With the United States formally ending its military operations in Iraq, many are beginning to turn their eye to Iran’s deep influence in the country. And, in light of Tehran’s growing tensions with the West over its nuclear program, Tehran’s maneuvers in Iraq have tremendous implications.
Tehran has arguably been among the biggest beneficiaries, albeit inadvertently, of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Not only has the United States neutralized Iran’s historical nemesis, namely the Baathist Sunni regime in Baghdad, but it also facilitated the commencement of a new chapter in Tehran’s bilateral relations with Iraq.
Today, Iran enjoys a strong and amicable partnership with its neighbor, and has cultivated a growing trade and investment relationship with Baghdad. Iraq is already among Iran’s biggest economic partners, serving as the country’s second largest non-oil export market. Bilateral trade has the potential to grow exponentially in the coming years.
Iranian companies, meanwhile, are spread across Iraq, aggressively courting consumers. Over time, they’ve successfully increased their market shares in Iraq’s booming economy, which has benefited from steady increases in the country’s oil revenues. In the aftermath of the 2007 U.S. military surge, there was a noticeable improvement in Iraq’s overall security. Major oilfields are either back online or are expected to be relatively soon.
Iranian products account for a significant chunk of Iraq’s imports, but Iran’s presence in Iraq is most pronounced through growing commodity exports and the numerous Iranian pilgrims who regularly visit holy shrines in Karbala and Najaf. Iranian commodities, from vegetables to electronic products, construction materials, machinery, and automobiles, have flooded Iraqi markets. Iran has also been active in health, education, and major infrastructural projects in Iraq. The relationship is friendly and comprehensive.
Prior to the fall of Saddam Husain, Iran had to contend with decades of hostile, expansionist pan-Arabist ideology, espoused by Sunni-dominated Iraq. Both the monarchical and revolutionary Iran had to grapple with a hostile Arab neighbor to the west. While the pro-American Shah of Iran was bent on reining in the intransigence of Soviet-backed Baghdad – a state which engaged in territorial disputes and sponsored separatist movements within Southern Iran – a nascent post-revolutionary Iran greatly suffered as a result of the 1980 Iraqi invasion.
The “imposed war,” Jang-e-tahmili, stretched over 8 years, creating heavy casualties and large-scale infrastructural devastation upon an increasingly isolated Iran. The cost of war was immense. In economic terms, the war carried a price tag of around $100 billion in accounting costs, and perhaps around $1 trillion in long-term, opportunity costs. The human cost was unbearably painful for Iran as well: estimates of casualties range from hundreds of thousands to possibly a million individuals on both sides. The war with Iraq has undoubtedly inflicted psychological wounds on Iranians. Saddam’s use of chemical weapons against Iranians meant that casualties and reminders of his atrocities would stretch over years, if not decades.
Indeed, Iran’s struggle with Iraq was a defining moment in its post-revolutionary history. The war unified the country and consolidated an emerging regime. Moreover, the war provided tactical lessons and crucial military insight for Iran’s leadership. Iran’s savvy intelligence and security elements, especially the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), consider their war-related experiences as being their “formative years” – experiences that improved their developmental trajectory, enhanced their operational sophistication, and built their tactical maturity. No wonder Iran possesses one of the most effective and powerful intelligence-security agencies in the region. Overall, Iran’s national security doctrine has been very much informed by painful lessons drawn from the war experience, a prism through which Iran’s maneuvering in Iraq should be viewed.
From Iran’s perspective, one of the greatest threats to its national security is the emergence of another Baathist-like government composed of pan-Arabist, anti-Iranian, Sunni elements in Iraq.
Despite the fact that the Shia communities compose a disproportionately large portion of the country’s ethnically diverse population, they have been marginalized, and often persecuted, for much of Iraq’s recent history. In a democratic Iraq, where the electorate tends to vote along sectarian lines, the Shias are natural winners. Major Iraqi Shia figures and leaders, from Prime Minister Maliki to the prominent Shia leader Muqtada Al-Sadr and Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, used to live in exile in Iran. Unsurprisingly, Tehran was able to cultivate strong personal and political relationships with Iraq’s Shia leadership. Surprisingly, this means that it’s in Iran’s interest to have a more or less democratic Iraq, where the Shia majority can play a prominent role in a new regime.
Ironically, Iran shares the United States’ interest in avoiding the emergence of extremist Wahhabi elements – which detest Tehran’s influence and enjoy some support from other Arab countries – in Iraq’s volatile Southern territories. Any security vacuum in Iraq means greater opportunity for hostile anti-Iranian elements to gain foothold in the country. They could also serve as an extension of neighboring Arab countries, which are wary of Iran’s purported regional ascendance. This is the reason why Iran was always keen on facilitating the stabilization of Iraq’s tangled politics. No wonder, Tehran played an important mediating role when Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki reportedly desperately sought Muqtada Al-Sadr’s support to form a coalition government in order to outmaneuver the anti-Iranian “Iraqiya” party, led by the former interim Prime Minister Ayad Alawi.
Crucially, Iran is also in a unique position of influence to ensure that Maliki’s current maneuvers
against Sunni politicians won’t lead to any sectarian conflagration. There is a danger that conflict would draw external Sunni powers into the picture. A Sunni-led backlash against Maliki’s government – and also Tehran for that matter – is contrary to Iran’s interests in preserving a stable, democratic, and preferably Shia-led government.
Most importantly, Iran also has an interest in reducing the U.S. hold on Iraq. Given the hostile state of relations with the United States, Tehran always desired to undermine Washington’s attempt at creating a pliable, pro-American Iraqi government to serve as an extension of American interests in the region. Tehran reportedly used all of its influence to convince Maliki to deny both the American and NATO forces any kind of judicial immunity against prosecution, a decision that led to the collapse of a permanent Western military presence in Iraq. The entire affair was a major diplomatic coup against the U.S., limiting America’s political options in Iraq. The United States is instead forced to rely on its intelligence and diplomatic personnel to advance its interests.
Iraq, for its part, has also emerged as a major Iranian partner in regional affairs. Baghdad has been among the most vociferous opponents of any sorts of sanctions, diplomatic censure, or military intervention against Iran. It has expressed its support for Iran’s purportedly peaceful nuclear program, and continuously encouraged a diplomatic resolution to outstanding issues between Iran and the West.
In light of the escalating tensions between Iran and the West, Iraq has gained much more significance in Tehran’s strategic calculations. Diplomatically, Iran will seek Iraq’s continuing support in international bodies, from OPEC to the U.N. General Assembly. Economically, Iraq’s booming market provides Iran with some leeway in light of growing sanctions against its financial and trade sectors. Most importantly, Iraq’s continued opposition to any military operations against Iran would provide Tehran with some semblance of security.
Of course, Baghdad knows that any conflict in Iran would directly affect its national security. There is still a sizeable non-military U.S. presence in Iraq, which could become a target of potential Iranian reprisals if Tehran comes under attack. Iraq is also crucial in any planned Israeli aerial attack against Iran’s nuclear installations. There is a possibility that Iraq could attempt – or be pressured – to shoot down Israeli jet fighters if they cross its territories on the way to Iran. Because of its strategic position, Iran will do anything to keep Iraq on its side and convince the Maliki government to dissuade the United States or Israel from conducting military operations against Tehran.
The greatest challenge for Iran, though, is to retain a healthy and amicable relationship with both the Iraqi government and Iraqi society. The last thing Tehran needs is to cultivate anti-Iranian sentiment among the Iraqi population by coming off as a meddling external power. It is crucial for Iran to maintain a semblance of mutual respect and goodwill towards the Iraqi leadership. In the end, Iran will need to rely on soft power, from cultural influence to trade, investments, and educational cooperation – to keep the Iraqi public on its side.
For its part, Iraq knows that Iran – unlike America and other Western forces – is here to stay, and the most prudent approach is to maintain a peaceful and cordial relationship with its powerful Persian neighbor. So far, the United States full withdrawal from Iraq is a testament to Iran’s strong relationship with post-invasion Iraq. After almost a decade of intense diplomatic and political jostling, the termination of American and NATO military operations in Iraq is Iran’s grand prize. It remains to be seen whether a robust U.S. permanent diplomatic presence in Iraq will be sufficient to counter Iran’s multifaceted and enduring influence.
Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based foreign affairs analyst focusing on international security and development issues. His articles have been featured or cited in Foreign Policy in Focus, Asia Times, UPI, the Transnational Institute and the Tehran Times, among other publications. He can be reached at: [email protected].