Iraq’s Turmoil Highlights Extent and Limits of Iran’s Influence

Iraq’s Turmoil Highlights Extent and Limits of Iran’s Influence
Photo: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, June 2006 (Defense Department photo by Staff Sgt. James Sherrill).
More than two years after the December 2011 withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq, the United States is no longer the key foreign player in that country. Today, the Islamic Republic of Iran is arguably the most influential foreign force in Iraqi politics. The 2003 U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein had already led to the empowerment of Shiite parties closely aligned with Iran. The Iraqi central government is now dominated by Shiite parties as are, to some extent, the Iraqi military and security forces. Iraq’s estrangement from the Sunni-majority Arab world, especially Saudi Arabia, and the sectarian upheaval in Syria have further nudged Baghdad increasingly closer to Tehran. But it is important not to overemphasize Iranian influence in Iraq. Tehran wields leverage in Baghdad, but it faces limits to its power. Ethnicity, geopolitics, economic competition and even religion present obstacles to Iranian power in Iraq. For its part, Baghdad is likely to seek Iranian patronage only as long as Iraq remains fractured and vulnerable. A more united and stable Iraq is unlikely to be too dependent on Tehran for support. For now, however, Iraq remains in the throes of sectarian violence between its Sunni minority and Shiite majority. The Sunni-led insurgency in Anbar province, including the capture of Fallujah by al-Qaida-linked groups, poses a challenge not only to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, but also to Iranian national security interests. It is thus not surprising to hear senior Iranian military officers offering Iraq help in defeating Sunni insurgents. The Sunni insurgents who have occupied Fallujah and a significant portion of Anbar province accuse the Maliki government of sectarian bias. In particular, Sunni insurgents accuse Maliki of being a pawn for “Safavid” ambitions in Iraq. The Safavids were the 16th-century Shiite rulers of Iran and today’s modern Iraq; they not only established the Shiite sect as Iran’s predominant religion, but ruled the last major Persian empire. Iraqi fear of “Safavid” rule in Iraq is hyperbole; Iran may be a major power in the region, but it is hardly an empire. But, empire or not, there is little doubt that Iran’s influence in Iraq is growing. Iraq’s central government is indeed closely tied to Shiite Iran. Maliki’s Dawa Party is hardly an Iranian puppet, but other Iraqi Shiite groups, such as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and Muqtada al-Sadr’s followers have warm intelligence and security ties to Iran. Indeed, ISCI leader and current Iraqi Minister of Transportation Hadi al-Amiri is reported to be a key facilitator of Iranian arms shipments to the Syrian regime through Iraq territory. Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards Quds force is also a key backer of Iraqi Shiite militias fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime against Sunni insurgents. These militias not only fought U.S. troops during the American occupation, but may also be involved in death squads targeting Sunni Iraqis. The Quds force appears to be mostly working behind the scenes, mobilizing more shadowy Shiite groups rather than working too openly with the Iraqi government. There are two possible reasons why both Iran and Iraq prefer to keep these ties informal. First, Iran, while pursuing a sectarian agenda, is anxious not to be viewed as overly sectarian. The new Iranian government led by President Hassan Rouhani wishes to pursue a policy of engagement with neighboring and Western powers. So far, Rouhani’s more pragmatic approach has led to somewhat warmer ties with Turkey, a prime opponent of the Syrian regime. Iran has also reached out to the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Oman. In contrast, Saudi Arabia, the Middle East’s Sunni powerhouse and arguably Iran’s biggest regional rival, is still wary of Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions, and cautious about the new president in Tehran. To ease tensions and lessen its isolation, Iran must somehow either ease Saudi Arabia’s concern or seek to set back its power, though this latter goal may be too ambitious and costly for a diplomatically and economically isolated Iran. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is deeply suspicious of the Maliki government and its ties to Iran. For Iran to overtly interfere in Iraqi affairs, as it has done in Syria, would be even more alarming for Saudi Arabia and much of the Sunni Arab world. Second, the Iraqi government may hesitate to seek explicit security assistance from Iran to avoid angering the United States. Maliki has consistently pressed the United States to sell him Apache helicopters for use against Sunni insurgents. And Iraqi security forces are also deficient in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities and could use more advanced U.S. drones. Iranian drones are hardly a match for what the United States can offer Iraq, so it makes sense for Maliki to keep some distance from Iran. Beyond these tactical considerations, Maliki and many other Iraqi Shiites may simply be hesitant to seek greater ties to Iran. After all, Iraq and Iran fought each other in one of the longest and bloodiest wars of the 20th century. Shiites may dominate the Iraqi government today, but many may consider themselves first and foremost as Iraqi Arabs, and rivals to Persian Iran. The “liberation” of Iraq from Saddam’s rule has not led to Iraq’s Najaf rivaling Iran’s Qom as the center of Shiite learning or thought. And Iraq’s replacement of Iran as the second-largest oil exporter within the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, mostly due to sanctions against Iran, has yet to produce significant rivalry between the two countries. However, a stronger Iraq could one day present a religious and economic obstacle to Iranian ambitions, creating rivalry where now there is cooperation. Iran may be more influential in Iraq today than it has been since the Safavid era, but this is not so much due to Iranian strength as Iraqi weakness. Post-Baathist Iraq appears hopelessly divided. It is not only the Iraqi Sunni that are arrayed against Maliki’s government; Iraqi Kurds and even many Iraqi Shiites are also deeply unhappy with his leadership. Iraq will need Iran as long as it faces an uncertain future—unrest at home, war in Syria and isolation from the Arab world. But a stronger, more inclusive and prosperous Iraq may feel no such compulsion. Alireza Nader is a senior international policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

Keep reading for free!

Get instant access to the rest of this article by submitting your email address below. You'll also get access to three articles of your choice each month and our free newsletter:

Or, Subscribe now to get full access.

Already a subscriber? Log in here .

What you’ll get with an All-Access subscription to World Politics Review:

A WPR subscription is like no other resource — it’s like having a personal curator and expert analyst of global affairs news. Subscribe now, and you’ll get:

  • Immediate and instant access to the full searchable library of tens of thousands of articles.
  • Daily articles with original analysis, written by leading topic experts, delivered to you every weekday.
  • Regular in-depth articles with deep dives into important issues and countries.
  • The Daily Review email, with our take on the day’s most important news, the latest WPR analysis, what’s on our radar, and more.
  • The Weekly Review email, with quick summaries of the week’s most important coverage, and what’s to come.
  • Completely ad-free reading.

And all of this is available to you when you subscribe today.