By Ali Hussein Bakeer
In his December speech welcoming the troops home from Iraq, US President Barack Obama said, “We are leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.”
In reality, none of this is true on the ground. Iraq today is a very fragile country. Its sovereignty is questionable, it cannot depend on itself and, according to Iraq’s military Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Abu Bakr Zebari, it will not be able to protect its borders or airspace before 2020. Because of this, Iran is seen as a big winner as it is well positioned to fill the vacuum.
Historically, Iraq and Iran are rival empires and states. After its independence, Iraq was considered the keeper of the western gate of the Arab world. Although smaller in size and having less capabilities than Iran, Iraq managed to counterbalance Tehran and block Iranian influence and expansion in the Arab world for decades.
However, the invasion of Iraq by coalition forces and the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 broke the balance, not only paving the way for Iran to expand its influence in Iraq but boosting its ambition to form a Shiite Crescent (spanning Iran-Iraq-Syria-Lebanon and the coasts of the Arab Gulf).
Modes of influence
Since 2003, Iran has tried to enhance its influence in Iraq, and as expected, it managed to achieve that on many levels. Politically, most of the ruling Shiite elite in Baghdad are pro-Iran. Tehran is able to exert great influence on the Iraqi political process through pro-Iran Shiite political parties such as Hezb Al -Daawa (or Islamic Dawa Party), the Islamic Supreme Council and the Sadrists.
Before toppling Saddam, the volume of trade between Iraq and Iran was nonexistent. After the US invasion, Iran became Iraq’s top trade partner, and the volume of trade between them reached about $8 billion in 2010, most of it to Iran’s benefit. One can even see the Iranian rial in Al-Basrah province.
In terms of security forces, the Al-Quds Force, an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) unit responsible for Iran’s covert and foreign dirty operations, is working effectively on Iraqi soil. Moreover, Tehran managed to train, fund and arm many Shiite militias, most of which were integrated into the Iraqi “National” Army and sensitive positions in Iraq’s national security apparatus.
Iran’s new goals in Iraq
During the pre-withdrawal period, Iran had four goals in Iraq: to make sure that a new friendly allied regime is in power in Baghdad, advance Iranian interests, unite Shiites under its umbrella and to deepen the US crisis.
Driven by its natural tendency to expand and fearing the implications of the Arab revolutions right now, Iran is trying to quickly fill the vacuum, fortify its position and advance its influence after the US withdrawal. Taking into consideration the very possible regime change in Syria and thus the loss of its most important, valuable and effective ally over decades in the Middle East, not to mention the catastrophic implication of this on the Iranian agenda and influence in the whole region, Tehran is focusing on new goals in Iraq.
One of the most important goals right now for Tehran in light of regional developments is to strengthen the preventive security zone built outside its soil to defend itself. It is obvious in light of the Syrian case that Iran is trying to push for a Shiite bloc (Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon). Preventing the return of a strong, stable, independent and Arabic Iraq will also be a priority for Iran, because history tells us that an Iraq with these characteristics will be the strategic obstacle to the mullahs’ regime and Iranian influence in the region.
Fueling sectarian strife
The most dangerous thing is that Iran’s policies may open a new internal and regional battle in Iraq, especially if Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki continues to advance the Iranian agenda and its regional policies.
Al-Maliki, who came to power through a US-Iranian deal instead of Ayad Allawi — the nationalist Shiite who was widely supported by the Iraqi Sunnis and endorsed by regional Arab countries like Saudi Arabia — is fearing that the withdrawal will make him weak.
Backed by Iran and supported by the US, al-Maliki is now trying to secure his position by monopolizing power and isolating the Sunnis. On the first day of the US withdrawal, al-Maliki accused Sunni Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi of being involved in terrorist acts and ordered him to be put on trial. Moreover, al-Maliki fired Saleh al-Mutlaq, Sunni deputy prime minister, although he did not have the right nor the constitutional powers to do so, threatening openly to form a de facto sectarian Shiite government if the Sunnis opposed his policies.
Such acts are expected to trigger a sectarian conflict if continued. The Sunnis who were rejecting federalism have started to ask for it in order to avoid al-Maliki’s discriminatory and isolating policies practiced against them.
Coming battle in Iraq
On a regional front, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, especially Saudi Arabia, will not accept an “Iranian” Iraq used against them. Al-Maliki, who financially supported Bashar al-Assad’s regime, lately expressed fear of Turkey’s role in the region.
So unless a change in the Iraqi government happens very soon, and a national, independent and really representative government comes to power in Baghdad, Iran will continue pursuing its agenda, and regional powers will try to step in to balance Iranian influence.
This article was first published by Today’s Zaman.