IRAN: Hakim's son on Tehran, Baghdad, Washington tangle
For nearly three decades, one of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite Muslim families and Washington’s closest partner in the Iraqi government has maintained strong ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Abdelaziz Hakim, leader of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, or SIIC, and a relatively moderate Shiite leader who is a key player in his country, plays a tricky balancing act, maintaining cordial ties with both the U.S. and Iran at a time of unprecedented international tension between the two longtime rivals.
The troubles came to a boil this weekend as the Iraqi government dispatched a team to Tehran to discuss U.S. allegations that Iran is smuggling weapons to Iraqi militants.
One of Hakim’s sons, Mohsen Hakim, oversees his party’s downtown Tehran office. Over tea and fruit Saturday, the younger Hakim, 34, spoke for half an hour with the Los Angeles Times in an illuminating interview about the troubled relations among Iran, Iraq and the U.S. and how they roil the entire region, from Afghanistan to Lebanon.
"The Iraqi security issue is not separated from other issues in the Middle East," he said. "On the whole, security in the region is not divisible. If there is no security in Iraq , there is no security anywhere in the region. We look at the security of Iraq as a organic security package for the whole region."
The whole interview is transcribed below.
LOS ANGELES TIMES: What is SIIC’s attitude toward the accusations of increased Iranian involvement in violence in Iraq?
MOHSEN HAKIM: In fact, SIIC as a member of Iraqi government shares whatever the government of [Prime Minister Nouri] Maliki says in that regard. Because the government is in charge of securing security and stability in Iraq.
LAT: But some officials in the Iraqi government claim that Iran is involved in Iraqi violence.
HAKIM: Firstly, so far there is no official declaration about that from the Iraqi government. Secondly, the many problems between Iran and Iraq and between Iran and U.S. should be settled through consultation and negotiations. Nothing can be solved by openly and publicly accusing each other of interference.
LAT: It is said here there is a five-member delegation and a three-member delegation arriving from Iraq. Or is it just one delegation?
HAKIM: Two delegations. But the three-member delegation came to Iran one month ago. The new delegation has five members.
LAT: Can you tell me the nature of the mission of the five-member delegation?
HAKIM: … As far as I know, they came to ask help for finding a solution for a correct way of handling Iraqi security problems.
LAT: Does SIIC think that these accusations against Iran are merited?
HAKIM: Look, as I said before, the government of Iraq is responsible for maintaining security. The government is authorized to give its opinion or assessment about these allegations. In fact, you should ask the official spokesman of the Iraqi government. Yes, some officials have said about Iran's involvement, but the prime minister's office has not confirmed them. So only what prime minister or the chief of army in Iraq says are valid. Other officials may express their own personal views.
LAT: Do you think Mr. Maliki believes these accusations are baseless?
HAKIM: No comment. You must ask him personally.
LAT: Do you believe the recent increasing accusations against Iran by the U.S. are a prelude for a U.S. attack to Iran?
HAKIM: Look, the disputes between Iran and U.S. are not new. In fact, they are 30 years old, unfortunately. We see the signs of these kinds of disputes in Lebanon, Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq. Even some other places in the world.
LAT: You mean they are fighting proxy wars in those places?
HAKIM: I do not know. For us, as the citizens of Iraq, we only care about our elected, legal and legitimate government in Iraq. Whatever the government in Iraq says is valid for us. There is no doubt that between Iraq and neighboring countries there were some disputes dating back to the time of Saddam. These disputes are financial debts, territorial disputes, economic disagreements and some of these problems popped up in the aftermath of Saddam's collapse. The disputes between Iraq and other countries should be managed the way crises are managed and engineered so that the security of Iraq is not jeopardized.
LAT: Recently, the government of Maliki cracked down on [cleric Moqtada Sadr’s] Mahdi Army. Was the government more aggressive than SIIC would have liked?
HAKIM: Look, the government is not cracking down on the Mahdi Army. In fact, anyone or group or gang who is not abiding by law or breaching law and order should be tackled and controlled, regardless of who they are or what they are called. No matter whether they are called the Badr Brigade, Sadr’s army, Shiite, Kurds or Sunni. Any unlawful activities must be stopped. We say the elected and lawful government of Iraq, in line with implementing security, stability and order, is in charge of fighting any organization which takes up arms illegally or violates the law. Any militia which attacks innocent people and is not acting within the law should be cracked down upon by the legal and elected government no matter what it is called.
LAT: Has what the Maliki government done so far in controlling the Mahdi Army been correct and flawless?
HAKIM: Whatever is within the law is correct. Of course, in a clash with an illegal militia, something out of control or excessive, unfortunately, might happen. But the whole policy of implementing the law is correct. On the whole, we should settle the problem with illegal militias through negotiations too. At the moment, extensive attempts are underway at the level of the parliament of Iraq, and in negotiations between the Iraqi president [Jalal Talabani] and the Sadr group that are ongoing. It is important that the law is obeyed in Iraq.
LAT: How much influence does Iran have on the Mahdi Army?
HAKIM: In fact, I do not how influential Iran is. Yes, we can feel that Iran, given the deep relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran with other groups in Iraq… I can say Iran has effective influences among all ethnic, religious and political factions, even among Sunni Arabs in Iraq. You can see the influences by tracing the trips of leaders from different factions to Iran. Iran's relations with Iraq is very complicated. It has religious, political, historic and civilizational aspects. The holy sites and all the top sources of emulation are connected to Iran, and it is not limited to one group or army. Bear in mind, from Qaradagh Valley in [the northernmost] Iraqi Kurdistan until estuary or mouth of Faw Peninsula [in southern Iraq], there is an 1,336-kilometer [800-mile] border with Iran.
LAT: So Iran effectively has relations with all factions in Iraq?
HAKIM: Yes with Kurds, Shiites and others.
LAT: Does SIIC worry about the close ties between Iran and the Mahdi Army led by Moqtada Sadr?
HAKIM: Look, if you mean Moqtada Sadr, it is one thing. The Mahdi Army is different. The Mahdi Army is a military faction, but Moqtada Sadr has a political faction and without a doubt the Islamic Republic of Iran has good relations with Moqtada Sadr and his political faction. And we are not worried about that relationship of the political faction of Mr. Sadr with Iran. The government of Iraq should comment on that if there is a worry about that or not. So far the government of Maliki has not said so.
LAT: Mr. Maliki said that the Mahdi Army should be disarmed and disbanded.
HAKIM: Not just the Mahdi Army. All 17 members of the Iraqi National Security Council have decided -- except for Mr. Sadr’s faction, which refused to agree -- and came to a consensus to disband all kinds of militia. So no armed militia is legal in Iraq.
LAT: What is the relationship between Iran and SIIC right now? How much access do you have to authorities and to whom?
HAKIM: We have developed good relationship with all factions. But all official contacts are through our embassy here. I can say our relations with the civil society of Iran and political factions, parties, academic and research centers are strong. Our office here is more in contact with the Iraqi grass roots, refugees and repatriated Iranians who were deported in the late 1960s and early 1970s to Iran.
LAT: Are the Hakims worried about a war between the U.S. and Iran?
HAKIM: In my opinion, all over the region, in fact, there is a worry about tensions between Iran and U.S. You can call it tension, crisis or war, whatever. Everybody in the region is worried. It is not important what you call it. The tension is most dangerous for Iraq. Not war, this very tension, if it continues, not war, is very bad for Iraq. If you remember, Mr. Abdelaziz Hakim was the first person to call for direct talks between Iran and U.S. over Iraqi security issue.
LAT: So why is there postponement of the next round of talks between Iran and the U.S.?
HAKIM: There are technical problems.
LAT: What do you mean by “technical"?
HAKIM: I mean, anything that happens in the negotiations has an impact on Lebanon, Palestine and Afghanistan. Look, Iraqi security issue is not separated from other issues in the Middle East. On the whole, security in the region is not divisible. If there is no security in Iraq, there is no security anywhere in the region. We look at the security of Iraq as a organic security package for the whole region.
LAT: In fact, you want Iran and U.S. negotiations in Iraq to be all-encompassing negotiations?
HAKIM: Look, we as Iraqis care most now about our own problems. But we look at the security of Iraq as a common case between Iran and the U.S. I tell you with 100% certainty that if the security of Iraq is settled, the region will be affected positively. Iraq is not an isolated issue. Remember that.
LAT: Can you disclose the nature of the evidence presented to the Iranian authorities by the five-member delegation?
HAKIM: I am not one of them. But I can say the delegation came to find solutions for Iraqi security problems. Do not ask me for details as I do not know. For the time being, security and supporting the rule of law and the elected government of Maliki are the most important issues for us in Iraq. There is no time for any militia, or state within state. Only there is one legal government. That is it.
LAT: Kirkuk is a matter of dispute between Iraqi political factions. According to the new constitution of Iraq, there should be referendum on it. What is SIIC’s stance on that?
HAKIM: The Iraqi constitution has been approved in a referendum by 78.5% of Iraqi people. Yes, according to Article 140 of the constitution [Kirkuk’s status] should be decided. We also think all provinces south of Baghdad which are Shiite-dominated with some Sunni Arabs should be regional entities, because Kurdistan gets 17% of the total budget of Iraq, and a Shiite regional state should have its merited budget. But at the moment, we should focus on security in Iraq.
LAT: Do you think Iran and Turkey will agree to a federal Iraq?
HAKIM: I think we can convince Iran, but Turkey might be different as they have their Kurdish issue. But it is a matter to be decided by Iraqi people.
LAT: Whenever I ask the Iranian officials why Iran insists on an immediate U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq, despite the fact that its Iraqi allies do not share your idea, they evade my answer me and beat around the bush. What do you think?
HAKIM: [Bursts outs laughing] You know political rhetoric is different from heartfelt belief. Perhaps when [Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr] Mottaki comes for a private visit here, he accepts that if the U.S. and its allied forces leave today, the insecurity will spill over the borders of Iraq and make everywhere unsafe. We want the withdrawal too. But first at the end of 2008 we will strike a security and political treaty with the U.S. and then the combating forces will go out, and some staff will stay in the U.S. garrisons in Iraq. Iraq has almost no air force now, and only ground forces have been restored. How can we defend ourselves without an air force? You have seen in Basra. To fight a militia, an air force was needed and the Maliki government had no air force. For sure, the U.S. administration doesn’t want to keep all 160,000 troops there for a long time. But it does not mean all of them will leave Iraq soon.
—Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran
Photo: Mohsen Hakim. Credit: Ramin Mostaghim / For the Times; the battlefields between the U.S. and Iran include Israel, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan.