On August 22, 2010 the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, made his rounds of the American Sunday morning television talk shows. In part of his comments he said that Iran continued to interfere in Iraq, opposed a strong democracy there in favor of a weak state that could not pose a threat, and supported Shiite militias. A few days later the new U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey stated that one-quarter of the U.S. casualties in Iraq were due to Iranian backed groups, but that Tehran's influence was sometimes overblown. In the past, Iranian academic and member of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard Kayhan Barzegar has tried to explain the motivations behind Tehran’s Iraq policy.
Barzegar thinks that there are two ways to interpret Iran’s foreign affairs. One is to view Iran as an ideologically driven, rogue state that is a threat to security, and who therefore has to be confronted. That is the common view in America. The other is to look at Iran like any other state whose policies are shaped by its politics, history, and security concerns.
Barzegar advocates the second approach, which he claims can be seen when analyzing Iran's worldivew. One important factor shaping that is the great powers. Iran has always felt that Europe and America have tried to control it. Another element is the belief that Iran can play a role in the Arab world because of its historical, cultural, and religious ties. In fact, Tehran has felt that it could balance its relations with the West through its Middle East policies. Last is its security. Iraq has been Iran’s greatest rival dating back centuries. The most recent example of that was Saddam Hussein launching the Iran-Iraq War in 1980.
This history and culture has played out in Iraq in several ways. First, the overthrow of Saddam opened up great opportunities for Tehran. Even before the invasion, it felt that it would have influence over Iraq’s new politics because it supported Shiite exile parties like the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and the Dawa Party who it hoped would come to lead the Shiite majority. That came to fruition as those two parties came to power as part of the United Iraqi Alliance in the 2005 elections. In 2010 Iran helped put together the Sadrist-Supreme Council led Iraqi National Alliance, and then got them to unite with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law after the March vote. Iran has also become one of Iraq’s greatest trade partners tying the two economies together. Those friendly Shiite parties also helped assure Iran that Iraq would not pose a threat again. The U.S. occupation, and Bush administration comments about regime change and Iran’s nuclear program however didn’t mean that all of its security concerns were resolved. To counter these newest threats by the West, Tehran backed Shiite militants like the Mahdi Army and Special Groups to tie down American troops in Iraq in the hopes that would delay any action against Iran. Finally, thousands of Iranian pilgrims travel to Najaf and Karbala, two of the holiest Shiite sites in the world strengthening the religious and cultural ties between the two.
Barzegar believes that Iran has followed a pragmatic, rather than ideological approach to Iraq with great success. It has expanded its influence in the Middle East, confronted and countered the West, created new economic and religious relations, and secured its western border and eliminated its greatest threat with its Iraq policy. That doesn’t mean that Tehran calls the shots in Baghdad. The Iraqi National Alliance has rejected Iranian pressure to support Maliki for a second term as premier for example. What it does mean is that it can shape events in Iraq. For instance, it raised and lowered the violence level in Iraq by increasing or withholding weapons and supplies to Shiite militias. That’s the reason why Gen. Odierno and other American officials have continuously warned about Iran’s activities in Iraq. While a continued U.S. presence in Iraq could be a counterbalance, the growth of Iraqi nationalism that was apparent in the 2009 and 2010 elections is the only thing that can ensure a more equal relationship between the two sides in the long run. That’s still developing so Iran can be expected to play a leading role in Iraqi affairs for the foreseeable future.
Agence France Presse, “Iran working against Iraqi democracy: US general,” 8/22/10
Barzegar, Kayhan, “Iran’s Foreign Policy in Post-invasion Iraq,” Middle East Policy Council Journal, Winter 2008
- “Iran’s Foreign Policy towards Iraq and Syria,” Turkish Political Quarterly, Summer 2007
Felter, Joseph and Fishman, Brian, “Iranian Strategy in Iraq, Politics and ‘Other Means,’” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 10/13/08
MEMRI Staff, “Iraq: No Light at End of Tunnel,” MEMRI Staff, 8/23/10
Al-Rafidayn, "One-Quarter of U.S. Casualties In Iraq Committed by Iranian-Supported Groups," MEMRI Blog, 8/30/10