Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Understanding Iran’s Policy Towards Iraq

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


AndrewSshi said...

I think that in general it's smart to assume that Iran is a state playing power politics like any normal state. But I also think that we ought to be careful to avoid downplaying the ideology of the Islamic Revolution. A lesson of the twentieth century is that we can have states be coldly pragmatic and yet run by people with an ideological vision of world revolution at the same time.

Joel Wing said...


It's hard to ignore the ideological stances of people like Ahmadenijad. At the same time I think Barzegar as well as that Combating Terrorism Center report from Oct. 08 do a good job debunking some of the popular views held by westerners about Iran's Iraq policy. One that I hear all the time is that Iran wants to invade Iraq because it wants to spread its Islamic Revolution. Iran obviously has a lot of influence in Iraq, but it does not want to take over, and I don't see it promoting an Islamist state there. Rather it wants to be able to shape events to its favor.

Barzegar and the CTC report also point out the many forms of soft power that Iran has within Iraq. That usually gets ignored with all the emphasis upon Tehran's military support of militiamen. I remember from 08-09 a number of heated debates I got into on comments sections about how Iran was defeated when Sadr's militia got crushed by the Iraqi-U.S. offensives, and I told everyone that they still had huge political, econmic, and cultural ties with Iraq, and people would just discount that and only focus upon the Mahdi Army and Special Groups.

Anonymous said...

It seems unlikely that Khomenist "ideology", even at its broadest interpretation, envisions "world" revolution as alluded by AndrewSshi.

I see little discussion of this ideology actually is. Commentators treat its as some kind of black box bogeyman.

What does it specifically encompass? Conversion of some Sunni population groups to Twelver Shiism-- which probably isn't in the cards? Defense and development of the Twelver Shiite motherland of Iran? Political ingathering of the Twelver Shiite populations? Commitment to the security and well-being of outlying Shiite populations(like 18th/19th century Russia's concern for Ottoman Christian minorities)? Are there different ideological camps within Khomeinism?

Until these ideological aims are accurately clarified, it will be hard for the layman voter to analyze where they intersect with the realistic side of Iranian state policy.

Joel Wing said...

This is my take on Khomeinism.

Khomeini said that Islam could be an alternative model for the world for Muslims, something they could call their own. He claimed the Quran and shariya laid out a blueprint of society that could regulate everything from personal relationships, to relations between states, to economics. He said that this all happened when the Prophet Muhammad formed the first Islamic society in the 600 B.C.s.

Khomeini and another leading Islamist thinker of that time from Iran Dr. Ali Shariati wrote that the source of Muslims problems were the U.S./West and the Soviet Union. They both liberally borrowed from Marxism and Third World ideas, plus Iran's own involvement with the great powers, to say that individualism, capitalism, secularism, etc., all spread through imperialism, had destroyed Muslims links with their religion.

According to them, the only way Muslims could free themselves from this oppression was by applying Islamic law that would create equality and justice. That could only be done if there was an Islamic revolution to establish this new order, led of course by Iran and its ayatollah's. Khomeini believed that the establishment of an Islamic republic in Iran was the first step in a pan-Islamic revolution that would unite all the Muslims in the world.

The Iran-Iraq war that lasted from 1980-88 and the death of Khomeini ended most of Iran's talk about exporting these ideas and afterward it focused upon internal and pragmatic affairs.

Many claim that Iran has tried to spread their view of Islam through supporting Sadr. There are plenty who've written that Tehran has tried to turn his movement into the next Hezbollah. I don't think that's true. Iran was always closer to the Supreme Council, which it created, and never trusted Sadr because he was seen as being too unpredictable, and his group was never well organized and lacked a top-down structure. Tehran also helped break up Sadr's group by supporting various militant offshoots like the League of the Righteous and various Special Groups. That doesn't mean Iran still won't give aid to Sadr as they allegedly did during the March 2010 election, but I think it's only part of Iran's larger strategy to be close to all of Iraq's major players.

Trying to set up an Iranian style regime in Iraq would also run into the opposition of many of the country's leading clerics like Sistani who don't believe in Khomeini's ideas of ayatollah's directly running things.

AndrewSshi said...


My mistake for not being more clear. When talking about "world revolution" I was referring to the Communist regimes of the 20th century. It's easy in this day and age to focus on the pragmatism of especially Stalin and Khrushchev and to forget that both were true believers in the world revolution. I was analogizing to the Islamic Republic in noting that we shouldn't make an either/or distinction between revolutionary and pragmatist.

Joel: One of the most frustrating things in the world is how badly American understanding of the Islamic Republic's activities in Iraq has been muddled. You could probably write everything I know about Sunni fiqh and kalam and Twelver Shi'ism on a single sheet of paper and still have room to spare, and even I get maddeningly frustrated with the media's portrayal of Sadr, the Supreme Council, and the like. And then on the more right-leaning websites things get worse. Keep fighting the good fight against ignorance. (I'm thankful for our democracy that there's a group of high school students out there who have you for a teacher.)

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