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Iran and Realpolitik

In the West people generally think of the Islamic world as very ideological, and indeed it is, but the world is complex and realpolitik plays a dominant role in the Muslim sphere just as it does everywhere else. This is very much the case in the Iran-Syria relationship, the US-Iran relationship and US-Saudi relationship. The first two may be changing; the last is unlikely to change. But any movement or lack of it in these relationships will occur for reasons of realpolitik rather than for ideological or religious reasons. The Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini, whose image was constantly on television and newspapers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, went into exile from Iran in 1964. He could not live under the authoritarian Shah who was attempting a kind of autocratic modernisation as a vassal of the United States. That was never going to work and it is likely that very few ever believed it would. Khomeini chose the city of Najaf in Iraq as his home in exile and he lived there from 1964 to 1978. Najaf is a Shia holy city second only after Mecca as a pilgrimage destination. Politically, Iraq was Ba’athist and not sympathetic to Shia Islam, despite the fact that the majority of Iraqis are Shia. Ba’athism represented an attempt at modernisation and development and had some grounding in the political culture of the region. It was based on a mixture of socialist ideas and pan-Arab nationalism, its theoretical objective being a united Arab state. The only other place where the Ba’athists achieved power was in Syria, but the Syrian and Iraqi Ba’athists fell out in 1966 following a political upheaval in Syria. In Iraq the ruling Ba’athist party was dominated by Sunni Muslims, who favoured their own group over the Shias who in turn looked towards Iran for religious succour. In Syria, on the other hand, the Ba’athists were dominated by members of the Alawite sect, which was critical of Sunni Islam. Iranians are not Arabs, whereas the Iraqi Shias are Mesopotamian Arabs and while well disposed towards Iran did not wish to become Iranian clients. They were always anxious to re-establish religious autonomy and the religious status of Najaf, which they did in 2003 following the collapse of Ba’athism in Iraq. At one point during the dissolution of Iraq it looked as if Iran was well placed to extend its borders to the west….



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