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Iraq gains some political agency, but remains well within Iran's orbit

  • Massoumeh Torfeh
  • 29 Nov 2018

Iran and the US have used Iraq as a staging ground for influence in the region, but the reality of the Iraqi political system is now showing the Americans the door.

Iraq's President Barham Salih stands with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani during an official reception ceremony in Tehran, Iran, November 17, 2018. Official President website/Handout via ( Reuters )

Iran sits in between Afghanistan and Iraq; two countries invaded on the orders of the former US President, George W. Bush in 2001 and 2003 respectively. 

At the time, Iran’s position was precarious given the hostility expressed against Iran by President Bush in his famous ‘Axis of Evil’ speech of 2002. But now, fortunes might have reversed.

Two decades on as the US struggles to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, and is failing in the Iraqi political scene, Iran has claimed victory for the defeat of Daesh (ISIL) in Iraq and secured support in all major political positions within the Iraqi political structure.

Iran’s regional ambitions were clearly as poignant as those of the US. Iran learnt its lessons well during the eight year war with Iraq in the 1980s; a war that it claims was instigated by the United States.

Iran used that experience to sharpen its intelligence on Iraq and construct an elaborate network of contacts and operatives. It hosted over two million Iraqi refugees and several Shia opposition leaders.

Iran invested heavily in strengthening its military as well as its political contacts and operatives in Iraq. This was a country with a 64-69 percent Shia majority, a country where the US forces had left chaos after their 2003 invasion, and as such a perfect place where Iran’s anti-American narrative would gain currency in the region.

As part of its soft power, Iran set up several television stations broadcasting in Arabic, all led and run on the heavily anti-American lines of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC). 

The rise of Daesh in 2014 gave Iran another opportunity to expand ties – this time also with the Sunni and Kurdish groups in northern Iraq.

The commander of the Quds Force, General Qassem Soleimani, announced both “the liberation of Mosul” and the end of operations in Syria. 

Soleimani praised top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, and Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), Hashd al-Shaabi, which Iran has nurtured.

And when former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi made the official announcement for Iraq’s victory over Daesh, without mentioning Iran’s support, and later pledged to follow the US sanctions on Iran, he was sidelined by Iran.

Instead the candidate of the powerful Shia Supreme Islamic Council, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, long based in Iran and known for his opposition to the US, became prime minister in October this year.

The elections were controversial but a looming fight within Iraq’s majority-Shiite political groupings—between a more Iraqi nationalist camp and a pro-Iranian one—was sidestepped when they united over the choice of the candidate.

Despite extensive efforts by US representative Bret McGurk and the US Ambassador in Iraq, Douglas Silliman, the US failed to secure victory for its preferred candidates in positions of president, prime minister or the speaker of parliament.

Iran, now victorious, pledged full support for the reconstruction of Iraq and the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei reiterated his praise for Hashd al-Shaabi, asking the Iraqi president not to dissolve the force.

“Some states within or outside our region are very hostile against Islam, Shia, Sunni and Iraq, and they interfere in the internal affairs of Iraq,” said Iran’s leader in his meeting with the newly elected Kurdish President of Iraq, Barham Salih. 

“These enemies should be resisted powerfully,” he said.

Since Iraq’s parliamentary elections in May, Iran’s exports to Iraq have increased by 30 percent and President Hassan Rouhani has predicted that the annual trade could increase from the current $12 billion to $20 billion.

Additionally a monetary pact has been discussed between the central banks of the two countries to create a currency swap deal avoiding US dollars and US sanctions. Iraq has received exemption from US sanctions provided it reduced its dependency on Iranian exports.

Iraqi politics is far too complex and now far too independent to be at the beck and call of either Iran or the US. Nevertheless Iraq’s future trajectory seems to be towards a rising Iran.

Iran was successful but perhaps it overplayed its hand by angering the US to the point of uniting powerful players in the region against Iran and imposing devastating sanctions. Those in turn have created a sharp drop in the value of Iran’s currency, economic uncertainty, and a drop in foreign investment as well as insecurity and instability inside Iran.

Many voices in Iran are now wondering if it was all worth it.

The UN Special Representative for Iraq, Jan Kubis, is right to say that Iraqis deserve acknowledgement for defeating Daesh, uniting the country, improving relations with neighbours and reducing sectarian rhetoric. He called Iraq a “success story.”

The future trajectory for Iran may be far more gloomy. Iran will plough on but the Islamic Republic may at best struggle to survive.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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