In the banner headline of a landmark report released by the International Crisis Group in March 2005, the world-famous think tank asked, how much influence does Iran have in Iraq?
Two years after the US-led invasion of Iraq, Iran’s influence in the country was one of the most talked-about issues in regional and international diplomatic circles, but it was also one of the least-understood aspects of the post-war situation.
Sixteen years after the US-led invasion that toppled former dictator Saddam Hussein, the controversy still remains as the Islamic Republic emerges as the dominant force in Iraq.
Moreover, Tehran’s increasing influence in Iraq is triggering fears that Iran’s standoff with the United States and regional powers could reshape the beleaguered country.
Today, as the clouds of war between the United States and Iran loom, the most pressing question is whether Iraq can rise to the challenge of the US-Iranian confrontation that threatens to wrench it apart.
Since the US-led invasion in 2003, Iran has aggressively sought to consolidate its interests in Iraq by employing a wide range of stratagems.
Notably, Iran has in the short and medium term turned decidedly in the direction of greater influence in the war-torn nation in order to rein in its neighbour, while its foremost objective has remained to control Iraq and use it as a springboard to extend its regional power.
Soon after the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam, Iran began asserting itself in Iraq, using aggressive tactics and proxy groups to pave the way for a controversial process of trying to turn Iraq into its sphere of influence.
Through allied Iraqi Shia politicians and paramilitary groups and a range of anti-Saddam opposition groups it had hosted, Iran emerged as the dominant force after the invasion.
Over more recent years, Iran has expanded its influence in Iraq, and its role has become multi-layered. Beyond political and security efforts, perhaps the most visible consequences for Iran’s influence are its commercial, business and investment ties to Iraq.
Iran now tops Iraq’s trade partners, with exports that amount to $12 billion and plans to boost bilateral trade to $20 billion in future.
Iraq relies heavily on Iranian gas imports to feed its power grid, and the two countries have signed transportation agreements for the construction of a railroad linking Iran and Iraq with Syria.
Iran’s influence peaked after the rapid advance across Iraq by militants from the Islamic State (IS) group threw the country into chaos and led Baghdad to seek Tehran’s help to kick back the group from Iraqi cities.
Incorporating its military help with the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF), an umbrella for Shia paramilitary forces, Tehran looked to maintain and increase its “hard power” presence in Iraq.
The success of a bloc linked to the PMF coming second in Iraq’s parliamentary elections in May 2018 offered Tehran the leverage to install Iraqi politicians that were loyal to it in the country’s parliament and government.
In addition to geopolitical, military, security and economic relations, Iran has utilised religious and cultural ties as important “soft power” tools to intervene in Iraq.
I recently returned from a visit to Iraq, where I had the opportunity to meet with a wide range of people, including government officials, politicians, militia leaders, activists and journalists, all of whom agreed about Iran’s increasing presence in Iraq, though they may have differed on assessing Tehran’s exact role.
I also met segments of Iraqi society and people in the street who shared stories about the “Iranification” of Iraq, which they believed had gone too far.
To my surprise, some of my interlocutors were either in a state of denial or said they thought that Iran’s influence was essential to balance interference from regional Sunni powerhouses such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey and anti-Shia sentiments that have been prevailing since Saddam’s fall.
However, many Iraqis lament the dark path that Iraqi-Iranian relationships are currently on and voice concerns that Persian Iran is imposing a sort of political and cultural hegemony over the largely Arab-populated country.
Indeed, many Iraqis believe that Iran is seeking to reshape Iraq’s national identity as part of efforts to expand its cultural and religious influence in the country.
They see an encroachment of Iran’s welayat-e faqih, the official doctrine of Iran’s clerical regime which requires the submission of Shias worldwide to its religious and political leadership.
Iraq and Iran have long occupied a tough neighbourhood, culminating in the 1980-1988 War which underlined the ethnic and religious divide that separates the two nations and leaving behind a legacy of bitterness and acrimony.
With tensions between Tehran and Washington rising, the standoff could be a defining moment for Iraq as the US Trump administration is using the confrontation to put pressure on Iran to abandon its policy of interfering in Middle-Eastern proxy conflicts, including the one in Iraq.
For many Iraqis, however, the question is whether Iran’s influence in Iraq can now be dislodged. There is an increasing fear that Iraq could be caught in the crossfire in the event of a military confrontation between Iran and its rivals.
In recent months, there has been much discussion of where such a grim scenario could lead, especially in view of the Iraqi leadership’s weakness and division and Iraq’s fractured foreign policy.
While the response of the Iraqi leadership to Iran’s power plays is coming up short, there is a discomforting vagueness about its policy to stop Iran’s encroachment into Iraq.
Last month, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdel-Mahdi’s government sent a new nationality law to the Iraqi parliament which would have allowed foreigners to obtain Iraqi citizenship after one year’s residency in Iraq.
The proposed law raised fears that hundreds of thousands of Iranians currently working or residing in Iraq could acquire Iraqi nationality, paving the way for demographic changes in the ethnically and religiously divided country.
Many Iraqis I met during my visit, however, believed that Iran’s efforts to expand in Iraq and reshape their country according to “The Second Phase of the Islamic Revolution” unveiled in February by Iranian supreme leader ayatollah Ali Khamenei will not be successful.
They believe that Iranian meddling in their country will eventually increase patriotic sentiments and the assertiveness of Iraqi nationalism and national values.
But in order for Iraq to escape Iranian control, it needs a political leadership that can pursue a policy of patriotic mobilisation that will encourage national pride and promote a vision of Iraq as a reborn country.
At home, the Iraqi leadership should stop accommodating pro-Iran political, cultural and paramilitary groups lest they push government policy in dangerous directions.
Abroad, this mobilisation should help to build support among ordinary citizens for a more assertive foreign policy, including resistance to harmful foreign interventions and attempts to drag Iraq into regional conflicts.
The undertaking should not be spontaneous: instead, it should underpin a concerted national effort to instil patriotic nationalism, celebrate Baghdad’s past as a centre of world civilisation, and promote Iraq’s return as a regional power.
Iran’s currently assertive presence in Iraq is just another cycle in the two nations’ long and troubled history. It will eventually decline, but unfortunately like all historical cycles it will only do so after leaving a lot of chaos and misery behind.