Memorandum submitted by Charles Tripp,
University of London
Iran-Iraq relations are built upon the shaky foundations
of mutual mistrust and recent fierce enmity. The eight year war
between these two states has left its mark at all levels of the
population. This does not necessarily determine relations between
Iran and Iraq, but it has created a reserve of bitterness and
hostility that can be drawn upon by their respective governments
when crises erupt. In between these crises, the two states have
found a modus vivendi, facilitated to a large degree by
the severity of Iraq's isolation for the past decade under international
However, there are a number of salient issues
which play a large part in shaping relations between the two states.
Some remain as complicating features in the background and some
are capable of generating severe tensions.
1. LEGACIES OF
None of the issues emerging from the war have
yet been resolved. The boundary between the two states along the
Shatt al-Arab waterway in particular has not been demarcated.
This boundaryan ostensible casus belli in 1980was
settled in the Algiers Agreement of 1975 between Iran and Iraq.
In 1980, Saddam Hussein (one of the signatories) tore it up in
public and repudiated it. He promised to recognise it once more
in 1990 during the Kuwait crisis, but no formal move was forthcoming.
As a result, the border remains undetermined and sovereignty over
the Shatt al-Arab potentially in dispute. Given the present blockade
of Basra and the condition of maritime trade at the head of the
Gulf, this is not a burning issue at present, but it is highly
charged in symbolic terms. Saddam Hussein for obvious reasons
but also the Iranian government attach considerable importance
to this manifestation of sovereignty and each is unwilling to
yield to the other.
Another major legacy of the warthe payment
of reparations claimed by both sidesis also unresolved.
Each side accuses the other of having initiated the war, although
there can be little doubt that Iraq invaded Iran. Fortunately
for Iraq, the supine attitude of the UN Security Council at the
time has left this question open, allowing Iraq to refute Iran's
claims for war reparations by asserting that it was the injured
party. As in the case of the Shatt al-Arab dispute, this is not
an issue that is pressed with much vigour by either side. Iraq's
financial plight and the heavy reparations that it is beginning
to pay out under UN auspices to Kuwait have pushed this aside.
Nevertheless, it has symbolic significance and is tied up with
the authority and prestige of both governments.
The issue of Prisoners of War (chiefly of Iraqis
languishing in Iran) is one which continues to have relevance,
although one might have imagined that it would have been resolved
long before. The majority of the 60,000 or so Iraqis captured
by Iran during the war have returned to Iraq, although a substantial
number chose to stay in Iran, initially at least to join the Iraqi
Shi'i resistance organisation, SCIRI. Nevertheless, small batches
of prisoners have been released periodically by Iran and, in fact,
this has been an area in which Iraqi and Iranian officials have
been intermittently active in negotiations during the past few
years. The fact that a trickle of POWs comes out of Iran (and
a smaller number go the other way) all of these years after the
ending of the war has kept the issue alive among both populations.
The thousands of men listed as "missing" on both sides
may well be dead, but live on in the imaginations of their families,
unjustly incarcerated in the prisons of the enemy.
2. SECURITY CONCERNS
The security concerns which characterise each
side's view of the other are not simply due to the experience
of eight years of war. In some senses, they antedate that war
(and may have contributed to the tensions which led to it) and
they are also due to the opportunities created by the war and
by the subsequent 10 years of developments in the Gulf.
The Iraqi government has always been fearful
of the weight and power of Iran (a population of nearly 50 million,
as against Iraq's 18 million or so). Until the opportunities (and
incentives) for war that seemed to be created by the Iranian revolution,
this had led to marked caution in Iraq's policies towards Iran.
Saddam Hussein thought that he could counteract the strategic
weight of Iran by developing a massive capability in Iraqboth
of conventional weapons and of weapons of mass destruction.
It is the latter that cause Iran the greatest
concern now. Iran had experience of Iraq's use of chemical weapons
against its forces and of missiles against its cities. The fact
that the international community failed to prevent Iraq from using
these weapons in the 1980s undoubtedly accelerated Iran's determination
to develop its own weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, the use
of missiles against Iraqi cities in relation for Iraqi attacks
had an immediate andfor the Iranianswelcome effect.
The sanctions imposed on Iraq since 1990 and
the programme of weapons inspection and destruction carried out
by UNSCOM from 1990-98 have clearly damaged Iraq's actual capabilities
in both the conventional and unconventional fields. Nevertheless,
they have not removed the threat which the introduction of such
weapons into the region represents for Iran. The Iranian government
is only too well aware of Iraq's highly developed smuggling operations
for evading sanctions. It also suspects, like many others, that
despite eight years of intrusive weapons inspections, the Iraqi
authorities have succeeded in concealing key components of chemical
and biological weapons from the UN (and has, of course, been free
of all such inspections for the past two years). More importantly,
Iran suspects that the logic which led to Iraq's development of
weapons of mass destruction is still present and that it would
not be difficult for Iraq to produce them again, once sanctions
are lifted. As the one state against which Iraq has used weapons
of mass destruction, it is not surprising that this concern should
be a pressing one for Iran.
There is another, subsidiary but nevertheless
sharply felt aspect to security which is capable of troubling
relations between the two states. This relates to the refuge given
by each government to the internal opponents of the other. Iraq
has long given sanctuary and support to the Mujahidin-e Khalq
(MKO), a radical Islamo-socialist organisation, bitterly opposed
to the Iranian government. For its part, Iran hosts and sponsors
the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI)
a Shi'i based Islamic organisation, pledged to overthrow the government
of Saddam Hussein. Neither organisation would be capable in fact
of overthrowing the governments of Iran and Iraq, respectively.
Nevertheless, the MKO does organise assassinations and bombings
of targets associated with the government of Iran. SCIRI is equally
responsible for sporadic attacks on government buildings in Iraq
and for the assassination of Ba "thist officials, mostly
in the largely Shi'i south of the country. MKO activities have
provoked the Iranian armed forces to retaliate several times during
the past few years, bombing sites within Iraq where the suspect
the MKO is based. The Iraqi government has also retaliated for
SCIRI attacks, but usually by way of reprisals amongst its own
Shi'i populationalthough the rhetorical barrage against
Iran may be maintained at the same time.
This has been at its sharpest when there has
been evidence of Iranian intervention in the northern Kurdish
region, presently under the Kurdish Regional Government and out
of the control of Baghdad. The Kurdish parties have long cultivated
relations with Irana logical source of support and refuge,
given the shared border in the mountains and the history of Iran-Iraq
emnity. Given the condition of Kurdish politics, divided against
themselves and dominated by the two major partiesthe KDP
and the PUKthere has been plenty of scope for the Iranian
government to exercise its influence in the region. For some years,
it has had particularly close links with the PUK, the party which
dominates the area of Kurdistan up against the Iranian border.
In 1996 so great was the assistance being given by Iran that it
upset the delicate balance of power in Kurdistan and the PUK's
rivals, the KDP, called upon the Iraqi army to intervene on its
behalf to drive the PUK out of Irbil, the "capital"
of the Kurdish region. Saddam Hussein was only too happy to comply,
with disastrous results for the PUK, their Iranian allies and
all those Iraqis who had sought refuge in the area. The Iraqi
forces eventually withdrew, but since that time, there have been
periodic rumours of impending military intervention whenever it
seemed that the PUK was getting the upper hand, possibly assisted
3. CO -OPERATION
IN THE GULF
Iran-Iraq emnity is deep-seated and is always
ready to surface at moments of crisisand is capable of
generating those crises of course. However, this does not mean
that Iran-Iraq relations are characterised by perpetual conflict.
On the contrary, the two sides have found a number of issues over
which to co-operate. Under the US-led policy of "dual containment"
which has been in force since 1990, there has been good reason
for pragmatic co-operation. During the Kuwait crisis and war,
Iran did not give Iraq the kind of assistance which Saddam Hussein
rather unrealistically seemed to have expected. Nevertheless,
once the war was over, Iran and Iraq saw considerable mutual benefit
in co-operating against sanctions.
In this way, during the 1990s, Iran became a
major route for Iraqi trade seeking to evade the UN sanctions
enforcement agencies; substantial quantities of Iraqi oil were
smuggled down the Gulf, to be passed off as Iranian oil; meanwhile
the long and porous land border with Iran allowed Iraq to set
up a lucrative import trade. For Iraq, the benefits were obvious.
For Iran, there was the leverage it could hope to exert by controlling
these routes in and out of Iraq. A useful measure of the deterioration
of Iraq-Iran relations in other spheres, or of Iran's determination
to show who was dependent on whom has been the Iranian navy's
occasional "discovery" and seizure of shipments of Iraqi
oil travelling down the Gulf.
With the weakening of "dual containment"
and the possible thaw in Iran-US relations, the Iranian government
has less incentive to help Iraq evade the sanctions. Oil smuggling
continues, but Iraq has returned to the market legitimately as
a major oil producer under the UN's "oil for food" resolutions.
Inevitably, this has given Iran and Iraq a shared interest in
the price and production of oil as substantial members of OPEC.
Whilst this does not necessarily breed harmony, it injects into
the relationship the complex alliances and coalitions which characterise
intra-OPEC politics in which the condition of the market can bring
states together which otherwise have a record of historical emnity.
Underpinned by mistrust and characterised by
a number of potential flash-points. Iran-Iraq relations nevertheless
have demonstrated a remarkable stability during the past decade.
Mutual vituperation and recrimination have remained at a largely
rhetorical level. Even when the emnity seems at its sharpest,
it can give way with disconcerting speed to expressions of solidarity
and even a limited amount of pragmatic co-operation. This may
be because neither side feels that they can reach a conclusive
agreement on any of the outstanding issues between them as long
as the present situation of deteriorating "dual containment"
and punitive sanctions on Iraq continues. For this reason, the
principal impression is one of "unfinished business"
against a background of security fears and potential menace. The
fact that Iran and Iraq have nevertheless succeeded in reaching
a modus vivendiwith only occasional lapsesmay
be more encouraging than the depth of their emnity would suggest.
29 September 2000