Over the weekend — while the EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana was in Tehran making headlines with yet another incentive package offered by China, France, Germany, Britain and Russia and the United States — three million Shiites in Iraq were making another, more important "Iran headline." United Press International reported from Baghdad that "More than 3 million Iraqi Shiites signed a petition sponsored by the leaders of the People's Mujahedin [MEK] of Iran opposing Iranian influence in Iraqi affairs."
"Expulsion of all members and agents of the Iranian regime's IRGC, Intelligence, and the terrorist Qods Force from all governmental or non-governmental institutions of Iraq, especially the security systems and the police," the declaration demanded.
UPI added that "The declaration, which also called for the lifting of a measure curtailing the activity of the MEK in Ashraf City in eastern Iraq, was announced at the fourth conference for the Solidarity Congress of the Iraqi People" held in Ashraf City, Iraq. The Congress was attended by "Several Iraqi politicians from the Sunni Islamic Party of Iraq of Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, the Islamic Unity Party and several other blocs, including the Iraqi Accordance Front," according to UPI.
The development has wide-ranging implications for Iraq and for the volatile debate over Iran policy in Washington and other western capitals.
For a long time, a myth essentially manufactured in Tehran has been making the rounds in policy circles on both sides of the Atlantic, according to which the situation in Iraq must be viewed in the framework of Sunni vs. Shiite. More specifically, it is argued that Iran has the ultimate sway over Iraq's Shiites, and any firm countermeasure against Tehran's meddling risks prodding the ayatollahs into unleashing the Shiite population and plunging Iraq into bloody civil war for years to come. In support of this misguided argument, some pundits are saying if you think things are bad now, just imagine the mayhem if Iran brings its army of Iraqi Shiites to the streets.
This is a false prophecy. It has nevertheless hampered the formulation of an effective policy or plan to neutralize Tehran's inroads in Iraq. That failure has dire consequences as it will enable Tehran to make further inroads in Iraq and consolidate its domination of that country.
The reality is that Tehran's sway over Iraqi Shiites is limited to its proxies, who have infiltrated all spheres of the Iraqi government and Southern provinces. They are augmented by an army of well paid mercenaries, operating within and without the government in various terrorist groups which are financed, trained, and armed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' Qods Force. In the streets of the Shiite cities and neighborhoods, ordinary Iraqis describe the ayatollahs' meddling as the "poison from the East."
True, Tehran spends tens of billions of dollars annually in its bid to "Lebanonize" Shiite areas. It has financed the construction of mosques, clinics, schools and social service centers which, in addition to serving as fronts for its recruiting and training of would-be terrorists, are intended to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Shiites. Apparently, this has been a total failure — just ask the 3 million Iraqi Shiites, who have openly (and despite enormous risks) demanded an end to Tehran's meddling and voiced support for Iran's main opposition. Observers believe that the MEK presence in Iraq, as the main Iranian opposition with three-decade-long experience of countering Islamic extremism, has significantly contributed to the Shiite awakening in Iraq. On many occasions, Iraqis and American commanders of the Multi-National Force-Iraq have publicly acknowledged and praised this contribution.
The scope of the Shiite opposition goes far beyond the 3 million signatories, because unlike petitions signed on the corners of K Street in Washington, these Iraqis and their families could very well pay with their blood for such a public and emphatic rebuke of Tehran.
Last April in an opinion piece in the Boston Globe, Dr. Saleh al-Mutlaq, the head of the influential Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, and a member of the Iraqi Parliament, charged the al-Maliki government "was caving in to pressure from Iran to make life difficult for the MEK." He wrote that "the MEK people enjoy popular support inside Iraq, particularly in Diyala province, where they have worked to promote reconciliation between Sunni and Shiite communities."
The landmark declaration signed by three million Shiites also has a clear message for Washington: Iraqi Shiites reject the false assertions of those who have been speaking on their behalf. They are telling Washington to stand firm and confront Iran's meddling, without fear of a Shiite backlash.
Alireza Jafarzadeh is the author of The Iran Threat: President Ahmadinejad and the Coming Nuclear Crisis (Palgrave: February 2008).
Jafarzadeh has revealed Iran's terrorist network in Iraq and its terror training camps since 2003. He first disclosed the existence of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility and the Arak heavy water facility in August 2002.
Until August 2003, Jafarzadeh acted for a dozen years as the chief congressional liaison and media spokesman for the U.S. representative office of Iran's parliament in exile, the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
Alireza Jafarzadeh, the deputy director of the Washington office of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, is credited with exposing Iranian nuclear sites in Natanz and Arak in 2002, triggering International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. He is the author of "The Iran Threat" (Palgrave MacMillan: 2008). His email is Jafarzadeh@ncrius.org, and is on twitter @A_Jafarzadeh.