Iran is once again playing a major role in Iraq. It has sent in advisers and ones from Lebanese Hezbollah, has mobilized its militia allies, and is said to be forming security policy for Baghdad all to confront the renewed insurgency. With all the talk of Iran’s return to the country there has been little on what Tehran’s ultimate goals might be. To help explore Iran’s policy towards Iraq is RAND’s Alireza Nader.
1. When the U.S. had forces in Iraq one of the main narratives in America was that Iran was attempting to take over the country. Do you think Tehran wanted direct control of Iraq?
The Iranian government is realistic enough to know that it cannot control the entire country of Iraq. Rather, Tehran would prefer an Iraqi government that is Shi’a-led and amenable to Iran’s interests. Iranian officials view the triumph of Shi’a parties after the 2003 U.S. invasion as a vindication of Iran’s “sacrifices” during the long and bloody Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). Of course, Iran would also like close ties with the Sunni Arabs and Kurds in Iraq, and has managed to create a decent relationship with the latter. Nevertheless, Tehran realizes that the Sunni in Iraq are hostile toward Iran and are unlikely to have the close relations between the Iraqi and Iranian Shi’a.
2. Tehran seemed to be following contradictory policies in Iraq from 2003-2011. While it backed its allies like the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq in the political field, it was spreading violence through its support of militias. What is your take on why Iran carried out these two tactics simultaneously?
Iran had two primary objectives in Iraq during that time: to empower the Shi’a Iraqi and also tie down U.S. forces in Iraq so they could not take military action against Iran. Tehran’s support for various Shi’a parties and militias (and to a certain extent Kurdish and Sunni groups) stemmed from these goals. Militias like Jaish al Mahdi fought U.S. troops while groups like the Supreme Council asserted political authority. Iran’s patronage of multiple groups also ensured that no one group would emerge as overly powerful and able to challenge Iranian influence.
3. Since 2003 Iran has become a major trading partner with Iraq exporting a huge amount of consumer goods, signing energy deals to provide electricity and natural gas, etc. Was Iran just taking advantage of new markets opening up in Iraq after sanctions were removed or was there a larger goal of attempting to tie the two economies together?
Iran definitely took advantage of the economic opportunities in Iraq, but also used its economic leverage, especially in the Shi’a south, to gain greater political influence. Thus we see major Iranian investments in such religiously and geopolitically important cities such as Najaf and Karbala. Close economic ties with Iraq also allowed Iran to alleviate the pressure of international sanctions, although the Iraqi market is not nearly large enough to make up for Iran’s lost commerce with Europe or Asia.
4. Iran was the first country to provide aid to Baghdad in its fight against the renewed insurgency in 2014. It’s got advisers on the ground, is providing weapons, has brought in Lebanese Hezbollah, has organized its militia allies to help with the fight, and supposedly Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force Gen. Qassim Suleimani is dictating part of Baghdad’s security policy similar to what its done in Syria. The question is when and if the militants are ever defeated will Iran relinquish all this influence its gained?
Iran is likely to exploit the current crisis in Iraq in order to expand its influence on the Iraqi Shi’a. Those parties, along with the Iraqi central government, may be able to wean themselves off Iranian support if they are no longer threatened by the Islamic State or other dissatisfied Sunni groups. This scenario seems unlikely in the near future, so for the next few years Iran is likely to remain a key if not critical power in Iraq.
5. The U.S. has now returned to Iraq as well and is providing air strikes in support of the peshmerga and Iraqi forces. Does Iran welcome this type of assistance to Baghdad from the Americans, and how does that tie in with its larger policy about U.S. influence in the region?
Iran has remained relatively quiet about the American air strikes. Iranian leaders such as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may publicly condemn American “intervention”, but if it suits Iranian interests, they are likely to rejoice. The Islamic State’s defeat by U.S. hands would be welcomed in Tehran.
6. Finally, many have speculated what are the main drivers of Iran’s policy towards Iraq. Some believe that ideology determines its strategy and that it wants to spread its revolution to its neighbor. Others point to the long history of conflict and rivalry between Iran-Iraq. A few have said that Iran is simply opportunistic and takes advantage of whatever opportunities have presented itself in Iraq. What do you believe are the main factors that have formed Tehran’s stance towards Iraq since 2003?
Iran’s horrible experience in the Iran-Iraq War is the main driving factor. Tehran wants to make sure that any future Iraqi state is amenable to Iranian interests, or is at least not hostile to Iran’s regional influence. Most Iranian leaders have given up on the idea of exporting the revolution and velayat-e faghih (rule of the supreme jurisprudent). It is not working well in Iran, and is unlikely to suit Iraq’s religious and political needs.