Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Muhammad Rida Baghban, Consul Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 25 September 2009 13:40

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Consular affairs are sometimes considered the most boring aspect of international diplomacy. Not so, however, in Basra. Its Iranian consul, in particular, seems to have a wide-ranging field of activity. Put briefly, his authority seems to go somewhat beyond issuing emergency passports to pilgrims on their way to Iraq’s holy Shiite shrines.

A recent episode illustrates this point. Earlier this week, the head of the Daawa-led Basra provincial council announced that a solution for Basra’s freshwater crisis was in the making. Specifically, he had signed a deal with Iran’s consul in Basra, Muhammad Rida Baghban, according to which Iran will supply Fao with 1,000 tons of drinking water on a daily basis to compensate for changes the Iranians made to the river flow of the Karun (which empties fresh water into the Shatt al-Arab near the head of the Gulf and thereby affects the saline content of the water.) The water supplies will be shipped to Basra by Iranian vessels.

Whereas the vast range of political activities of the Iranian ambassador to Baghdad, Hasan Kazimi Qummi, have been the subject of much speculation, there has been less focus on Baghban in Basra. However, Baghban, too, reportedly has a revolutionary guard background, and like Qummi he often seems to be able to intervene in politics at a rather high level. Last January, his attempts to enter a polling station in Basra during the local elections caused much consternation locally as well as in Baghdad. In 2008, shortly before Maliki’s security sweep in Basra, he advocated in a media interview that local authorities should be better armed to deal with the security challenges.

The episode in Basra also illustrates how Iraq’s governorates increasingly deal with outside forces on their own, not necessarily coordinating with Baghdad. Just a week ago there was talk of a Basra delegation travelling to Iran to settle the water issues. Similarly, most other local councils in Iraq have embarked on unilateral investment discussions with foreign powers. Many of these activities may have been initiated with the best possible intentions on both sides, but their net effect is often forgotten: they tend to further weaken Iraq’s already fragile central government as an institution. But on this issue, both Iran and Western countries seem to follow the same course.

3 Responses to “Muhammad Rida Baghban, Consul Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary?”

  1. Reidar,
    The sadest part of the Iranian influence in Iraq IMHO is the behaviour of some as if this situation will last forever; many Iraqis know for sure that things will change, in their lifetime they saw many political upheavals, perhaps this is part of the reason why we like to talk about this subject sotto voce. My sadness is for the innocent future victims of change who nobody seems to care about or do anything for.
    I found out recently that millions of expatriate Iraqis and Iraqis without ration cards will not be allowed to vote in the next parliamentary elections, I am not sure if this is because of Iranian influence but it will surely diminish our faith in the “democratic” political process as a vehicle of peaceful change. I believe it is the responsibility of the United States to insure the integrity of the electoral process by calling for a Security Council mandate for UN run census and elections.

  2. Reidar Visser said

    Faisal, much as I sympathise with your views, I think it is of paramount importance that nationalist forces in Iraq do not expect too much in the way of enhanced UN engagement in the next elections. The simple reason is that this kind of strengthened international engagement would require international support (certainly if we are talking about censuses or even an Afghanistan model with an internationalised complaints commission), which does not exist as of today and shows no sign of materialising any time soon.

    The problem is that both in the US and internationally, the concept of Iraqi nationalism remains distrusted and is poorly understood. In Washington, many leading Democrats and even some State Department officials do not even accept that Iraq exists as a viable nation and think that increased Iranian influence would be a perfectly natural development (or even a possible trade-off in the nuclear negotiations). In the Pentagon and the military there seems to be greater respect for the idea of Iraq as an independent entity, except that this until recently was coupled with an unrealistic hope that Maliki or other Iraqi leaders would ask for an extended US stay. As this reality becomes clearer, they, too, may well fall into line with the declared Obama policy of getting out without becoming embroiled in additional disputes (which of course a drive to internationalise the elections would be certain to create). My fear is that Washington basically wants to hold these elections on time and get them over with.

    So Iraqis will need to fix these problems themselves, and the 2010 elections are the last chance for doing so. There has been remarkable progress since 2008 in terms of a growing public revulsion against sectarianism which increasingly is being reflected also in the political process. Salih al-Mutlak and other secularists have publicly made exactly the same point about enhanced international supervision, but I think they would do far better if they focused on getting together a broad national list that could challenge the sectarian forces – who so far have been much better at regrouping since their defeat in the last local elections.

  3. Reidar,

    I appreciate your response but I think my assessment is more optimistic. You didn’t mention the possibility of election postponment, which maybe unlikely but possible.
    You cited the lack of international support as the main reason, I think it is precisely the international involvement which makes this option attractive; the Obama administration is being criticised for opening too many fronts, involving the international community in Iraq will share the burden and avoid opening a real front if the elections were not clean. And after the Afghanistan presidential elections experience the EU prefers to prevent fraud rather than treatment after the fact, it is less expensive.
    3 1/2 Years only the Turkmenes and some Iraqi liberals were openly supporting UN run census and elections, now there are many more, even the Kurds are keen on running a census. I think there are two major stumbling blocks: Maliki’s political wisdom to stand against anything the Kurd’s want, even if it means giving him more time, and American sloppiness. I remember in 2003 a friend of mine who worked with the US army mentioned capturing a truckload of counterfate currency from Iran, this did not even reach the news, to the Americans everything was hunky dory. Now the US army captured a truckload full of fake election ballots in Omara, this needs to perculate to top political administrators in order for action to take placed, and the bestaction is to prevent fraud before it occurs by letting the UN run a full census first then the elections.

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