The incident began on Thursday (17 December) when about ten Iranian technicians and soldiers entered Iraqi territory, took over an oil well in the al-Fakkah oil field (in the southeastern Iraqi province of Maysan) and raised the Iranian flag.
Soon after, Iraqi border guards and soldiers stationed about a kilometre away went on alert.
For about 24 hours, a succession of claims and denials followed until the Iraqi government and US military confirmed that the border had been breached.
Tehran also admitted that its forces had indeed taken over the well, but claimed that it did not violate Iraqi sovereignty since it is located within Iranian territory based on a 1975 border agreement.
Baghdad reacted by sending reinforcements to the area, and calling on Iran to pull back its soldiers. At the same time, it said that it hoped that a diplomatic solution could be found.
The United States remained on the sidelines throughout the incident but did praise Baghdad for its “measured” response.
Iraq’s vice president said the incident was not the first one that week. Iran’s pilfering of Iraqi oil has in fact been going on undisturbed for some time. In the past, Iraq’s parliament and government had collected evidence of other actions by Iran but shelved it for reasons of state.
After the bloody war between the two countries in the eighties, relations have improved since the fall of Saddam Hussein and the establishment in Iraq of a government dominated by Shia parties. Today Tehran can exert substantial influence on Baghdad.
The occupation of the Fakkah oil well is Tehran’s reaction to Iraq’s failure to shut down Camp Ashraf, a place that houses 3,400 members of the Iranian resistance. The Maliki government had promised Tehran it would close it by 15 December but it did not do so because of international protests and mobilisation.
For some Iranian analysts, Iran reacted to this diplomatic defeat by flexing its muscles to remind the Iraqi government that Tehran still has the military means to act if its orders are not followed.
The Fakkah incident is also a high mark in an escalation of tensions started by the clerical regime, which is increasingly nervous about daily domestic protests and threats of sanctions by the international community,
Bent on not giving in, the regime has opted in fact to provoque and challenge its adversaries. This includes testing long-range rockets, anti-Twitter attacks by the Iranian Cyber Army, the introduction of the latest generation of centrifuges to enrich uranium and a statement by Ahmadinejad (on Friday) blaming US military presence in the Middle East for the region’s crisis.