When thousands of Iraqi demonstrators poured into the streets of cities across the country last year, they were largely protesting against unbridled corruption, government inefficiency, unemployment and the lack of basic services.
But soon the protests across Baghdad and Shia-populated southern Iraq turned into a popular uprising aimed at overthrowing sectarianism and stirring up patriotism in the beleaguered nation.
The protesters were calling for the toppling of Iraq’s power-sharing confessional system and the curtailing of Iran’s political influence in the country, which many Iraqis see as a main culprit in the rise of sectarianism in their country.
The anti-government protests, which commenced on 1 October in pursuit of demands for reform and change, soon shifted into a mesmerising symbol and tool of resistance to Iran’s growing presence in Iraq.
Today, many Iraqis believe Iran is poised to take over Iraq, a goal it failed to achieve during the eight-year Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s, which the Iraqis fought ferociously to stop this happening at a heavy cost.
This naturally raises the intriguing and provocative question of whether Iran has actually won the war 40 years later, after all the spilled blood, all the destruction and all the sectarian animosity and regional chaos it caused.
The outbreak of the war on 22 September 1980 was one of the turning points in Iraq’s modern history. It ushered the country into a prolonged and turbulent era and has dominated Middle Eastern geopolitics since.
One of the war’s main consequences was its contribution to two other major wars that have shaped contemporary Iraq. Even before the war with Iran was fading from memory, Iraq entered a new war with a US-led coalition over Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
This was the context within which the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 also took place in an attempt to contain Iraq and solve the problem of Saddam’s excessive power, accumulated in the process of the war with Iran.
Iran’s influence in Iraq has grown steadily since the US-led invasion, which overthrew the Saddam regime. The chaos unleashed by the subsequent US occupation allowed Iran to gain the kind of tremendous influence in Iraq that was unthinkable before.
From day one, Iran saw the chance to make its former enemy, still considered to be a threat, into a client state and to dominate it so thoroughly that it could serve as a jumping-off point to spread Iranian influence across the region.
It is generally believed that a complex mix of causes were behind the war, including building tensions and resentments after Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, growing accusations of mutual meddling in each other’s internal affairs and territorial disputes.
Saddam also gave as a reason for the invasion a territorial dispute over the Shatt Al-Arab, the strategic waterway which forms the southern boundary between the two countries.
Yet, Saddam’s decision to invade Iran was also the product of his illusions and miscalculations. After the Islamic Revolution, he had become convinced that he could bring about the fall of the revolutionary regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, his arch-enemy in Iran.
Saddam’s illusion that the Iranian state was already tottering and that it would fall under the hammer blows of his army was probably the major reason behind the eruption of hostilities.
Yet, in the course of the war and as Iraqi forces reeled before Iran’s steadfast Islamic Revolutionary Guards, the Iranian leadership began openly talking about a strategy to topple the Saddam regime in Iraq.
Although a stalemate was achieved on the battlefield, and the war swept back and forth on the border between the two countries, the Iranian leadership never gave up offensive operations and attempts to capture Iraqi cities in a bid to remove Saddam from power.
The Iranian goal of invading Iraq and installing a friendly regime led by Shia opposition groups in Iraq remained out of reach. But the dream of the leaders of the Islamic Republic was still waiting to come true.
Seventeen years after the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam, the Islamic Republic has now emerged as the dominant force in its neighbour, meaning that Iraq can never again endanger it militarily and it can use the country as a springboard to extend its regional power.
Since the US-led invasion in 2003, Iran has aggressively sought to consolidate its interests in Iraq by employing a wide range of tactics to pave the way to turning Iraq into part of its sphere of influence.
Through a range of anti-Saddam opposition groups it has hosted and a network of allied Shia militias and the various infiltration tactics it has employed, Iran has emerged as the dominant force in post-US invasion Iraq.
Over the years, Iran has expanded its influence in Iraq, and its role has become multi-layered. Beyond the political and security efforts, perhaps the most visible consequences of Iran’s influence lie in its commercial, business and investment ties to Iraq.
Iran now tops Iraq’s trade partners after China and Turkey, 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 railway linking Iran and Iraq with Syria.
Iran’s influence in Iraq peaked after the rapid advance across the country by militants from the Islamic State (IS) group threw it into chaos and led Baghdad to seek Tehran’s help to kick the group out of Iraqi cities.
Incorporating its military help with the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF), an umbrella group of Shia paramilitary forces, Iran looked to maintain and increase its “hard power” presence in Iraq.
The fact that a bloc linked to the PMF came second in Iraq’s parliamentary elections in May 2018 offered Tehran the leverage it needed to install Iraqi politicians loyal to it in the country’s parliament and government.
In addition to geopolitical, military, security and economic relations, Iran has also used religious and cultural ties as important “soft power” tools to intervene in Iraq.
Iran has gone a long way towards consolidating its influence in Iraq since the US-led invasion, due largely to flawed policies exercised by the US in the post-occupation era.
By any standards, Iran has made a dramatic turnaround since the US-led invasion, and its war with Iraq has certainly looked more like victory than it did in the 1980s in the depths of savage battles.
In recent years, Iran has been marking the anniversary of the eight-year war with Iraq with bombastic military parades in Tehran and other major cities and displays of military power and advanced weapons systems.
While Iran’s leaders remain eager to keep the war as a defining period in national consciousness, in Iraq it has been tucked away in the deepest recesses, almost like a repressed memory.
Unlike in Iran, the anniversary of the war does not receive much consideration from Iraq’s current Shia leaders, who are mostly friendly to Iran and support its narrative that the war was imposed on Iran by Saddam.
Whatever the immediate origins of the tragic Iraq-Iran War, its consequences have been far-reaching, and with the Islamic Republic now pushing its roots deeper into Iraq, the eventual victory of Iran in the war has become the mainspring of its leaders’ attitudes.
At the cost of the destruction of Iraq’s army, the fall of its state, and the tearing up of its national fabric, Iran has won its war with Iraq decades later. Iran’s domination of Iraq today goes back to the titanic shift represented by the US-led invasion of Iraq.
While the scarring legacy of the 1980-1988 war has driven Iran’s ambitions in Iraq, its domination of the country has influenced its leaders to pursue a hegemonic role in the region through an ambitious nuclear and missile programme and a strategic path through Iraq to Syria protected by proxies.
Yet, while many Iraqis recognise that Iran’s meddling in their country will likely increase its influence, they still believe that Iran will eventually fail to fulfil its ambitions in Iraq and turn their country into an Iranian client.
Much like winning a hollow victory, Iran’s dominance in Iraq is likely to generate a further Iraqi pushback, and its influence will continue to be self-limiting and ultimately result in a larger defeat.
In the context of the two nations’ long and troubled history, Iran’s currently assertive presence in Iraq is just part of another cycle of conflict.
It will eventually diminish, but unfortunately like all historical cycles before it, it will only do so after leaving a lot of chaos, misery and bitterness behind it.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly