Why does Iran have so much influence over Iraq?
There have always been doubts about the loyalty of Iraqi Shi’ites to their homeland and an ongoing belief that their allegiance lies with Iran. Though these suspicions began in Iraq, they have expanded with the development of the modern Iraqi state and have likely been reinforced by some of the policies pursued by Iran and Shi’ite political elites so that they have become widely accepted as truth both regionally and internationally, and are even included as fact in educational curricula.
This article does not attempt to ascertain where the loyalty of Iraqi Shi’ites lies, nor will it delve into the sources of this common perception, which is a complicated issue. The goal, instead, is to understand the extent to which political imagination controls the Iraqi political stage, whether through the political dynamics of Iraq’s Shi’ite community, the reactions of the West (and especially of the United States), or responses from Arab countries.
During the First Gulf War in 1991, the US refused to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime out of fear that Shi’ite elites loyal to Iran would seize power even if a democracy were established: Shi’ites were in the majority and their parties were the strongest and most organized political force in the opposition against Saddam.
Iran has historically been the source of political Shi’ism. Modern Iraq has not been able to cultivate any Shi’ite political leadership that extends beyond its borders, possibly because the Shi’ite community has not played a central role in Iraq’s political history, either in the Ottoman period or in the post-1921 modern state.
The event that paved the way for Iraq’s Shi’ites to play a more central role in their country’s history came in 2003. Indeed, increased Shi’ite involvement in Iraq’s political sphere was one of the main goals the US had for the country after the invasion.
The reason for this change of heart since the 1991 war was due to the efforts of some Iraqi Shi’ite activists to convince the US of the difference between Iraqi Shi’a Islam and its Iranian counterpart, and to dispel any suspicions that Iraq’s Shi’ite community was actually loyal to Iran. The US also came to understand that an Iraq led by Shi’ites could be a political model in sharp contrast to that of Iran: bringing wealth, an alliance with the most powerful country in the world, and possession of Najaf, the heart of religious symbolism for Shi’a Islam.
Indeed, Iraq has been able to play a crucial role because of its unique cultural, demographic and geopolitical circumstances, in the context of the ongoing sectarian strife in the region, especially with regard to two central points: the ruling Shi’ite elite in Iraq could lead an Arab–Shi’ite front, distinct from Iranian Shi’a Islam, and they could also become the meeting point between Iran and the Arab world.
It was hoped that Iraq would lead the Middle East on the road to modernity and that toppling Saddam’s regime would allow the entire Middle East to move toward democracy—a kind of Berlin Wall moment. The US wanted Iraq to become an inspiring example throughout the transition, and for the Shi’ite elite in particular to offer up a new political model to contrast with that of Iran’s Shi’ites. They also hoped that Iraq’s Shi’ites would counter the stereotype that had emerged following the Islamic Revolution in Iran of Shi’a Islam being a radical, fundamentalist and anti-Western movement.
While in Cairo in 2008 during a tour of Arab countries, Ammar Al-Hakim, the leader of the Shi’ite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), said that Iraq could become a “bridge” between Iran and the Arab world. So instead of necessarily falling into one of two camps—Arab or Iranian—Iraq could instead act as mediator between the two.
However, the idea of “Iraq, as the bridge to Iran”—rather than “Iraq as a trench”—has not taken off.
The reason for this is that the realities of divisions and deep-seated internal conflicts do not permit Iraq to play any external role. Additionally, for their part, the Arab countries have remained captives to the stereotype of Iraq, rather than aiding the country in taking on a role that befits its unique status. They have not seriously dealt with the prospect that Iraqi Shi’ites will adopt policies motivated by faith in their Arab identity. More important than these factors is that Iraq, still a fragile state, now finds itself too weak to confront the challenges associated with the mounting tension and conflict in the region by itself.
In short, the Arab Spring, and more specifically the Syrian revolution, was the tipping point when Iraq chose to openly and fully involve itself in the Iranian-led Shi’ite “trench,” in that the “sectarianization” of the Arab Spring propelled Sunni political Islam to power. So instead of the Arab Spring resulting in open-door policies throughout the region, it brought about entrenchment and unprecedented sectarian “trenches.” Thus, instead of serving as a project for democratization and political modernization, the Arab Spring is now a pawn in a confrontation with Iranian imperialism.
Iraqi leaders—by which I mean the government of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki—have chosen the easier yet more costly path of acting as part of the sectarian “trench” alongside Iran, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Meanwhile, the growing tension in the region is no longer receptive to dialogue initiatives.
When the West strengthened its economic sanctions against Iran because of its nuclear program before the recent American–Iranian rapprochement, everyone expected that Iraq would be the country with the most to gain from Iran’s exclusion from the oil market. Instead, the Iraqi leaders chose the strategy of “restoring the trench” they had dug themselves into. They chose to economically support the Iranians rather than to take advantage of their absence as Iran did when Iraq was excluded from the oil market in the 1990s.
And so the Iraqi leadership failed to realize that Iraq, serving as a bridge, could be more important now than at any time before, not just in terms of alleviating the tensions in the region but in terms of safeguarding Iraq against the implications of what is happening in Syria.
At any rate, this issue will remain on the Iraqi political table, especially as there is indication of change in the ruling establishment. More importantly, it is now important to recognize that any settlement of the internal conflict in Iraq will not come to pass unless the country repositions itself within the broader context of escalating rivalries in this volatile region.
By Haider Saeed