Home inFocus Don’t Overestimate Iran’s Influence in Iraq

Don’t Overestimate Iran’s Influence in Iraq

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi Summer 2012

Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, there has been much discussion of Baghdad’s relations with its neighbor to the east. Amid all the controversy as to what happened to Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) stockpiles, it is generally now recognized that the dictator played games with UN weapon inspectors because he wanted Iran to believe that he possessed a WMD arsenal, aiming to deter Tehran from trying to undermine his regime. After all, following Saddam’s rise to power, Iran hosted and provided aid to some Iraqi Shi’a political factions in an effort to encourage a Shi’a uprising against Saddam’s secular government and export the Iranian Islamic Revolution to neighboring Iraq.

Analysts constantly speculate on the extent to which Iran is involved in post-Saddam Iraq, to the detriment of the United States and its regional goals. While Iran and Iraq have opened the door to relations since Saddam’s fall, there is reason to be cautious when emphasizing Iran’s current level of influence in Iraq.

Strong Economic Ties?

Post-Saddam Iraq has developed extensive economic ties with Iran. The American Enterprise Institute’s “Iran Tracker” notes that between 2003 and 2010, Iranian officials claimed that trade between the two countries increased by a factor of ten. Furthermore, it was reported in May 2011 that Baghdad signed a deal with Iran to import natural gas to contend with the electricity shortcoming stemming from the rapid increase in demand since 2003.

However, these economic ties are not necessarily indicative of an Iraqi tilt towards Iran’s sphere of influence. Part of the reason behind the countries’ increasing trade is because the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), Iraq’s transitional government following the 2003 invasion, lifted import tariffs, allowing for an influx of cheap consumer goods from China, Turkey, and Iran. The presence of Iranian goods and merchandise, as well as the growing numbers of Iranian pilgrims, has not gone unnoticed by shopkeepers in the Shi’ite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf in Iraq.

Incidentally, it is not only Baghdad that has been cultivating economic ties with Tehran. The autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has done so as well, specifically by allowing for the smuggling of oil into Iran. The reason the KRG engages in such activity is because at present the Kurds do not have a pipeline of their own to export oil.

It is important to note as well that the Iraqi government has been developing economic ties with U.S. ally Jordan, as evinced by the signing in June of an agreement between the two countries to construct a pipeline to export oil and gas through Jordanian territory. In a similar vein, in May it was reported that two firms—the Aqaba Container Terminal and the Aqaba Development Corporation—were seeking to strengthen relations with the Iraqi business community in order to increase the exportation of Iraqi goods via the port of Aqaba.

These ties between Jordan and Iraq can be explained by taking into consideration the Iraqi presence in the Hashemite Kingdom. Along with Syria, Jordan has been a refuge country of choice for many middle-class Iraqi Christians, particularly the Chaldeans.

With the importance of Iran-Iraq economic ties in question, the issue of much greater concern is Iran’s political influence in Iraq.

Iran As Political Mediator

Naturally, Iran wishes to see the Shi’a remain the leaders of the Iraqi political process. Yet the Iranian strategy is more complex than the simple wish for a single, unified Shi’a political front, for such a development would risk triggering a backlash against Iran. Indeed, the Iraqi Shi’a have a marked tradition of independence, and since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, have generally rejected Ayatollah Khomeini’s principle of velayat-e-faqih that necessitates Shi’ite allegiance to the Iranian Supreme Leader.

However, the Shi’ite clerics in Najaf are not “quietist” in the absolute sense. For instance, senior cleric in Iraq Ayatollah Sistani calls for a ban on the playing of chess on the grounds that the game is condemned in sayings attributed to Muhammad and the Shi’a Imams.

In any case, it is in Iran’s interest to keep the Shi’a political factions divided to a certain extent, such that Tehran can play the role of advisor, mediator, and kingmaker. A good example of this strategy is Tehran’s backing of the Shi’a militant groups such as the League of the Righteous led by Qais Khazali. It was previously known as one of the “Special Groups” and remains at odds with the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Since the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, the League of the Righteous has turned to the political process. It is not yet certain what sort of role groups like this will play in Iraqi politics, although it is fair to say that they certainly do not have the patronage networks of the established Shi’a political factions.

Of greater relevance is the recent political crisis that concerns the talk of a no-confidence vote against the current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who is increasingly the subject of accusations of growing autocratic tendencies. And the accusations are not without justification. Even Muqtada al-Sadr, whose followers form a key part of Maliki’s coalition, has accused the premier of ruling like a “dictator.” Following Iran’s advice, Sadr joined Maliki in the State of Law bloc in the aftermath of the 2010 elections where he now flouts much rhetoric about participating in a no-confidence vote against the premier.

Nonetheless, it is clear based on public statements that the Sadrists are divided in their support for Maliki. Unsurprisingly, many Sadrists are publicly standing behind the premier because in joining his coalition they gained positions in the government ministries for housing and public planning, which allowed them to expand and consolidate their support base in the center and south of the country.

Regardless, the rhetoric of both Sadr and Maliki, together with the dissatisfaction of Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani—who forged the Arbil compromise in December 2010 that allowed Maliki to serve a second term as prime minister—has induced Iran to play the role of mediator. Like the United States, Iran has backed Maliki as premier. Accordingly, Iranian officials have engaged in talks with Sadrist members, trying to persuade them to drop their rhetoric against Maliki. Nevertheless, Sadr shows no sign of softening his public criticism of the prime minister.

As Joel Wing of the blog Musings on Iraq reports, Sadr has even gone so far as to reject a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Kadhem al-Hussein al-Haeri, who is the spiritual leader of the Sadrist movement and is based in Iran, that Sadrists should not vote for secular candidates. What is meant by this fatwa is that a no-confidence vote against Maliki is to be seen as voting for the likes of the secular Iraqi prime minister from 2004-2005, Ayad Allawi.

A Limited Influence

Of course, the question arises of whether Sadr is being sincere in his publicly critical attitude towards Maliki. Either way, however, it is apparent that there is a limit to Iranian influence here. Assuming that he is not sincere and is actually standing by the premier, Iran’s role as supposed mediator is superfluous.

The fact remains that there is too much disunity among the opposition to Maliki (especially among the secular Iraqiya) to pose any threat to his power. Maliki has been able to have it both ways with Kurdish parties and some members of Iraqiya, for while he has often placated the former with concessions such as allowing Kurdish fighters in Iraq, known as the Peshmerga, to annex disputed territory in Khanaqin in Diyala province, he has also won over the support of the latter by taking a firm stance in favor of Arab claims to Kirkuk.

As analyst Reidar Visser notes, the cultivating of such Sunni Arab and secular nationalist favor “is probably the kind of support that is most likely to make him independent from Iran in the long run.” In fact, it should not be surprising that there are some Sunni Arabs who see Maliki as a nationalist holding the country together and keeping the nation’s sovereignty intact.

Coming back to Sadr: If it is assumed that he is being sincere in his criticism of Maliki, what are his motives? It has been suggested that Sadr is genuinely concerned about Maliki’s authoritarian tendencies. Perhaps. In truth, Sadr is very much a wild card. However, as Joel Wing notes, “Sadr has always wanted to be a national leader with the same standing as people like Maliki.” This point illustrates the most important factor to take into consideration over any foreign influence when analyzing Iraqi politics: personal rivalries.

Whether within or between factions, these power struggles only make the political situation in Iraq all the more complex to analyze. In turn, the rivalries mean that Iraq’s politicians are generally keen to avoid coming under the influence of a foreign power such as to become the equivalent of a client politician. After all, how can one otherwise build up a support base within the country? Thus the group, Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), whose leadership supports Khomeini’s concept of velayat-e-faqih, changed its name to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq amid widespread suspicion among Iraqis that the group was a mere front for Iran. All of this makes any goal of turning Iraq into a satrapy even more difficult.

Countering Iran

Although it seems that Iraq will probably not become a state like Hezbollah’s area of control in Lebanon, the U.S. approach towards Iraq should not be complacent. As Visser notes, the United States is still preoccupied with the paradigm of the Sunni-Shi’a-Kurdish divide. Indeed, it is unfortunate that Washington has failed to move on from the institutionalization of sectarianism—that is, the awarding of positions in government according to sectarian quotas—in the days of the CPA. The fact is that Iran has no problem with such a system, and if anything sees that status quo as something that works in its interests, provided it is led by the Shi’a.

U.S. influence has been in decline for years, but Iraq is still willing to work with the United States when Baghdad perceives doing so as in its interests. Thus, Iraq remains a leading customer of U.S. arms despite Iranian disapproval, and under U.S. pressure, Baghdad made it clear to Tehran that it would not permit arms exports to Syria over its territory and airspace. Yet the United States has had no role in mediating among Iraqi political factions.

If Washington wishes to counter Iranian influence, it is necessary to stress more the concept of Iraqi national unity and sovereignty, rather than obsessing over analysis through the sectarian paradigm that can obscure the complexities of the personal power struggles in Iraq.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and an adjunct fellow at the Middle East Forum. His website is www.aymennjawad.org.