Iran! Iran! Iran! (in Iraq)


So goes the refrain from a host of pundits who posit a maliciously empowered Iran as a consequence of the US invasion of Iraq. Subscribers to the possibility include David Ignatius, Brookings, and Thomas Ricks, who has authored grim appraisals of Iran being the “biggest winner” after the invasion. This popular narrative has various appeals.

For one thing, there is a great deal of Iranian power in Iraq. From politically motivated release of Iranian operatives, to support of Iraqi militants, to graft-enabled economic ties, to influence with major political parties, there’s plenty of evidence that Iran is a major player, and wields far more sway than it did in the “realpolitikal salad days” of Saddam Hussein’s detente sprinkled with domestic massacres and cross-border wars of aggression.

It’s also ironic. Those who opposed the war and dimly view ambitious neoconservative aims in the region find the idea that the invasion opened up a Pandora’s Box directly contrary to US interests irresistibly intuitive and attractive.

But does any of this mean Iran will be ultimately empowered or acquire a controlling interest in its neighbor, as some warn?

Genuine and ongoing first-hand expertise on Shiite trends, Iranian influence, and prevailing political winds in Iraq is rarer than one might think, and even such qualifications cannot guarantee anything like crystal ball clarity on future outcomes. A valuable asset in analyzing Iraq is acknowledging all that one cannot possibly know in the bewildering mix of factors that can rapidly steer events. But I see a reasonable argument against the inevitability of overall enhancement of Iranian influence, and I aggressively reject any scenario of de facto or overt Iranian dominance of Iraq. There are several compelling counterweights to Tehran’s rise, discussed below.

Iraqi nationalism, Arabism and xenophobia

As a violent showdown between the US and Iraqi Armies and the Mahdi Army raged in Sadr City in the Spring of 2008, I tagged along on a night raid conducted by the 3-89 Cavalry and the Iraqi National Police on a suspected Jaish-al Mahdi cell in Rusafa. The targets were accused of planting the uniquely deadly variety of roadside bombs: Explosively Formed Penetrators supplied by Iran.

As is the case with many such raids, the tip seemed bogus. A thorough search of the ramshackle house, which was well-adorned with colorful portraits of the Shia Imams Ali and Husain, found nothing. When I had a chance to interview the accused men, some of their answers surprised me. One individual in particular showed little hesitation about criticizing the Americans for tossing his home and scaring his family in the middle of the night. But after he’d given the occupiers their due, his ire turned toward the Mahdi Army. His complaint, spit out like a rotten piece of fruit: they were tools of Iran who were committing a bewildering sin by fighting against their own countrymen in the Iraqi Army.

My vignette provides color and has admittedly tiny scope. But it does animate a larger concept: the residually successful effects of Saddam Hussein’s Arabism and Nationalism campaigns which reached heights in support of the Iran-Iraq War. Scratch the surface of Iraqi opinion, and sectarian divisions are readily apparent. But a majority of Arab Iraqis also harbor strong nationalist and Arab sentiments that compete and blend with religious identity. This fact, along with widely popular complaints about the conspiratorial depredations of foreign powers trying to destroy or acquire Iraq, and a dim view of “the Persians,” represent a significant counterweight to overt Iranian influence. The same public sentiment that clamors for US withdrawal and Iraqi self-determination works against the Iranians.

Of course, this hedge against public Iranian authority is dependent on Iraqi politics remaining somewhat transparent, which would force Shia political leaders to downplay their ties to Iran in order to get and stay elected. Long term international involvement in ensuring the development and open function of Iraq’s electoral process is the best prescription for nurturing the power of Iraqi nationalism as one hedge against Iran. Thankfully, this is an ethical methodology and goal in its own right.

The patronage game

Of course, the movers and shakers in the Shia Iraqi political parties stand apart from the man on the street, have incredible influence, and many undoubtedly maintain working ties with Iran. But is it true love, like or just business? To the extent it’s the latter, Iran again faces hurdles.

Analysts are fond of pointing out that many of the major Shia political parties found refuge in Iran during the brutal periods of persecution by Saddam Hussein. But the relationships between elements of these parties and Tehran were not uniformly subordinate or trustworthy, as exemplified by the cracks in the exiled Dawa Party: one branch maintained its presence in Iran, some advocating failed attempts at submitting the party to the Iranian Supreme Leader’s authority, whereas others chose London as an escape from the watchful meddling of Iranian hosts.

Even the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq (ISCI), typically argued as Iran’s closest major ally in Baghdad, has taken measures to at least publicly distance its image from Tehran, and has also maintained an effective relationship of convenience with the United States as the new Iraqi government took shape. Many see this relationship with the US as a Trojan horse strategy endorsed by Iran, maintaining that the true nature of the Islamist Shia party’s long-term aims will be revealed after significant US withdrawal. But ISCI has dramatically fallen in prominence, and “withdrawal” is the thing  .

In the generally admirable The Gamble, Ricks bemoans the fact that the US has entrenched itself into long involvement in Iraq; the Surge was narrowly successful, but has also necessarily extended America’s adventure. But such involvement and the economic ties and outright patronage it establishes are the exact factors that can check the malicious Iranian influence also asserted as inevitable.

While Iraqi political parties have trumpeted the politically popular withdrawal of US forces, the reality is that “withdrawal” is a relative term. An advisory force is likely to remain in Iraq for some time, and US aid, along with long-term contracts for equipment and training (typified by Iraqi Air Force requirements), mean that the US will maintain sway and involvement in Iraq. The Iraqis – including the significant Shia parties – will play benefactors against each other for their ultimate advancement, and continued US alliance can likely serve as yin to Iran’s yang. I’d argue that “business” is sufficient in enough quarters of the elite political class to dilute radical pan-Shia amity or distaste for infidels.

In the end, a peaceful or partially cooperative relationship between Iran and Iraq is tolerable if it does not expand Iran’s exportation of terror or radical ideology. Long term US involvement in Iraq makes the former unlikely. As for the latter ….

The split in Shia Islam

As many regional analysts are aware, there is a split in Shia Islam that has been reinvigorated by the removal of Saddam Hussein’s jackboot from the Iraqi holy city of Najaf. Greatly simplified, it’s a division between the Iranian-based Khomeniist (Wilayat al faqih) school of activist Shia Islam and the historically important Najaf brand of Shia apolitical “quietism” often associated with Sistani. Waliyat al fiqah asserts total clerical dominance of politics as currently expressed in Iran, whereas quietism advocates a political process open to and even dominated by non-clerical quarters of society. Najaf reigned historically supreme as the center of Shia Islam, before the rise of Khomeni and Saddam’s concerted oppression and purges of Shia clerics in southern Iraq.

In practical terms, Sistani and many in the Najaf Hawza are not “quietists.” For example, the elder cleric has willingly inserted himself into the Iraqi political process to advocate certain interests or to try and move the country toward stability. But Sistani does represent a brand of Shia Islam and political engagement that is far more open than Khomeniist doctrine, and in fact presents a counterweight and possible threat to the generational primacy of Iranian-sourced doctrine. In a wonderful world, Najaf’s popularity might even present a challenge to the current Iranian regime, and open up that country’s political process to candidates other than those vetted by Iran’s clerics (ideally).

This important religious divergence, greatly simplified in my presentation, presents problems for a dominant media narrative. Specifically, that Iraq’s “Shia” – imams, political parties, and men and women on the street – will bend to the influence of Iran because they are all “Shia,” rather than Iran bending to the influence of Iraq. I’m not going to assert that the removal of Saddam Hussein will bring down or revolutionize the Tehran regime via a soft theological revolution stemming from Iraq, but it’s a theoretical possibility. And a more sober assessment is that Iraqi Shiism could have as much of an impact on cracking open Iran’s politics as any predicted Iranian influence on Iraq.

Armed neighbors make good neighbors

Another narrative examined by media analysts over the last few years of dramatic changes in Iraq centers around the Sunni Awakening. It goes something like this: the US military empowering and arming a Sunni militia is essentially like raising a baby crocodile: one day the crocodile will get big and bite you, or snap at the Iraqi central government the US is trying to build and empower. The reptilian-free version: some argue we’ve set the stage for another Iraqi civil war between Shia and Sunni elements of society, with the Kurds perhaps hawking popcorn after building an east-west country-spanning wall immediately south of Kirkuk.

But Iraqis are fatigued from the terrible carnage of the 2003-2007, and extended US involvement in Iraq (see above) is the exact prescription to avoid a wholesale meltdown of the country into sectarian conflict. Enough Iraqis are willing to deal to make the possibility of the Shia attempting a de facto Shia state impossible. And overt Iranian dominance of the Iraqi central government is such anathema to both secularists and the Sunni political class that they will indeed get violent en masse to stop it. Shia Iraqi parties know this, and as Iraq continues to stabilize with US and international oversight, it’s quite possible that many will further limit any moves that wed them to an overtly Iranian-centric agenda.

The twin buffers of avoiding alienation of Shia Arab constituents and overtly provoking a well-armed and organized Sunni minority fuel bargaining. If the Sunni had never been organized and empowered, they’d have no teeth, and wouldn’t necessarily get a serious place at the table after American withdrawal.

The secular factor

Sectarian division in Iraq has been ridiculously simplified to the three-pronged narrative of Shia, Sunni, and Kurds (Kurds being Sunni, but nevermind that). In truth, there are many flavors of political identity, including a notable and increasingly popular contingent of secular Shia, Sunni, and Kurds. Prime Minister Maliki’s party has embraced nationalism and security as platforms over Shia identity after the popularity of religious parties waned from the carnage caused by secular militias in 2006-2007. Last year’s provincial elections were widely seen as a victory for secular politics, and Maliki has tried to broaden his support by reaching out to include Sunni Awakening parties in his coalition. In addition, a significant secular alliance led by Iyad Allawi maintains minority relevance in Iraq’s political landscape.

Bottom line: just because Iran shares an Islamic sect with 60% of Iraq’s population does not at all mean Tehran can ever achieve a controlling interest in Iraq. Iran’s influence with the parties it is closely allied with – notably, the reforming Sadrists and a diminished ISCI – is finite, and the influence of those parties is similarly finite within the kaleidoscope of political flavors in Iraq. The structure of the Iraqi government is also particularly suited for checking domination by any one interest. These are the realistic limits to Iranian power over Iraqi politics, which is sometimes cartoonishly depicted as a relationship between puppeteer and puppets.

An Iraq for Iraqis

I’m not trying to sugarcoat the fact that Iran is exerting significant influence of armed, economic, political, and religious varieties in a post-Saddam Iraq. And there is little doubt that as the US draws down, these efforts will become bolder. But Iraqis – ranging from haughty Sunni supremacist sheiks who hate the Persians, to Shia politicians who maintain post-exile residences in Iran – prioritize their own interests. Among many, the construction of an Iraq run by Iraqis runs a distant second place to self-interest, but still places miles ahead of Tehran’s interest for its own sake. And millions of nationalist Shia and Sunni Iraqis will have eyes on their leadership’s relationship with Iran.

Some questions that will influence the ultimate trend of Iranian regional power and authority within Iraq itself:

1. When the elderly Sistani dies, who will replace him as leader of the Najaf Hawza, and will either (relative) Quietism or Khomeniism emerge as a clear winner in Shia Islam?

2. Will security generally hold, or will recent violence reverse Iraq’s trend toward secular politics?

3. How comfortable will the US be in exerting influence via patronage, and how willing are different quarters of Iraqi society accept it?

4. Will the passionate and fickle politics of the Shia man-on-the-street maintain reversion to nationalism, or will Iran make influential PR gains in southern Iraq and Baghdad?

5. Moving beyond analysis of Iraq in isolation: How vulnerable is Iran’s ruling regime back home? And what effect could the experiment in open elections taking place next door have on Iranian sentiment?

Answers could vary. While dominance is unlikely, Iran’s “Lebanonization” of Iraq remains a distinct threat. But in many possible scenarios, Iran’s efforts in Iraq can be considered an uphill struggle, not a gleeful victory lap.

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1 Comment

  • Rosario says:

    It has been a while since we heard from you, what you write seem to ring true with my “gut.” Thanks for writing this summary of the state of Iraqi politics, I was wondering what to expect after the US leaves. A persian friend I used to work ~20 years ago with once said to me that the British partitioned the muslim world to keep them fighting among themselves. Now I now know that to be not true, they do a pretty good job of doing that all on their own. Wahabi, Deobani, Sulfism, Khomeniist, … it is all so confusing for heathen ears. Hopefully from now on there will be less fireworks and more talking…


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