Rise of Iran Reveals Polarised Iraq

Debate rages over Iran’s intentions in Iraq as it moves to eclipse American influence. By Neil Arun in Erbil and Abeer Mohammed in Baghdad
  • Pilgrims march in Karbala. Galvanised by a religious revival, Iraq's Shia majority has become a major political force. Many of its leaders have close ties to Iran. Photo by Metrography.
  • Shia pilgrims at Karbala have been attacked many times by suspected Sunni militants. Iran's rising influence in Iraq will test the relationship between the two sects. Photo by Metrography.
  • Since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the holy city of Karbala has been bringing together the Shia faithful from Iraq and Iran. Photo by Metrography.

Iran appears to have cemented its political hold over Iraq as the United States’ military has eased its grip - but its rise has been divisive, and as Tehran’s influence has expanded, its limits have also become clearer, concludes an IWPR special report.

IWPR interviews with analysts and political leaders have shown Iraqi politics is now polarised by its attitude towards Iran as it once was by its stance towards the US.

Some fear that Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic feuds, barely calmed, will be rekindled as Iran’s struggle to overpower its neighbour ensnares other countries in the region.

Others argue that Iran’s policy is more pragmatic. Already the dominant player in Iraq’s economy, they say, it seeks to consolidate rather than expand its political influence and has no interest in exporting chaos, now that the US military is leaving.

The bulk of US forces are expected to withdraw from Iraq this summer, reducing the clout in Iran’s neighbourhood of its biggest adversary.

The government that emerges from Iraq’s recent election is certain to empower the many Shia Arab and Kurdish politicians who have traditionally close ties to Iran.

Several of these leaders travelled to Tehran for informal talks in the weeks following the March 7 parliamentary election.

Though Iraqis may have welcomed Iranian imports, many remain deeply suspicious of their neighbour’s political motives. Several voters interviewed by IWPR after the recent election said they were keen to check what they saw as Iranian encroachment on their sovereignty.

The sentiment was reflected in the election result, where the two blocs that won the most seats both adopted a nationalist platform. Though led by Shia Arab politicians, both emphasised secular pledges such as improving services and security, and eschewed the overtly sectarian rhetoric that many voters link to Iran.

The State of Law list, led by outgoing prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, came a narrow second in the election. Though friendly with Tehran, the list’s leaders downplayed their Shia Islamist origins and rejected a campaign alliance with their former partners: the religious parties most closely affiliated to Iran’s Shia theocracy.

The election’s biggest winner was the Iraqiya bloc, led by Ayad Allawi, a former prime minister who has cultivated the image of a secular strongman. His list mobilised the Sunni Arab vote after stridently accusing Iran of trying to sabotage its election campaign.

SHADOW OF WAR

In an interview with IWPR, a senior Iraqiya leader said the bloc wanted to strengthen the country’s government so that it was immune to interference by Iran or any other state.

“Iraqiya wants to build a good relationship with Iran that is based on Iraqi identity, rather than sectarian identity,” said Osama al-Nujaifi, one of several prominent Sunni Arab politicians on the Iraqiya ticket.

An Iranian diplomat told IWPR his country did not discriminate between Sunni and Shia Iraqis, though it regarded Shia-led blocs as most influential in Iraq as they had won more than half the seats.

“We can say that the policies of Shia parties have generally been better than those of other Iraqi leaders who came to power in the past,” said Azim Husseini, Iran’s chief consul in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil.

He denied any suggestion of interference in Iraq’s affairs, insisting his country would welcome a representative government in Baghdad – even one formed by Iraqiya.

“We have no particular problem with Allawi’s success,” he said. “Iran’s engagement with Iraq is friendly and neighbourly.”

Husseini added, however, that Iran opposed any attempt to revive the influence of the Baath party of former Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein.

“If there are people inside Allawi’s coalition who have Baathist ideas, they should move away from them and work for the interests of Iraq,” he said. “Iraqi people do not want Baathist policies and... Iran is with the wishes of the Iraqi people.”

Responding to the Iranian consul’s remark, Nujaifi said there were no Baathists in Iraqiya. “This issue will be clarified in talks with Iran,” he said.

Several prominent Iraqiya candidates were banned in the run-up to the election for their alleged links to the outlawed Baath party. The committee that issued the controversial ban was backed by Maliki’s government and prominent Shia parties.

Iraqiya leaders described the ban as a political witch-hunt, aimed at stirring sectarian sentiment and disenfranchising the Sunni Arab community, from which the Baath party drew most of its leaders.

Iraq and Iran spent the 1980s locked in bloody and inconclusive war. Sparked by a border dispute, the conflict assumed an ideological hue, pitting Iran’s Persian Shia theocracy against Iraq’s Arab nationalist Baath party, dominated by nominally secular Sunni Muslims.

However, almost two-thirds of Iraqis are estimated to be Arab Shia Muslims, ethnically distinct from Iranians but sharing the same religious sect. Since the US-led invasion in 2003, Iraqi politics have been dominated by Shia Islamist parties with strong ties to Iran, forged during their years of exile and opposition to Saddam Hussein.

A history of resistance to Arab-dominated governments in Baghdad also accounts for the close ties of Iraq’s biggest Kurdish parties with Iran. The ethnic Kurds – mostly Sunni Muslims, making up roughly one fifth of Iraq’s population – have exercised great influence in recent Baghdad parliaments.

The Sunni Arabs are also a minority in Iraq but unlike the Kurds, they have lacked powerful representatives in Baghdad since the downfall of the Baath party.

A FORCE FOR GOOD?

The US had hoped the recent election would revive Sunni Arab participation in politics and reduce sectarian tensions, thus facilitating the withdrawal of its forces from Iraq.

Tehran backs the US pullout, claiming it is long overdue. “The presence of the US in any foreign country means trouble,” Husseini, the Iranian consul, told IWPR. “If the US withdraws from Iraq, we will be very happy.”

Iraq’s Sunni and Shia Arab politicians also broadly endorse the withdrawal of US troops. However, they disagree sharply over the role Iran intends to play once the Americans have left. Some are sanguine, others deeply suspicious.

“Iran wants to export its [Shia] ideology and thus expand its influence,” Nuraldin al-Hayali, a prominent Sunni Arab politician, said.

“Tehran wants to protect its interests in Iraq by keeping its parties in power,” he said. “Pro-Iranian groups will try to marginalise other parties.”

However, Abdul Hadi al-Hasani, a former legislator from Maliki’s Dawa party and a candidate in his State of Law list, said he expected Tehran to have an increasingly positive impact on Iraq.

“Iran will have better relations with Iraq after the US withdrawal,” he said, pointing out that the pullout will deprive militant groups claiming to resist the Americans of a pretext for launching further attacks.

Hasani said his party broadly regarded Iran as a force for good in Iraq but was willing on occasion to oppose it. “We do not allow Iran, or anyone else, to interfere in Iraqi affairs,” he said, citing as an example Maliki’s crackdown on Shia militiamen in 2008.

The US has repeatedly accused Iran of equipping Shia militia groups for attacks on its forces in Iraq – a charge Iran has denied.

A leader from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, ISCI, an Islamist party with strong ties to the Shia clergy, backed the view that the impending American withdrawal would bring stability – and warmer ties with Iran.

“As long as there are American forces in Iraq, relations between the US and Iran will be tense,” Muna Zalzala, a senior ISCI official, said.

“We maintain good relations with Iran and the US, even though the two are enemies,” she said, citing this as proof that her party – though friendly with Tehran – could act independently of it.

Rivals of ISCI and Dawa question the extent to which these parties can defy Iran, given their strong historical ties to it.

According to Hayali, politicians who truly opposed Iranian influence in Iraq had to seek stronger ties with Tehran’s Sunni Arab rivals in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

“An external and an internal strategy are required [to counter Iran’s influence],” he said. “The external strategy is based on stronger relations with Arab countries and Turkey. The internal strategy requires unifying all blocs that are opposed to Iran.”

SPIRITUAL AND MATERIAL TIES

Analysts are divided over whether the withdrawal of the US military will see Iran’s influence expand to the point where its rivals in the region are sucked into a proxy conflict in Iraq.

Ibrahim al-Sumaidaei, a Baghdad-based lawyer and columnist, said Tehran intended to continue pushing for greater influence in Iraq, and beyond.

“If Iran’s ambitions were limited to Iraq, it would have reached an accord with the US. It wants a more active role in the Gulf and the broader Middle East,” he said.

Moreover, he warned of further instability as Iran’s opponents in Iraq courted the support of its rivals in the region. “Seeking such relations... will restore sectarian polarisation,” he said.

Some observers have also suggested that Iran’s government could adopt a more aggressive policy in Iraq in order to fend off potential threats on other fronts, such as a resurgent opposition movement at home, or pressure from the US over its nuclear programme.

However, other analysts are less pessimistic, arguing that Iran’s leaders are not prone to over-reach, and will not wish to imperil their already considerable gains in Iraq.

“There is a very high degree of realism to [Iran’s] policy in the region,” said Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think-tank.

“It is difficult to imagine the Shia parties imposing a theocratic state in a country which is as diverse as Iraq,” she said.

“Iran hopes to remain a very influential country in Iraq, with a strong political and economic presence.... [But] I doubt that it has any illusion that it can dominate Iraq.”

Ottaway said the US would hope to contain Iranian influence by tightening defence agreements with other countries in the region. However, she said, neither Washington nor its Arab allies were seeking a violent confrontation with Tehran’s proxies in Iraq.

“[The Gulf countries] have excellent relations with the US but also maintain good relations with Iran,” she said. “They get on quite well and they do business all the time.”

“The US is resigned to the fact that Iran is going to be a major political [force] in the country because of the way it exercises its influence through Shia organisations that are part of the... fabric of the country.”

Iran’s spiritual and material ties to Iraq are perhaps most tangible in Karbala, home to some of Shia Islam’s holiest shrines.

Since the fall of Saddam, hundreds of thousands of Iranian pilgrims have visited this Iraqi city every year. Its markets are stacked with Iranian goods and many of the traders are bilingual, switching between Farsi and Arabic.

Haider Mohammed Salman, a professor at a private college in Karbala, said he welcomed the closer cultural and commercial exchanges between the two countries but worried about Iranian political meddling.

Hussein Elewi al-Ameri, a Karbala NGO worker, said only Iraq’s economy had profited from closer ties with Iran.

“Iran interferes in Iraqi politics, turning decisions to its own favour, regardless of our interests,” he said. “It makes no positive contribution to Iraq, apart for the trade which takes place among the merchants of the two countries.”

Neil Arun is IWPR’s Iraq editor in Erbil. Abeer Mohammed is IWPR’s senior local editor in Baghdad.
IWPR-trained reporter Najeeba Mohammed contributed to this report from Erbil.
An IWPR-trained reporter contributed from Karbala but did not wish to be identified for security reasons.

The article is the first in a series on Iraq’s relationships with its neighbours.


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Debate rages over Iran’s intentions in Iraq as it moves to eclipse American influence. By Neil Arun in Erbil and Abeer Mohammed in Baghdad