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Debate: Iraq will remain in Iran’s sphere of influence | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, right, meets with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif on January 14, 2014, in Baghdad, Iraq. (AFP Photo/Pool/Khalid Mohammed)

Almost two years after the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, Iran is considered to be the most influential foreign force in the country. Given the current geopolitical, geo-economic and geostrategic ties between Iraq’s central government and Tehran, is it realistic to argue that Iraq could pursue its domestic and foreign policies without the underlying influence of Iran, its Eastern neighbor and political ally?

In answering this question, it is important to note that the current Iranian influence in Baghdad extends beyond the military–security and political cooperation.

The more instability, internal conflict and political division Iraq experiences, the more political, socio-economic and military leverage Iran has in Iraq, and the more dependent Baghdad becomes on Tehran.

Senior Iranian military officers have repeatedly offered assistance to Iraq’s central government in fighting Sunni insurgents, which is reportedly leading Maliki’s government and his Da’wa Party to be seen increasingly as Iranian puppets. This is not helped by the fact that many of Maliki’s senior aides have close political ties to the Iranian government.

As a result, in the escalating sectarian tensions in Iraq some insurgent groups, including the Military Council of the Anbar Tribes, stated that a main reason behind their actions was to stand against the “Iranian occupation” and the Maliki government’s close ties with Tehran.

Maliki and his party, however, are only the most prominent example. Iran has close security, political and intelligence ties with other powerful and influential Shi’ite groups, including the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. Iran’s political leverage over Iraq has also been enhanced by the conflict in Syria.

Iran has reportedly utilized Iraqi territory, particularly with the assistance of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq’s leaders and the current Iraqi Minister of Transportation, Hadi Al-Amiri, in order to ship arms to Syria through Iraq. In addition, the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards has given strong support to Iraqi Shi’ite militias to back Assad’s regime and fight Sunni insurgents.

Nevertheless, from military and tactical perspectives, the significant relationship between the Quds Force and the Maliki government remains low-key for the most part, in order to maintain the Iranian government’s stance that it is not intervening in the affairs of Arab countries other than Syria.

Second, the government of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani is also attempting to send a message to other regional powers that Iran is not pursuing a sectarian foreign policy agenda either in Iraq or elsewhere.

Iraq’s central government is also attempting to keep its security, intelligence and military cooperation with Iran covert in order to ease American (and regional) concerns over Iranian influence in Baghdad and Iran’s alleged hegemonic regional ambitions. Keeping these ties covert is crucial for Maliki’s government—which is heavily dependent on US military assistance, such as access to surveillance systems and drones—in order to strengthen his government’s military capabilities against the insurgents.

Iran’s considerable influence over Iraq also derives from social, economic and religious connections between the two states. Economically speaking, the Trade Promotion Organization of Iran pointed out that that 72 percent of Iran’s exports in 2013 went to Iraq. The report also revealed the amount of goods Iraq imports from Iran increased by approximately 15 percent last year.

During a six-month period in 2013, Iran’s total exports of non-oil commodities amounted to 17.972 billion US dollars. Out of those, Iran exported goods worth of 2.868 billion dollars to Iraq. In terms of non-oil goods, Iraq is now Iran’s second-largest trade partner, second only to China. Last week, Iraqi leaders acknowledged that they are working with their counterparts in Tehran to boost oil exports in an attempt to triple oil production in Iraq to 9 million bpd by 2020. Iraq’s ambassador to Iran, Mohamed Majed Abas Al-Sheikh, recently announced that Baghdad had signed an arms agreement with its eastern neighbor in order to purchase weapons and military equipment as part of a broader plan to boost Iraqi defense capability.

From a religious perspective, thousands of Iranian religious figures, scholars and students are present in Iraqi cities like Najaf and Karbala, and they have a considerable amount of influence in shaping public opinion. In addition, several Shi’ite leaders and political parties were formerly based or trained in the Islamic Republic.

Viewed in light of recent developments, Iran’s leverage and influence in post-Baathist Iraq seems to be at its peak. Currently, the political and economic interests of Iran and the government of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki seem to align seamlessly. Whether Iran can keep its current leverage over Iraq, and whether Iraq’s central government can continue to be influenced by Tehran’s policies, however, remains to be seen.

As long as Iraq is divided and roiled by internal conflicts, and as long as Shi’a political parties dominate the Iraqi government, Iran is likely to remain the most influential foreign force in Iraq’s domestic and foreign politics. While Iraq’s central government currently seems to be sympathetic to Iranian interests, a more stable Iraq is less likely be under significant influence from Iran’s leaders.

The counterpoint to this piece can be read here.