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The Iran Mediation Bazaar

The Iran Mediation Bazaar

Friday, 19 February, 2021 - 05:45
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

With Donald Trump out of the White House, wannabe do-gooders have thrown their hats, or turbans, into the ring as mediators between Tehran and Washington.

First, French President Emmanuel Macron said he was ready to seize the opportunity of Joe Biden’s victory to build a bridge with Iran. Then it was the turn of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to don the mantle of honest broker. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has also made musings about mediation.

Last week, Qatar’s Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani traveled to Tehran to offer mediation. The latest to join the queue is Ammar al-Hakim, leader of the Iraqi National Wisdom Movement.

Interestingly, all aspiring mediators are from countries that have problems of their own with the Islamic Republic - problems they have failed to sort out after four decades of diplomatic zigzags.

In some cases, these problems amount to major hurdles for full normalization with the Khomeinist regime. In others, the problems are “underbrushes”, a diplomatic term for irritants not threatening enough to merit open hostility.

Going through all problems that Tehran has with France, Russia, Pakistan Qatar and Iraq would require far more space than a column. So, let us just focus on problems between Iraq and Iran.

Why wouldn’t Ammar al-Hakim offer mediation between Tehran and Baghdad to get rid of the “underbrushes”, repair bilateral relations, and restore normality after four decades of war, intrigue and tension? Al-Hakim is well-placed for that task.

He hails from an old Persian family and spent many years in Iran. His grandfather was the highest Marj’a al-Taqlid (Source of Emulation) of Shiites for a decade. By blood or marriage, he is related to major clerical families in Iran and Iraq. Inside Iraq his party is one of the largest, and, unlike most rival Shiite groups, gets a nod and a wink from Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

What are the problems he should mediate?

First, he must persuade Tehran to treat Iraq as an independent nation-state, not a glacis for the Islamic Republic in its campaign to “export revolution.”

The daily Kayhan, reflecting the views of “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei, run an editorial on Monday about a visit by Ayatollah Ra’isi, head of the Islamic judiciary, to Iraq. It concluded that “although borders are important and must be respected” the visit showed that “our revolution has dissolved nations into the ummah”.

Tehran circles talk of the Treaty of Qasr Shirin between Iran and the Ottoman Empire which gave Iran “right of supervision” on “holy shrines” in Iraq. All that may be no more than idle talk of the kind Khomeinists revel in.

What is not idle talk, however, is raising, arming and financing militias controlled by the Quds Corps. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, an ally of Tehran, has spoken of occasions when the Quds Corps directly intervened in Iraqi affairs.

The late Gen. Qassem Soleimani spoke of how he went to Iraq often without letting the Iraqi government know what he was doing. In the case of his shenanigans in Syria, at least, he claimed he had an invitation from Bashar al-Assad.

The next issue would be for the Islamic Republic to stop bombarding Iraqi villages supposedly as a “right of hot-pursuit” against “Kurdish terrorists”. Tehran media note that Turkey is doing the same in Iraq. They forget that Turkey had permission from Saddam Hussein who headed the government at the time.

The next item on the agenda could be to re-demarcate the borders between the two neighbors according to the Algiers Accord of 1975. With goodwill, most of the changes caused by the 1980-88 war could be corrected quickly. The next item could be the creation of a mechanism to implement the United Nations’ Resolution 598 that ended the war, to resolve issues such as responsibility for starting the hostilities, payment of reparations and drafting a peace treaty to legally end the state of war.

The issue of thousands of war dead and missing in action whose fate is unknown could also be tackled, ending decades of suffering by numerous Iranian and Iraqi families who lost loved ones in that tragedy. (Last week, Russia found and buried with full military hour the mortal remains of dozens of French soldiers killed in battle during the Napoleonic invasion two centuries ago.)

Another item could be the revival of a 1976 agreement on Iranian pilgrimage to Shiite “holy shrines” to end uncontrolled visits often led by black-marketers linked to security services on both sides.

President Hassan Rouhani says Iraq is now Iran’s biggest foreign market with over $10 million goods imported. A big part of that, however, is conduced within the black economy. The remaining part is handled by individual smugglers crossing the border on foot or mules.

Revival of the 1977 trade accord could help end the current chaos and enable Tehran and Baghdad to secure income from tariffs and taxation. Setting mutually accepted rules on charities could also help both curb money laundering and tax evasion through fake religious charities linked to crime syndicates and security services.

Another issue concerns dual-nationals.

An estimated 1.2 million Iraqis also hold Iranian identity papers while neither Iraq nor Iran recognize dual citizenship. This creates huge problems for many, including children of dual-nationals born in Iran or Iraq. The issue of Iraq’s unpaid bills for electricity imported from Iran could also be on the agenda while old agreements on water debit from Iranian rivers flowing into Iraq could come up for review.

The ecological crisis in southern marshlands (80 percent in Iraq, 20 percent in Iran) also needs cooperation through a joint agency.

Experts claim that Majnun Islands, shared by Iran and Iraq, represent one of the largest oilfields in the world. However, despite interest by more than 30 oil companies, no large-scale exploitation is possible without normalization between Iran and Iraq.

The draft continental shelf agreement of 1977 could be quickly activated, enabling redevelopment of Um al-Qasr as a deep water port. That in turn would finalize the similar agreement that Iran, under the Shah, signed with Kuwait. The big enchilada in al-Hakim’s imaginary mediation would be the reopening of Shatt al-Arab, the border waterway closed and clogged during the war. Re-opened, the Shatt could ensure the revival of Basra in Iraq and Khorramshahr in Iran which were the region’s largest ports for centuries. Dredging and remodeling the waterway could cost some $20 billion, worth considering if both sides created a joint navigation management agency.

Ah, we dropped the word “normalization”.

If the Islamic Republic can’t normalize relations even with Iraq, how could it normalize with the American “Great Satan”? There could be no normalization with a regime whose leader publicly says “We shall never be a normal country.”

If wise Ammar wants to mediate, let him start with his two homelands.

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