February 28, 2008 -- IRANIAN President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrives in Bagh dad tomorrow for what both sides call an "historic visit."
He'll be the Islamic Republic's first president to visit Iraq and only the second Iranian government head to do so in 32 years.
Under normal circumstances, an Iranian leader's visit to Iraq would arouse no apprehensions - but these are not normal times.
The two countries are neighbors linked by tight historic, religious and cultural ties. And they share important water resources, not to mention some of the world's richest oilfields sitting astride the border.
More than 90 percent of Iraqis live within 60 miles of the Iranian frontier. Millions of Iraqis share blood ties with Iranian tribes and clans across a 1,000-mile border. Shiites are 60 percent of Iraqis and 87 percent of Iranians.
And Shiites regard several Iraqi cities as "holy." Since Saddam Hussein's 2003 fall, some 6 million Iranians have visited these "holy" cities, nearly half of all visitors. (Indeed, Ahmadinejad hopes the trip can improve his own position for Iran's March 14 parliamentary elections. He wants TV footage of the meeting he's requested with Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite clergyman. That would boost the visitor's religious credentials and weaken the Iranian mullahs opposed to his radical policies.)
Iran also has emerged as Iraq's biggest foreign investor, mostly via religious endowments and private venture-capital groups. (One example, former Islamic President Hashemi Rafsanjani, reputedly the richest man in Iran, is reportedly investing $150 million in new hotel facilities in Najaf, the main Shiite "holy" city.)
Iran-Iraq trade, estimated at less than $1 billion a year before Saddam's fall, has risen tenfold, partly via smuggling networks with cross-border political connections.
Arab countries have virtually boycotted post-liberation Iraq - enabling Iran to project itself as the only Muslim power sympathetic to the sufferings of the Iraqis under Ba'athist tyranny.
Iran's ties with some of Iraq's new leaders precede the Khomeinist regime. Iran started supporting Iraqi Kurds against successive Baghdad regimes as early as 1958. The Al-Daawa (The Call) party, of which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a member, was created with Iranian financial, political and religious support in the early '60s. Iraq's main Shiite political group, the Supreme Assembly of Islam in Iraq, was founded in Iran with the Islamic Republic' support in 1981.
Yet there are those abnormal circumstances.
Iraq still depends on the United States for protection against domestic and foreign enemies. As long as a danger existed that Iraq might fall to radical Arab Sunni groups led by al Qaeda, Tehran didn't object to that dependence. Now, however, the picture is different.
As the possibility of al Qaeda and its allies winning recedes, Iran is starting to focus on the prospect that a Shiite-dominated but pro-American Iraq might offer Iranians a rival model. So the Islamic Republic has determined not to let the Americans and their Iraqi allies succeed beyond defeating al Qaeda and the Sunni insurgency.
As Ahmadinejad has put it several times, Tehran won't allow Iraq to have an "American future."
In Tehran's eyes, America's historic mission was to remove the Khomeinist regime's mortal enemy Saddam from power so that Iran could dominate Iraq.
But Maliki and the other new Iraqi leaders don't want their country to become an Iranian satellite; they're trying to negotiate a long-term arrangement to keep America committed to Iraq until it can defend itself.
Ahmadinejad believes the United States lacks the staying power to consolidate its victory in Iraq. Encouraged by Sen. Barack Obama's promise to withdraw all US troops by the end of 2009 if he wins the White House (which the Iranians expect him to do), Ahmadinejad's message to Iraqis is simple: The Americans are leaving, wouldn't you like to join our side?
During his visit, Ahmadinejad is expected to offer billions in aid and investment. (Still unknown: Will he travel to Samarrah, where the "Hidden Imam" is believed to have disappeared in a well in 941 AD? Al Qaeda destroyed the golden-domed mosque housing the well more than two years ago. Ahmadinejad, who claims the "Hidden Imam" blesses his administration, has promised to rebuild it.)
Ahmadinejad will also offer military assistance, including troops, to replace "the fleeing Americans."
Those promises come coupled with implicit threats. Last week, Iraqi police uncovered an Iranian-sponsored plot to kill Basra Gov. Muhammad al-Wanli and his brother. Also last week, Tehran ordered Muqtada al Sadr, one of its pawns on the Iraqi chessboard, to issue a public threat that his Mahdi Army would break a self-imposed cease-fire and resume killing anti-Tehran elements.
This visit will let Iraqis take a close look at Ahmadinejad. He hopes they'll find him a model to follow; Iraqi leaders hope that he'll appear more like a warning.