for Iranians to decide if they want to reconcile with the United States. A majority of Iranians favor reconciliation, according to numerous opinion polls.
A US-Iran specialist in Iran said the Bush administration's charges have ruined a rare opening from Tehran.
"There is a chance here which could be spoiled by Iraq and the Bush administration's scapegoat scenario," said the specialist, who declined to be identified. "People here definitely want to do something to improve relations, but they don't know how."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said on Wednesday that the United States was seeking a democratic Iraq while Iranian agents were trying to promote a radical Islam among Iraq's Shi'ites in order to create a hard-line Islamic state.
Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi of Iran rejected the charges yesterday, saying Iran did not seek to enhance the power of Shi'ite Muslims in Iraq.
"Naturally, the majority of Iraq is Shi'ite, but we are not insisting on [a role for the Shi'ites]," Kharrazi said. "For us, Shi'ites, Sunnis, Turks, and Arabs are the same, and everybody should play their role in a democratic Iraq."
US officials have said Iran's Revolutionary Guards, an elite force led by Iran's supreme clerical leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have infiltrated Iraq.
A limited number of Revolutionary Guards are accompanying the Badr Brigade, a military force of about 10,000 men under the command of Ayatollah Mohammad Bakir al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an opposition group that was based in Iran for at least a decade. The brigade, along with Iran's Revolutionary Guards, now have a key presence in the towns of Kut and Baquba, near the Iranian border, according to US intelligence officials.
But despite this military presence, Hakim and his group are not working to install a radical Islamic government in Iraq, said the specialist in Tehran. "The Shi'ite on the street in Karbala who chants anti-American slogans and calls for an Islamic state is not operating by remote control from Iran.
"What I saw from Hakim when he was in Iran was that he wants to unify the Iraqi opposition and he opposes the idea of a supreme clerical rule," said the specialist, referring to Iran's style of government, which gives the supreme leader final authority over all state matters, including the military apparatus and the judiciary.
Hakim called on Shi'ites last week to make a pilgrimage to the holy city of Karbala to "oppose the US-led interim administration and defend Iraq's independence." More than 1 million Shi'ites converged on Karbala on Tuesday, the first time in decades they were free to commemorate the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Mohammed. Saddam Hussein -- a Sunni Muslim, like Iraqi leaders before him -- had banned the ritual.
Aggravating relations between the United States and Iran is the view of Iran's ruling establishment that it has a legitimate right to some political influence in Iraq's postwar government. Iran borders Iraq and fought an eight-year war against Hussein's regime, which ended in stalemate in 1988.
But many conservatives view Iran as a continuing threat to US national security.
"There has been no progress in Iran on the issues the United States cares about," said Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, a think tank in Washington affiliated with the Bush administration. "The Iranians have weapons of mass destruction and they support terrorist groups, and it's only getting worse."
Iranian leaders believe the recent accusations are designed to create a pretext for the Bush administration to demand that Iran change its political system and moderate its anti-Western policies. President Bush, on numerous occasions, has called on the Iranian people to work to change their government, a message interpreted as a call for Iranians to revolt against the clerical regime.
"The people here feel they will be a scapegoat if things go badly for the US in Iraq and that the Americans are looking for an excuse to make changes in Iran," said the specialist in Tehran.