The Iranians were slow in reacting to Saddam Hussein’s hanging. The main reason for that was the old accepted belief in Iran that Saddam was an American puppet. This was the view broadly propagated by the Iranian leadership during the 8-year war with Iraq. The Iraqi leader had attacked Iran on behalf of the enemies of Islam and the Islamic regime, headed by the “Great Satan, the United States. The Baath regime under Saddam Hussein was officially referred to in Iran during that war as “the Zionist regime. All Iranian leaders, the media and ordinary people invariably stated that “the Iraqi Zionists did this or that.
The view in Iran for almost a decade was that Islamic Iran was not attacked by the Iraqi people but by the US. Even when Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1989, the official view in Tehran was that the attack had been at the behest of the US. Given that Saddam was an American lackey, “how could he have invaded Kuwait without the full knowledge and, more importantly, the full consent of Washington? It was against this backdrop that Iranians watched the US invade Iraq, overthrow Hussein and subsequently turn the other way and acquiesce in his hanging. The hanging shattered many perceptions of the former Iraqi leader that Iranians had held for more than two decades. Subsequently, two distinct reactions emerged in Tehran. The first implied that Saddam was hanged hurriedly by the Americans in order not to reveal his secret relations and murky dealings with them. A leading Iranian reformist newspaper wrote that “Saddam took his secrets to the grave.
The view that the Americans “got rid of Saddam in order to prevent exposure of their collaboration with him was shared by all Iranian political factions. The second reaction was more in line with the late Islamic leader Imam Ruhollah Khomeini’s prediction that Hussein would be punished one day for his crimes against Islam–in effect, fulfilling the Iranian Islamic leader’s words regarding his fate. Yet whatever feelings of triumph and justice Iranian leaders might have experienced after the hanging did not last very long, as reactions gathered pace. The first unwelcome responses from the Iranian viewpoint were those displayed by much of the Arab world. The sorrow, condemnation and commiserations that characterized the reaction of many Arabs surprised the Iranians.
Three days of official mourning declared by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and the sorrow shown by many Iraqi Sunnis were one thing. But the condemnation by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and mourning by other Palestinians were particularly shocking to the regime in Tehran. Just one week before the hanging, Haniyeh had been the official guest of Tehran and had departed with promises of full support for the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority government. The manner of the hanging and Saddam’s portrayal as a hero rather than a criminal who had received justice added insult to Iranian injuries. The Iranian media tried to remind both critics of the hanging and, more importantly, those Arabs who were celebrating Saddam’s heroics, of the crimes he had committed against not only Iranians but Iraqis as well.
Tehran also retorted angrily against Western critics of Hussein’s hanging. “Where were they and why didn’t they condemn Saddam when he was killing thousands of Iranian citizens as well as Iraqi Kurds by using chemical weapons against them, asked Ayatollah Ali Janati, the Friday prayer imam of Tehran and a leading hard-liner.
The Iranian leadership had never anticipated that a day might come when Hussein’s hanging needed to be justified and defended. Finally, Iranian leaders began to sense to their horror that the hanging was deepening the Shia-Sunni division in Iraq and, for that matter, in other parts of the Arab world. Iran’s leaders responded quickly. They blamed the Americans for fanning sectarian violence in Iraq. A leading hard-line daily close to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned the Sunni brethren “to be aware of the sinister and extremely serious plot that the enemies of the two Islamic nations (Iran and Iraq) had designed against us. In other words, the Americans were against Islam and Muslims in general, whether they were Shia or Sunni. Another newspaper wrote that the US government’s grand strategy in Iraq was to weaken the country’s national integrity, thereby insuring a long-term American presence in the region. It was in the US interest to keep the three main Iraqi groups weak and ineffective. To achieve this, the Americans were trying to pit the three groups against one another. As Sunni-Shia strife increased following Saddam’s hanging, the Iranian regime had to respond even more seriously. In an unprecedented move, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sent a personal letter to the Saudi leadership.
While its content was not revealed in Tehran or in Riyadh, many analysts in Tehran speculated that the Iranian leader had tried to reassure the Saudis that Iran was neither seeking to support the Iraqi Shias at the expense of their Sunni compatriots nor pursuing an anti-Sunni policy in Iraq. They further assessed that Khamenei had reassured Riyadh that Iran respected and supported the national unity of Iraq. The letter apparently also cautioned the Saudis not to fall into the sectarian plot laid by the enemies of Islam. A few days later, all Iranian TV channels showed a meeting between Khamenei and dozens of Sunni religious leaders. Some were from Iranian Sunni communities; others were from various Muslim states, particularly in the Arab world.
The Iranian leader spoke at length about the necessity of unity among Muslims in the face of a rising tide of sectarianism and violence instigated by the enemies of Islam. In an apparent response to sectarian feelings that had intensified following Saddam’s hanging and to Sunni leaders who had blamed Iran for the hanging and had defended the former Iraqi leader as a hero, Khamenei told his audience that Saddam was neither a Shia nor a Sunni. Rather, he was a brutal dictator and an enemy of all Muslims. In a clear response to Iraqi Sunni leaders the ayatollah asked, “Where, when and how did Saddam ever support Sunni religious institutions in Iraq or elsewhere for that matter? Politics sometimes makes for strange developments in the Middle East. Saddam’s hanging was, to be sure, one of those bizarre cases. Neither the Americans nor the Iraqi government ever expected that it would make a hero of him among the Arab masses. Nor for that matter did Iranians ever imagine that a day might come when they would have to explain to the Arabs that Saddam was not a good and proper Muslim. It is a disturbing thought, but somehow one cannot escape the feeling that somewhere beyond the grave, Hussein is looking upon both the Americans and the Iranians with a grim smile. Sadegh Zibakalam is a professor of Iranian studies at Tehran University. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.