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'Saddam Asked Me: Have You Read About Welayat al-Faqih?'

'Saddam Asked Me: Have You Read About Welayat al-Faqih?'

Monday, 2 December, 2019 - 11:30
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

One day, Iraqi State Minister for Foreign Affairs Hamid al-Jubouri was surprised by a question from President Saddam Hussein: “Have you read about Welayat al-Faqih?" The minister’s response was no.

Saddam said: “It is a small book that you must read.” Then he began to talk about “the bad things about Khomeini and his greed for power”.

Jubouri had no other choice but to read. When he told Saddam that he did, the latter replied: “I wanted you to know.”


Jubouri knew the president well, as he was Saddam’s office manager when he was vice president. He felt that the issue of Welayat al-Faqih was worrying the decision-maker in Baghdad.


I published the words of Jubouri and later met the man and asked him again. He said that two expressions worried Saddam, namely, “Welayat al-Faqih” and “exporting the revolution.” He might have concluded that confrontation with Iran was inevitable, and that it was better for him to fight it early and along the border, rather than in the streets of Baghdad.


Jubouri reiterated that Saddam “was not sectarian unlike some narrow-minded people around him, but he feared for Iraq, its system and social fabric and the possibility of part of the Shiites be dragged into the Iranian religious project.”


The two words were deeply rooted in Saddam’s mind. In September 1979, he led his country’s delegation to the Non-Aligned Summit in Havana. Iranian Foreign Minister Ebrahim Yazdi asked to see him. He received him in the presence of Salah Omar al-Ali, Iraq’s representative to the United Nations. Yazdi was very flexible and suggested exchanging visits between the two countries to reduce tension on the border.

Following the meeting, Salah said that the meeting was positive and could be built upon.

“Diplomacy seems to have corrupted you,” Saddam replied. “Do not repeat such words. Such opportunity is available only once every hundred years. I will break the head of the Iranians and get back every inch.”

Saddam was referring to what Iran had obtained under the Algiers Accord he signed with the Shah to ensure that Iranian support for the Kurdish movement would cease.


A third story I heard from Lieutenant General Ibrahim al-Daoud, member of the Revolutionary Command Council and Minister of Defense. He said the Iranian ambassador came to present his credentials to President Abdul Salam Arif, but the meeting turned into a crisis in relations. Everything was normal until the ambassador uttered an explosive phrase.

He said to Arif: “His Majesty the Shah sends you his greetings and asks you to look after the people of Najaf and Karbala.”

Arif was bursting in anger and replied: “Shame on you! The Shah of Iran is asking me to take care of my people!” He threw the credentials and expelled the ambassador.


Another story I heard from Major General Abdul Ghani al-Rawi, who oversaw the “trial” and execution of President Abdel Karim Kassem. Rawi confirmed that the Iranian embassy in Baghdad encouraged him in 1969 to leave Iraq to organize a coup against the Baath rule. He said he held talks in Tehran with the head of the SAVAK at the time, Nematollah Nasiri, culminating in a meeting with the Shah. He obtained military and financial support. But Saddam succeeded in uncovering the conspiracy and executed a number of officers.


Scenes transmitted by satellite channels of the wave of bloody Iraqi protests reminded me of the stories I heard in the past years during my follow-up on Iraqi affairs.

The fiercest wave of protests began in southern Iraq, from a Shiite region, where pro-Iranian parties have the final say. Protesters targeted the two Iranian consulates in the cities Karbala and Najaf, which the Shah had once asked Arif to take care of their people.

Iraqis called for boycotting Iranian goods, saying that their flow into the Iraqi market severely damaged local products. But one of the most dangerous remarks by the protesters was that Tehran appointed the current Iraqi officials.


Realistically, the dominant Iranian role was not the only or the first cause of the uprising. The protests were triggered by widespread corruption, looting of state funds, rising unemployment and the failure of institutions. But the protesters considered that the “Iranian tutelage” participated in producing this reality and covering it.


Another issue is the widening gap between the positions of the Iraqi and Iranian spiritual authorities, which renewed the debate on the old rivalry between the Najaf and Qom authorities. The dispute has taken a new dimension due to the divergence in the position over Welayat al-Faqih.


Geography is an unchangeable fate. Iran is a large and ancient country in the region. Its neighbors have also been present since ancient times. The only realistic option is coexistence. But this coexistence will remain difficult and threatened unless it is based on a new language that respects international borders, away from the policy of infiltration and meddling with the maps of others.


Any state has the right to seek a role and influence; but the question remains about the means. The new role is created by an attractive model, economic success and improvement of people’s living conditions. Germany has a role in Europe, but it does not try to gain veto power in Paris or create parallel armies in Madrid.


It is impossible for you to build normal and stable relations with your neighbors if you retain in your constitution a provision that makes the export of the revolution a duty of your military, security and diplomatic institutions.

Iran’s success in curbing the protests remains a temporary victory. In the end, the rules of the world will apply to you regardless of your specific situation.


In the end, the young Iranian, armed with his smartphone, wants what his fellow Iraqis and Lebanese are seeking - education, work, dignity and freedoms.

It is clear that the current Iranian role in Baghdad is greater than Iraq’s ability to tolerate. The same can be said of Lebanon, taking into consideration the geographical and demographical differences of course.


You have the right to choose what you want within your borders, but you do not have the right to impose yourself on the maps of others.

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