From an Iranian point of view, Iraq serves as a springboard to support allies, a base to attack adversaries, a potential security threat, and a spiritual center for Shia Islam.
The results of Iraq’s recent election and the government formation negotiations that have followed pose a challenge to Iran’s influence in the country. Major power brokers within the Shia, Kurdish, and Sunni parties have considered a coalition that would exclude most Iranian-backed political figures and parties. At the same time, negotiations over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) have gained momentum, and many observers have expressed renewed optimism that a breakthrough could be near. A renewed nuclear deal would have tremendous ramifications for the geopolitics of the Middle East, though it would likely have little effect on Iran’s influence in Iraq. Tehran views its political control over Baghdad as directly linked to its security, irrespective of the outcome of the nuclear talks.
Even before the Iraq-Iran war, Iraq represented a security threat to Iran during the Pahlavi era because of its pan-Arab ideology and military partnership with the Soviet Union. Today, Iraq retains its geopolitical importance, as it links Iran with Syria and Lebanon—two countries critical to Iran’s strategic calculations and deterrence capabilities. Finally, Iraq has a spiritual significance for Shia Muslims in general and Iran—the self-proclaimed protector of Shia around the world—in particular.
Bubbling Tensions Boil Over
The 20th century witnessed several points of tension between Iran and Iraq. Given the antagonistic history between the two countries and the nearly 1,000-mile-long border they share, it is inconceivable for Tehran to relinquish its hard-won influence over Iraq. When the 1958 coup d’état changed Iraq’s governing system from a monarchy allied with the Western camp to a republic friendly to the Soviet Union, the Shah of Iran perceived Iraq as a tool in the Soviet encirclement of Iran. From this point on, the political systems of both countries were diametrically opposed, despite the 1963 and 1968 coups in Iraq. In fact, the two countries almost came to blows in the mid-1970s when the Shah stoked the Kurdish insurgency in Iraq. The short-lived détente following the Algiers accords in 1975 ended in 1979 when the Islamic Revolution changed the course of Iraq-Iran relations irrevocably and Ayatollah Khomeini’s maximalist goal of toppling the Baathists in Baghdad.
The eight years Iran-Iraq war changed Tehran’s regional policies. Bitter memories of the Gulf War still haunt Iranian society and its political class. The conflict continues to shape Iran’s perceptions of Iraq, especially as many of Iran’s contemporary leaders served in the war. The 2003 American invasion of Iraq presented both an opportunity and a challenge for Tehran. Saddam Hussein—Iran’s bitter rival—no longer rules Iraq, and Tehran’s Shia allies could finally participate in governing the country. On the other hand, the presence of the armed forces of the United States represented a larger threat to the regime. Threats from Afghanistan notwithstanding, Tehran also fears that instability in Iraq would enable the rise of terrorist groups such as ISIS, and could spillover to Iran if not addressed properly. Tehran’s current objective is to maintain the cohesiveness of the “Shia house” that would presumably remain friendly toward Iran, and keeping Iraq as a buffer state as well as a launching pad for Iranian regional interests. To achieve this goal, Tehran will seek to continue its involvement in Iraq.
Maximizing Regional Influence Through Iraq
The vacuum created after the invasion of Iraq allowed Iran to geographically connect with its adversaries and regional allies. This increased influence only adds to Iran’s incentives to maintain its influence in Iraq. The plethora of Shia militias on Iraqi soil serve as a deterrent to adversarial countries, such as Saudi Arabia. Reports of Shia militia attacks against Saudi targets allows Tehran to inflict indirect damage to its adversary while maintaining plausible deniability and rejecting responsibility. Despite the one-year long negotiations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Tehran might not use its influence to rein in these groups and is extremely unlikely to relinquish its control over them entirely.
Geographically, Iraq lies between Iran and its Middle Eastern allies: Syria and Hezbollah. During the Syrian revolution, which aimed at Assad’s overthrow, Iran transferred weapons and personnel without hindrance through Iraq to aid the embattled dictator in Damascus. Because Iran maintained uninterrupted communication lines with its proxies in Iraq, it could instruct Iraqi Shia militias to fight on Assad’s behalf. The Iraqi corridor, equally importantly, connects Hezbollah with Iran. Iran’s support for Hezbollah has historically been conditioned on the approval of Syria, but as Iran has gained more influence in both Iraq and Syria, it can provide unlimited support to Hezbollah and dictate policy vis-à-vis Israel. It is also noteworthy that Iran, through the Iraqi Shia militias, has established a land corridor to move supplies and personnel to Syria and Lebanon—from Iran through Baquba, and Sinjar in Iraq, or even through al-Qaim crossing, under the control of Iran’s proxies. Iraq serves as a thoroughfare for Iranian regional influence and a thorn in its rivals’ sides. For this reason, maintaining its influence in Baghdad remains a priority for Iran.
There is also an ideational connection between Iran and the Shia segment of Iraqi society that drives Iranian behavior toward its neighbor. At times, the clergy in Iraq played a significant role in the domestic politics of Iran. The Safavid and Qajari shahs attempted several times to control the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. Conversely, clerics residing in those Iraqi holy cities influenced the domestic politics of Iran. Ayatollah Shirazi’s fatwa from Samara led to the Tobacco protests of 1890; Ayatollah Na’ini supported the constitutional movement of 1905-1911 from his home in Najaf, and Ayatollah Khomeini resided in the same Iraqi city for 13 years between his exile and return to Iran after the revolution. Shia theologians do not all agree as to the level at which religion should be interwoven with politics. This disagreement has become one of the main causes of competition between the ruling class in Iran and Iraqi-based Shia clerics, such as Ayatollah al-Sistani. In other words, there is a battle for the hearts and minds of the Shia in the two holy cities of Najaf and Karbala where more than two million Iranians visit for the commemoration of the death of Hussein ibn Ali, the third Shia imam. To gain the upper hand in this theological struggle, Iran believes that it needs to maintain a presence in Shia Islam’s holiest cities.
From an Iranian point of view, Iraq serves as a springboard to support allies, a base to attack adversaries, a potential security threat, and a spiritual center for Shia Islam. As such, Iran views Iraq as an object of undiminished importance. The signing of a new nuclear deal and parliamentary elections in Iraq will not affect the importance of Iraq. The easing of tensions that could follow a renewed JCPOA would only freeze regional conflicts and create a new modus vivendi, but it will not extinguish Iran’s desire for influence in Iraq. Iran’s predatory approach towards its fragile neighbor and its influence would only change if internal dynamics in either country shift dramatically. Otherwise, Iran’s strategy is very clear, has been decades in the making, and will likely continue into the future.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.