While I was watching TV a few days ago, I turned the channel to CNN and saw, in bold letters printed at the bottom of screen, “Iraq cozying up to Iran”. Wolf Blitzer was interviewing President Bush, asking him about the Iraqi Prime Minister's recent trip to Tehran. I didn't think much of it, so I turned to FOX News. About ten minutes later, a commentator asked an analyst on the show if he felt Iran and Iraq were getting too close and too friendly.
But these discussions should not come as a surprise. Iran is making the news much more these days and so the networks need to talk about something on their shows. However ridiculous the notion of an Iran-Iraq love fest may be, the media insists on talking about it at every opportunity. Hopefully, the public can sift through this silly idea and see what is truly underneath Iran and Iraq's relationship. Maybe a bit of history will help …
It's safe to say that many of the people occupying modern-day Iran have identified their nation as Iran for more than 2,700 years. Over the millenniums, numerous armies, empires and nations have conquered, occupied and taken root in Iran. Yet, the country has retained much of its identity and remains extremely nationalistic. Iraq, on the other hand, does not share a similar history.
Though Iraq's current territory was once the birthplace of civilization, few nations have settled the region for a period long enough to create the same nationalist sentiments experienced in Iran. Whereas Iran has been free from direct occupation for nearly 500 years, Iraq only became free from foreign rule in the last century. This is not to say that Iraqis are not proud people with a history to appreciate. They do not, however, identify themselves in the same way as Iranians for as long as Iranians have.
Despite their different histories, no matter who has occupied the present day territories of Iran and Iraq, the two nations have always gone to war with each other. This hostility can be traced as far back as the original establishment and expansion of the Persian Empire well over 2,000 years ago, through the Muslim Conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries and well into the Ottoman Empire's battles with various Persian Dynasties. More than two millennium of warfare leaves a historical mark ˆ one that cannot easily be overlooked or forgotten.
Like most conflicts, as the years pass the conflict intensifies. From 1500 to 2000, these two groups fought nine major wars (not including the hundreds of limited border skirmishes). For a period of 500 years, the people of Iran and Iraq were engaged in a major conflict once every 55 years. This means that nearly every generation has some memory of going to war with its neighboring country.
Of course, this figure does not include the years from the 7th through the 16th centuries when both lands were occupied by the Arab Muslims of the Saudi Peninsula and the tensions that grew from that time period. But, the 500 years of recent history does include the pinnacle event: the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. This war, which remains a close memory for every Iranian, claimed the lives of 1.5 million people and cost the two nations US$ 550 billion. The people of Iran and Iraq do not know peace; and any peace they may have known was experienced too long ago to ever remember.
The roots of their conflict are complex and confusing. Some argue that the wars are about religion and ethnicity, a Persian-Arab and Shi'a oriented battle. Others say it's about geopolitics, with the Shatt al-Arab Waterway at the core (a valid case considering this river has been the focus of disputes in treaties for the past 400 years). However you want to look at the conflict, a central theme of power emerges. Iran has always sought to dominate the region, as have most of the other nations of the Middle East. And with two power hungry groups living side by side, war is not only natural, it's inevitable.
So why the media alarm that Iran and Iraq may become good friends over night? It's undeniable that Iran has considerably benefited from the US-Iraq War. Iran's influence has expanded into Iraq thanks to the vacuum created by Saddam's departure. Iraq has much to gain from Iran as well, namely economic ties.
And, of course, the unifier for both nations: neither is too fond of the United States. As the old saying goes, politics makes strange bedfellows. Thus, on the surface, it may appear that Iran and Iraq are becoming best of friends. But it's important to remember that this friendship, based merely on interests, is short-term at best; and the mutual interests will most likely only exist as long as the United States remains in Iraq.
Over the next several years, it's probable that the US will significantly withdraw its forces from Iraq. If and when this happens, a countdown to the next Iran-Iraq War will begin. Truthfully, the only reason the two countries have not gone to war already is because the US military represents the Iraqi Army — a chilling prospect for Iran.
However, as soon as Iraq is on its own, it would not be far fetched to assume that Iran will take the first aggressive step towards expanding its influence in the region. When that happens, the two can expect another war mostly because there are far more differences between Iran and Iraq than there are similarities. And the outcome of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s showed that absolutely none of the issues that led the two nations to war were resolved, leaving the two ripe and ready for another engagement.
Yet, if the US keeps a considerable number of troops in Iraq, the outcome will likely be different. But given the mood in the US, it's anyone's guess on whether or not the US will remain in Iraq for a long period of time (comparable to post-war Germany or South Korea).
Of course, the US could very easily find a war between Iran and Iraq to be in its own best interest, withdraw its troops and let the two nations go to war once again. The next five to fifty years are tough to predict, but one thing will remain certain: regardless of who is in power in the two countries, Iran and Iraq will go to war in the near future for the same reasons they have gone to war over the past 500 years.
While the media insists on selling catchy headlines that play to people's anxieties and angers, it's important to remember that history, not a TV commentator, is usually a better judge of the future. There certainly is cause for alarm, but that alarm will benefit from some historical context!
Mazi Bahadori a graduate from UC Berkeley with a degree in history and a current law student at Chapman University.