What Iraqis Think About Iran’s Election Turmoil

What Iraqis Think About Irans Election Turmoil

Iraq and Iran have rarely had the luxury of ignoring each other; in the 1980s, the two fought a bitter eight-year war, and more recently, since the U.S. toppling of Saddam Hussein, Iran has taken an active — and some would argue malign — interest in its neighbor to the west. But while Western leaders and pundits wring their hands over Iran’s disputed election, there’s been little anguish in Baghdad.

It’s not for lack of information. Iranian TV stations are readily available in Iraq, and the Arabic news channels like al-Jazeera and al-Arabiyah have provided in-depth coverage of the election. And since 60% of the Iraqi population shares Iran’s official Shi’a faith, you’d expect an avid interest in the political drama unfolding in Tehran. But many Iraqis say they have not been paying attention. “It’s happening next door, but it feels very far away,” says Hadi Hussein, a Baghdad shop owner. Here are some reasons for that apparent indifference:

1. Iraqis have more pressing problems closer to home.

For all the coverage of the Iranian election and its aftermath, Iraqis have been transfixed by a domestic story. The June 12 assassination of prominent Sunni leader Harith al-Ubaidi threw Iraqi politics into turmoil, raising the frightening prospect of a return to the sectarian war that nearly tore the country apart in 2006-07. Those fears have abated somewhat, but Ubaidi’s murder continues to dominate the headlines. “Iranian politics is interesting, but for us, it is a sideshow,” says Amr Fayad, a political analyst in Baghdad. “We are worried about our own politics.” 2. Iraqis know it makes no difference who becomes President of Iran.

Iraqis know from long experience that their neighbor — and historic enemy — is ruled not by its politicians but by its clergy. Although President Ahmadinejad gets plenty of press, even Iraqis with no interest in politics will tell you that the man who really matters in Tehran is Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei. So the allegation that the election was rigged for Ahmadinejad doesn’t raise too many eyebrows in Baghdad. “It was never about who the Iranian people want. It was always about who Khamenei wants,” says a senior Iraqi official who asked not to be named. “Khamenei chose Ahmadinejad: So what” 3. Many of Iraqi’s leaders have close ties to the mullahs.

Iraq’s political élites have a cozy relationship with the Iranian clerical establishment that backs Ahmadinejad. Many Iraqi leaders — especially Shi’ites — spent the Saddam Hussein years as guests of the mullahs in Tehran. Others received monetary support from Iranian clerical organizations. So unlike some American politicians, Iraqi leaders are leery of openly accusing Khamenei of fixing the election.

President Jalal Talabani on Sunday congratulated Ahmadinejad on his re-election. There were congratulatory messages, too, from top Shi’ite leaders Abdel Aziz al-Hakim and Moqtada al-Sadr. Hakim is in Tehran, receiving treatment for cancer, and Sadr is believed to be training to become an ayatullah in the Iranian holy city of Qom.

“Ahmadinejad’s victory is a vindication of his pro-poor policies,” says a Sadr spokesman. “It is a lesson for leaders everywhere: look after the poor, and they will support you.” Sadr’s own support, as it happens, comes mainly from poor Shi’ites. 4. Iraqis aren’t crazy about Mousavi.

Westerners unfamiliar with Iran’s recent history and yearning for a moderate alternative to Ahmadinejad may have convinced themselves that Mir-Hossein Mousavi is a reformist, but Iraqis aren’t buying it. Many remember him as Iran’s Prime Minister during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, which cost Iraq hundreds of thousands of lives, tens of billions of dollars and, ultimately, its place as a leader of the Arab world. It doesn’t matter that Mousavi was not in charge of the Iranian military. “Everyone who was in the top [Iranian] leadership during those years will forever be regarded by Iraqis as a villain,” says Saad Hashemi, a retired artillery commander. “I’m glad Mousavi lost, because if he’d become President, he would visit Baghdad someday and get a grand welcome … I could not have tolerated that.”

Iraqis’ apathy toward the Iranian election could still change, of course. If Mousavi supporters continue to turn out in the millions and there’s a real chance for a change in leadership, Iraqis will be reminded of the revolution that brought the mullahs to power in the first place. “The 1979 revolution led to the [Iran-Iraq war],” says Fayad. “If there’s another revolution, we’ll be the first ones to experience the consequences. So of course we’ll pay attention.”
See TIME’s covers from the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Read an exclusive interview with Ahmadinejad’s opponent, Mir-Hossein Mousavi.
See pictures of Ahmadinejad’s supporters on LIFE.com.