Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election as President of Iran has raised new questions about relations between the two neighbouring countries, especially given the unprecedented level of Iranian influence in Iraq
Iraqi political forces close to Iran immediately welcomed the contested election victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), who is currently being treated in a Tehran hospital for lung cancer, sent a telegram to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, congratulating him on "the success of the elections." Hamid Muala, a leading ISCI parliamentarian, told Niqash that "President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad… has good relations with Iraqi leaders and during his term positive relations between the two countries were established."
On the official level, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did not comment, having provoked recent tension with Tehran through his signing of a security pact with the U.S and by his declared opposition to federalism in Iraq. However, Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, did send a message of congratulations to President Ahmadinejad, provoking criticism from some Sunni and anti-Iranian leaders, angry that he acted before the integrity of the elections was confirmed.
According to Osama al-Najifi, a parliamentarian for the Iraqi National List, Iranian intervention in internal Iraqi affairs has significantly increased under Ahmadinejad and he does not, therefore, deserve the goodwill of the Iraqi government."Iran’s interventions in Iraqi affairs are evident; Tehran has played a negative role in disturbing the country’s stability and has sought to maintain a hand in government policies, legislation and other issues relating to Iraq’s future,” he said, commenting that the situation had become considerably worse during Ahmadinejad’s time in power.
Critics of Iranian influence say that the Persian country helped ferment Iraq’s recent civil war and that the country is taking more than its share of joint oil fields. Additionally, on-going border issues continue to cloud relations.
Others speak about revenge assassinations against Iraqi pilots who participated in the country’s eight year war against Iran in the 1980s. Kurds also complain about continuous air strikes against villages along the border area.
Iran for its part, has expressed anger about the continuing presence of the Mujahideen-e Khalq (Iranian opposition group) in Iraq, as well as Kurdish armed forces. Iranian figures say that Iraq’s willingness to support groups hostile to the Tehran government is provoking tension between the two countries.
Accordingly, some pro-Iranian figures defend Iranian action. According to Muala, the ISCI parliamentarian, accusations of excessive Iranian influence are not justifiable and are the product of sectarian division rather than a reflection of reality. "Those who have fears should distance themselves from the influence of sectarian agendas giving rise to such fears," he said.
On the back of these tensions, some figures in Iraq had hoped that a change of Iranian President might be an opportunity to reset relations between the two countries. Despite recognizing the pervading influence of non-elected religious figures in Iran, al-Najifi, like other pan-Arab figures, had been hopeful that an Ahmadinejad defeat would lead to decreased Iranian intervention in Iraq.
Now, with Ahmadinejad’s seeming re-election, these hopes have been dashed. According to Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman, the election outcome “will harm the region’s interests in general and those of Iraq in particular. Ahmadinejad is not a moderate person and his presence creates tensions.”
Yet, even as the debate over Iranian influence grows ever hotter, some Iraqi lawmakers say that the problem is not related to the identity of the Iranian President but to Iraqi policy itself. According to these critics, it is the weakness of Iraqi diplomacy, and not Ahmadinejad, which has opened the door to foreign intervention in the country.
“Those responsible for the diplomatic relations were not able during the last five years to formulate balanced diplomatic relations with many countries and this has significantly contributed in transforming Iraq into a place of international influence and struggle,” Asma al-Musawi, a member of the Sadr Movement’s Political Bureau, told Niqash.