Yesterday's White House visit by Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of Iraq's Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, points up once again the role Iran could play in Iraqi affairs. Like so many of Iraq's leaders, many of Iraq's political leaders spend years in exile in Iran, escaping the horrors of Saddam Hussein's prosecution of Shi'a and Kurd alike.
And while the U.S. isn't about to publicize the friendly ties between Iraq's leaders and Iran's, the President of Iran has no problem talking about them.
In his interview with Brian Williams in September, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad happily described his good relations with the Iraqi power structure. (Click to watch the interview from NBC Nightly News on Sept. 19.)
"The Iraqi President (Jalal Talibani) is an old friend of mine," Ahmadinejad told Williams. "The head of the state, the Prime Minister (Nouri al-Maliki) is a very close friend of mine too. And the head of their parliament, the parliamentary speaker (Mahmoud al-Mashhadani), is a good friend of mine too, so we're all friends."
Most of those ties were forged during the 1990s when the men who now run Iraq spent their time trying to unseat Saddam Hussein. In particular, the Shi'a had the support of Tehran. Iran hosted and supported al-Hakim's Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and its military wing, the Badr Corps.
And the connection goes deeper than just the top leadership. Many of the cabinet ministers and sub-cabinet ministers were hosted by Iran...or in one case, saved. Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani is the nephew of Iraq's leading ayatollah, Ali Husaini al-Sistani. Shahristani was also one of Iraq's leading nuclear scientists before the Iran-Iraq War, rising to the rank of science adviser to Saddam Hussein. Jailed in late 1979 because Saddam feared he was loyal to Iran, Shahristani spent 12 years at the Abu Ghraib prison, being tortured and starved by Saddam. When U.S. forces attacked Iraq during the Gulf War, he was able to escape with the aid of Iranian agents and taken to Iran where he lived in exile for another 12 years, before returning after the fall of Saddam.
It is that reality -- the close connections between Iran and Iraq -- that the U.S. will have to deal with at some point.