Iraq and Iran
Iraq is not a sovereign country that executes its own decisions in a way that is comparable to its peers internationally. Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbors distrust the Shia-dominated Government of Iraq, fearing a "Shia crescent" running from Iran to Lebanon. Iranian influence is a realistic and unchangeable fact. Even allies, such as Kurds, want the Iranian influence to keep the United States helping them and prevent too much nationalization and centralization.
Iran has enjoyed a great deal of influence in Iraq – which is approximately 70 percent Shia – ever since it stepped into the power vacuum left by the 2003 US invasion. Tehran backs several political parties and armed groups in the country, including Hachd al-Shaabi, a paramilitary organisation dominated by Shias – the political arm of which is an integral part of the current government's second biggest party.
More than 150 people have been killed in clashes during the wave of protests that has swept Iraq since the start of October 2019. Demonstrators have made their resentment towards Iran clear during these rallies, exemplified by the chant “Get out, Iran! Free Baghdad!” The Iraqi protesters have clearly indicated that they are not just making “socio-economic demands” – they also want to get rid of a government put in place by Iran and to get Iran out of the country.
Every prime minister Iraq has ever had since the US-led invasion in 2003 has been from a political party that was incubated, financed, and empowered by Iran, whether it was the Dawa Party’s Nouri al Maliki and Haidar al Abadi, or today’s incumbent from the former Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) Adel Abdul Mahdi.
If the influence were limited to only the prime minister’s office, there would be some hope at using parliament and other ministries to negate some of his power in a system of checks and balances. However, one need only look at the pro-Iran Badr Organisation’s control of the interior ministry and therefore of most of the police and security services to see the extent of the rot and how Iraq’s policies are primarily geared towards serving Iranian interests while placating the odd American outburst.
Iraq, given its proximity to Iran and its shared Shia heritage, represents a vital foreign policy priority for the Iranian government's (IRIG) efforts to project its ideology and influence in the region. An economically dependent and politically subservient Iraq would foster greater strategic depth for Tehran. Iranian president Ahmadinejad has referred to Iraq in press statements as "a Shia base" confronting the broader menace perpetrated by those opposed to Iraq's identity and stability (i.e., Sunni states, the West).
Iran's approach to its bilateral relationship with Iraq ranges from political micro-management to broad strategic guidance emanating directly from Supreme Leader Khamenei in Tehran. The IRIG recognizes that influence in Iraq requires operational (and at times ideological) flexibility. As a result, it is not uncommon for the IRIG to finance and support competing Shia, Kurdish, and to some extent, Sunni entities, with the aim of developing the Iraqi body politic's dependency on Tehran's largesse.
One of the earliest focuses of Iran's interest in exporting revolution was the Persian Gulf area. The revolutionary leaders viewed the Arab countries of the Gulf, along with Iraq, as having tyrannical regimes subservient to one or the other of the superpowers. Throughout the first half of 1980, Radio Iran's increasingly strident verbal attacks on the ruling Baath (Arab Socialist Resurrection) Party of Iraq irritated that government, which feared the impact of Iranian rhetoric upon its own Shias, who constituted a majority of the population. Thus, one of the reasons that prompted Iraqi President Saddam Husayn to launch the invasion of Iran in the early autumn of 1980 was to silence propaganda about Islamic revolution. Baghdad believed that the postrevolutionary turmoil in Iran would permit a relatively quick victory and lead to a new regime in Tehran more willing to accommodate the interests of Iran's Arab neighbors. This hope proved to be a false one for Iraq.
The US removal of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 2003 created a new dynamic between Iraq and Iran. The two nations, which fought each other in the 1980s, have re-established close ties - with implications for the region and the United States. Saddam Hussein's fall unleashed an Iraqi Shia power very close to Iran's regime.
During the 2003 Iraq conflict, Iran declared itself neutral. Whilst criticising military action, Iran made a commitment to remain outside the conflict. Iran says that it wants to work towards a stable and cohesive Iraq and is working with the Iraqi authorities in a number of areas such as border control and power supply.
Since at least 2003, Brigadier General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF), was the point man directing the formulation and implementation of the IRIG's Iraq policy, with authority second only to Supreme Leader Khamenei. Through his IRGC-QF officers and Iraqi proxies in Iraq, notably Iranian Ambassador and IRGC-QF associate Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, Soleimani employs the full range of diplomatic, security, intelligence, and economic tools to influence Iraqi allies and detractors in order to shape a more pro-Iran regime in Baghdad and the provinces.
Soleimani enjoyed long-standing close ties with several prominent GOI officials, including President Talabani, Vice-President Adel Abdal-Mahdi (ISCI), Prime Minister Maliki (Da'wa), former PM Jaafari, and more recently, Speaker Samarra'i. Khamenei, President Ahmadinejad, Speaker Larijani, and former president Rafsanjani consult regularly with visiting Iraqi officials as part of the IRIG's broader "strategic" council of advisers seeking to influence Iraq.
Iran's tools of influence include financial support to (and pressure on) a cross-spectrum of Iraqi parties and officials; economic development assistance, notably to religious organizations; lethal aid to select militant Shia proxies; and sanctuary to Iraqi figures fearful of USG targeting or those seeking to revitalize their political/religious credentials, most notably Moqtada al-Sadr. This leverage also extends, to a lesser extent, to select Sunni actors.
Iran hosted a conference on 30 November 2004, to discuss security in Iraq, ways to help the Iraqis stage their general election on schedule, and counter- insurgency. Interior Ministers and security officials from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria, Turkey, Jordan and Egypt participated. Iran also participated in the Sharm el Sheikh Iraq Neighbours Meeting on 4 May 2007, which resulted in an agreement to establish three neighbors’ working groups on security, refugees and food supplies. On 2 March 2008 President Ahmadinejad visited Baghdad. The Iraqi President, Prime Minister and Defence Minister visited Tehran in 2006 and 2007.
Iran’s multi-pronged strategy in Iraq consisted of political outreach, soft-power initiatives, and lethal support for surrogate groups. Iran continued to exert great influence in Iraq, although many senior Iraqi officials privately pushed back against Iranian pressure and have limited Iran’s direct manipulation of Iraqi politics. Iran views influencing the seating of the new Iraqi government as critical in its efforts to balance U.S. influence in Iraq.
In 2007 the second-ranking US commander in Iraq said he was trying to convince Iraqi Shi'ite extremists that working with Iran would have long-term negative consequences for Iraq. Lieutenant General Ray Odierno said his forces were fighting Iranian involvement in Iraq's insurgency in several ways - including efforts to attack the supply lines that deliver money, material and trainers mainly to Iraqi Shi'ite extremists. But he said there is also an effort to convince Shi'ite leaders that, in the long term, it is not in their interest to allow Iran to increase its influence over Iraqi affairs.
The general said US officials did not know whether senior Iranian officials are involved in the support for Iraqi insurgents, which is provided mainly by the elite Quds security force. He said his forces can address the problem inside Iraq. But he added that as the United States learned more about the Iranian supply network, it might be necessary for senior U.S. officials to decide whether and how to address the problem directly with Iran.
Iranian attempts to exert influence in Anbar Province face a significant obstacle: Anbar is 96% Sunni and Anbaris view Iran as Iraq's mortal enemy. Many Sunnis believed that Iran has been meddling in Iraq not only through the Accountability and Justice Commission's de-Ba'athification activities in Baghdad, but also closer to home in influencing the GOI's placement of high-ranking security officials in Anbar province itself.
The struggle between Turkey, Iran, and Arab states to exert their influence in Iraq intensified in light of the US military withdrawal. Iraqis were especially divided over whether to support Iran or Turkey's activities in Iraq. Power in Iraq means power to say 'no' to Iran.
Concerned by Iraqiyya’s secular-Sunni plurality victory in the election, Iran wasted no time in hosting a meeting of leaders from both Shi’a-led coalitions and the Kurds in the days following the announcement of election results in late March 2010. Throughout the continuing period of seating the government, Iran focused its levers of influence, including economic, financial, religious, and potentially lethal aid to Iraqi insurgents, to shape Iraqi politics toward its own interests. Leveraging its strong economic and religious ties to the Iraqi Shi’a population, Iran has intervened to moderate disputes between Iraq and Syria. Maliki had always been under the sway of the mullahs in Iran. He made no secret of that. And he has more or less gotten away with it.
The Obama administration’s decision to pull all US troops out of Iraq by the end of 2011 encouraged Iran to try extending its influence there. The Iranians made it very clear that they regard the American withdrawal as a vacuum and that they intended to fill the vacuum. Iranian influence on Iraqi politics has only grown. As the Shia gained wider influence in Iraq than justified by their proportion of the population, the "Shia Crescent" in the region was strengthened.
U.S. Institute of Peace analyst Steve Heydemann told VOA in March 2013 that Baghdad is taking sides in Syria against the United States. "They have been permitting over-flights from Iran, which the U.S. would like them to stop," he said. "They have been providing other kinds of support to the Assad regime and have turned something of a blind eye as Iraqi Shia - who are moving into Syria to support the regime - are crossing the Iraqi-Syrian border."
Persian Gulf analyst Afshin Molavi of the New America Foundation told VOA in October 2013 that what Iran wants would look like Lebanon. "Iran’s vision is creating an Iraqi Hezbollah. They were hoping that Moqtada al-Sadr could become the Hassan Nasrallah of Iraq, the leader of an Iraqi Hezbollah-type political party that would be both a militia and a political party that could also provide social services. It’s a model that has served them well in Lebanon," said Molavi.
Another Washington analyst, Fred Kagan at the American Enterprise Institute, said Iraq charts its own course, but often works in concert with Iran. "Fundamentally, Iraq is acting, at this point, in the region as an ally of Iran on a state-to-state level in terms of its support for [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad, in terms of Dawaa support for oppositionists in Bahrain, and just in terms of allowing the Iranians to flout the [UN, US & EU] sanctions regimes in an outrageous fashion."
Iran assisted Iraq in its defense aginst Da'esh, mostly through Shiite militia forces such as the Badr Brigades and Kataib Hezbollah. Iran helped facilitate the August 2014 transition from Nouri al-Maliki to Haider al-Abadi as prime minister. Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani praised the contribution of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corpss to the defense of Erbil from the Islamic State (IS).
Iranians have cornered the market for dates. At one time, Iraq produced three quarters of the world's dates. It now accounts for about five percent of global output and is only the seventh biggest producer. After years of neglect and the 1980-'88 war with Iran, production has declined to such an extent that imports are now banned to protect the local industry. Iraqi Shi'ite militia have sworn allegiance to Iran and politicians are beholden to Tehran. Iranian companies make everything from Baghdad's yellow taxis to the refrigerators and air conditioners that flood street markets.
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