Monday, March 16, 2009

Iran’s Policy Towards Iraq

In the winter 2008 addition of the Middle East Policy Council Journal, Iranian academic Kayhan Barzegar published an article entitled, “Iran’s Foreign Policy in Post-invasion Iraq.” It was a refutation of many common ideas about Tehran’s stance towards Iraq held by Americans and westerners. Barzegar is a professor of international relations at Azad University in Tehran, who is currently at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Barzegar argues that rather than being offensive and ideological in nature, Iran’s Iraq policy is historically based upon long-standing ideas about Iranian-Arab relations, defensive in response to the new American military presence, and pragmatic, taking advantage of new opportunities that have evolved since the overthrow of Saddam.

Iran’s Worldview

Iran’s worldview has a major impact on its policy towards Iraq. Iran has a long history of conflict and rivalry with the Arab world. Iranian nationalism also says that Iranians are different from Arabs. Together this has led to a common belief that Arabs will always oppose Iran. The period of Saddam’s rule only re-enforced this belief. At the same time pan-Islamic ideas exist that say Iran needs to be involved in the Islamic world. For the decade after the Iranian Revolution this meant trying to spread the ideals of Ayatollah Khomeini, but since the 1990s, Tehran has been trying to reach out to Arab countries in a friendlier manner. Both of these factors have led the Iranian leadership to want to increase ties with the new Iraqi government so that they don’t develop into a rival again, and ensure Iran’s place in the region.

Iran’s Immediate Concerns In Iraq

Iran also has several immediate concerns in Iraq that shape policy. These include security, the history of the Iran-Iraq War, cultural ties, and economics. All of these together lead to a pragmatic approach to Iraq to make sure that there will not be conflict between the two again, that there can be a free flow of people across the border, and an increase in business opportunities.

The first is security. Iran wants to ensure the unity of Iraq, which is divided between Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites. A break-up of Iraq could destabilize Iran. Iran and Iraq have also been historical rivals, and many Iranians believe that it could return to this role in the future. There is therefore an urge to improve ties between the two so that this won’t happen anytime soon. The Iranian opposition group Mujahadeen e-Khalq is also based in Iraq, which Tehran wants to keep in check.

Second are the lingering affects of the Iran-Iraq War. Many Iranians want to make sure that they did not fight the war for nothing. This has led to popular support for good relations so that another war might be prevented. According to the United Nations Iraq also owes Iran $149 billion in reparations. This has not been brought up by Iran lately, but it is a domestic issue. There are on-going disputes about the border between the two countries as well. Either or both issues could lead to conflicts in the future.

Third, is the desire amongst many Iranians to have good cultural relations with Iraq. This is tied up with access to the Shiite shrines in Karbala and Najaf in Iraq. Thousands of Iranians cross the border every month to go to these holy sites. Large numbers of Iraqis also go to Iran to visit Mashhad and Qom. Having open borders is important so that people can access to these areas.

Fourth Iran sees tremendous potential for economic gain in Iraq. Before the U.S. invasion most of Iran’s trade was through Jordan, Turkey and Russia. Now that Saddam is gone Iran has increased trade, tourism, and energy connections with Iraq. In February 2009 for example, the two countries signed a number of Memorandums of Understanding on industry, electricity, trade, and housing. They have also signed a deal to develop joint border oil fields. Every month similar announcements are made as the economic connections between the two are increasing.

Conflict With The U.S.

Just as important for Iran’s policy in Iraq is its conflict with the United States. For the last several decades, security in the Middle East has been largely defined by outside powers. From the 1970s on the U.S. tried to play Iran off of Iraq. The 2003 invasion disrupted this balance of power, and the U.S. has been attempting to rebuild it ever since. Iran has been adamantly opposed to re-creating this system, preferring a friendly Iraq rather than a new enemy. This conflict over ideas about security is at the heart of the dispute between Iran and the U.S.

This has led Iran to see the U.S. moves in Iraq as a threat. Initially, Tehran was afraid of the Bush administration’s talk of pre-emptive strikes and regime change. Having permanent American bases in Iraq was another major concern. The U.S. then began to blame Iran for instability in Iraq. The U.S. also portrayed itself as the arbitrator between the various factions in Iraq, which Iranians perceived as an invitation for a long-term presence. Finally, the U.S. has been emphasizing that if it leaves Iraq pre-maturely Iran will fill the vacuum and change the balance of the Middle East. This has led the U.S. to pressure neighboring Arab countries to improve ties with Iraq to counter Iran. Since Iraq is now Iran’s number one foreign concern, it can’t live with an American position that is attempting to turn Baghdad against Tehran. It has thus rejected cooperation with the U.S. because they have diametrically opposed visions. This has meant Iranian policy is as much defensive as pragmatic.

Ties With Iraq’s Shiite Factions

To ensure their interests, Iran has tried to establish friendly ties with all three major Shiite factions in Iraq, the Islamic Dawa party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), and the Sadrists. Tehran’s main emphasis is upon relations with the government and the ruling parties. The Dawa and SIIC have long standing connections with Iran as many members lived in exile in Iran for years during the Saddam era. A lot of Shiites in the government also feel that they need Iranian support for now because the neighboring Sunni governments were none too friendly to Shiites taking power. It also allows for a counterweight to American influence.

Tehran also has ties with the Sadrists, but Barzegar believes this has been mostly tactical and short term to oppose the U.S. presence. The Sadrists are nationalists that have never expressed any desire for strategic relations with Iran. As the recent report by the Combating Terrorism Center revealed, many Sadrists saw aid from Iran as a marriage of convenience as well to gain weapons and money. The reason why the two cooperated was their mutual animosity at the American troop presence. The chances for long-term ties are therefore limited. In Basra for example, Iran supported various militia groups, but when the government launched its offensive against them in March 2008, Tehran stepped in to moderate the cease-fire rather than perpetuate the fighting because ties with Baghdad were more important than the Shiite gunmen. Iran will probably continue to work with factions that work with them such as the Special Groups, but it is not as important as Iran’s other concerns in Iraq.

Stance Towards Iraq’s Other Factions

Iran also has a policy towards Iraq’s nationalist, Sunni, and Kurdish parties. Tehran is not friendly with former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. He is a former Baathist that would probably attempt stronger ties with Sunni countries. Tehran also believes that many Sunnis are still deeply anti-Iranian and want to make sure they do not create another Iran-Iraq rivalry. The Kurds have had friendly relations with Iran, but it is worried about Kurdish independence. Any Kurdish state could be pro-Israel and pro-American, which would be a strategic threat to Iran. Tehran has thus tried to balance the Sunni and Kurdish parties in the government with the Shiites.

Refuting American Views of Iran’s Policy

One of Barzegar’s major arguments is that Americans and westerners have misinterpreted Tehran’s policy in Iraq. Many believe that Iran is driven by ideology and is following an offensive program in Iraq. Supporters of this view point to Iran’s ties with the Sadrists. There has also been much written about emerging Shiite power with Iran in its lead. While its true that Iran’s ideals do play a role in its foreign policy, and that for a decade after the overthrow of the Shah Iran tried to promote its revolution in the region, Barzegar believes that Iran has become much more strategic and opportunistic in the last few years. The ability to form an ideological alliance with Iraq’s Shiites for example is unlikely as the SIIC, Dawa, and the Sadrists all have different views of Iraq’s future and their relationship with Iran.


Overall, Iran wants to confront the American presence in Iraq, while taking advantage of the opportunities presented by the post-Saddam environment. Rather than being driven by ideology, Iraq’s worldview, and immediate cultural, political, and economic concerns according to Barzegar are driving Iran’s policy. They want friendly relations with Baghdad to prevent another rivalry, the free flow of people across the Iran-Iraq border, to increase business ties, see the U.S. leave, and stop their plans of creating an anti-Iranian Iraq. Tehran has largely been successful in all of these endeavors. For example, the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) signed between the U.S. and Iraq includes a withdrawal date for U.S. troops, and a promise not to use Iraq as a base to attack its neighbors, two clauses that were supported by Iran. In the January 2009 provincial elections many American analysts said that Tehran was a loser because their allies the SIIC lost, but Maliki still wants a unified Iraq and friendly relations with Iran. Those both fit Iran’s strategic goals. The point being that both Barzegar and the Combating Terrorism Center report argue that Iran is not attached to any individual, Sadr, or party, the SIIC, but rather wants influence within the government no matter who is at the helm. If Barzegar is right, then the question now is if the new Obama administration can accept an Iraqi government that is both friendly with the U.S. and Iran, and find some common ground with Tehran. If not, Iran will continue to oppose the Americans in Iraq, and reject cooperation.


Aswat al-Iraq, “Iraq, Iran sign MoUs in different spheres,” 2/28/09

Barzegar, Kayhan, “Iran’s Foreign Policy in Post-invasion Iraq,” Middle East Policy Council Journal, Winter 2008

Eggen, Dan and DeYoung, Karen, “Senior Iraqi Leader Says Pact With U.S. Is Unlikely to Pass,” Washington Post, 10/30/08

Felter, Joseph and Fishman, Brian, “Iranian Strategy in Iraq, Politics and ‘Other Means,’” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 10/13/08

Hiltermann, Joost, “Iraq’s elections: winners, losers, and what’s next,” Global Democracy, 2/10/09

Peterson, Scott, “At Iraqi border outpost, signs of improving ties with Iran,” Christian Science Monitor, 12/22/08

Reuters, “Iraq says still at odds with Iran over border,” 3/9/09

Tehran Times, “Iran, Iraq ink energy cooperation deal,” 2/21/09

Zelikow, Philip, “The new strategic situation in Iraq,” Foreign Policy Online, 2/9/09


Jay said...

You really do fantastic work with this blog. Even though I have nothing of substance to add, I read it every day and you're really providing a valuable service with in depth Iraqi coverage the regular media seems to have failed achieve.

Joel Wing said...

Thanks for the support. I really appreciate it. I'm doing my best to write and juggle my family and work responsibilities at the same time.

kardo said...

Had a brife look at your blog, very interesting analysis of the political climate in Iraq. Look forward to reading more. All the Best. Kardo

Joel Wing said...

Thanks for the comment. More are welcomed.

nadia said...

Wow, I figured with this volume of posting that you worked for an NGO or something, if all this research is extracurricular then that is seriously impressive.

Joel Wing said...

Nope, it's just me writing about what I enjoy in my free time.

P.S. - Thanks for mentioning me on your blogs.

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