Is Iran’s presence in Iraq contributing to the political transition?

Iran and Iraq have had very complicated and intense relations throughout history especially in the modern one. Recent post-war situation in Iraq after the ISIS defeat was seen as a historic opportunity for the expansion of Iran’s presence in Iraq.

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Iran and Iraq – the birthplaces of some of the oldest civilizations on Earth, as well as some of the greatest cultural and scientific achievements of the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, nowadays they are mostly associated with terrorism and wars in the eyes of the average Western person. However, what the Westerner is not familiar with is the backstory of interactions between these two Middle Eastern countries – the factor which led to the current situation. Although, they are usually seen as the same thing, and used as synonyms in the West. Iran and Iraq are not only very different from one another, but also they have had very complicated and intense relations throughout the history.

Having shared the territory around the historical region of Mesopotamia for thousands of years, they have always had something to argue over. Despite that, according to Anoushiravan Ehteshami – Professor at the Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World at Durham University – “Iran and Iraq are not somehow destined to be rivals”. But everything changed drastically for bad in the last century when oil was discovered in both countries. Western companies, mostly British and American, started extracting it, and Western interests began dictating the politics of both states, often resulting with confrontations between them. However, the biggest down didn’t happen until the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988.

The eight years of fighting resulted with around 1,5 million casualties, 1 million of which Iranians.

This black mark in Iran’s history pushed the regime into deeper economic and political isolation and caused a constant fear in Iranian leaders for further Iraqi hostility. But despite declaring the position of “active neutrality” after Saddam Hussein’s invasion in Kuwait and the U.S. invasion in Iraq, the Islamic Republic was not indifferent. During all these years, the country was silently waiting to play its cards on its Western neighbor and preparing itself militarily and politically for that.

When U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, it “constituted a historic opportunity for the expansion of Iran’s presence in Iraq, and to transform it from an enemy into a partner or ally,” according to Michael Eisenstadt. After U.S. troops’ withdrawal in 2011 and the rise of ISIS in 2014 Tehran’s mission became even easier and it didn’t have to hide it anymore. Apart from financing and training Shiite militias to fight against the U.S., and later against ISIS, and spreading propaganda in border regions, Iran started interfering directly in Iraq’s politics.

“Iran’s presence in Iraq is dominant,” said Hoshyar Zebari, a former Iraqi foreign and finance minister who was ousted in 2016 because Iran was suspicious of his connections to the United States, according to what he told The New York Times.

Iran has close ties to Iraq’s major Shiite politicians, many of whom sought asylum in Iran in the early 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq War. The Islamic Republic has influence over at least 5 Iraqi parties that have formed part of the last parliament from 2014, making Iran’s presence in Iraq very noticeable on the politic scene there.  Some of the Iranian backed militias have also grown into political formations. Several Shiite militias have pursued their own interests and worked closely with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps under the command of Major General Qasem Soleimani.

Besides that, Iran is using religion as an instrument to control over Iraq’s Shiite majority as part of its strategy to mobilize Shia groups around the Middle East against its rivals in the region. The regime is trying to take the role of Iraq’s big Shia brother by providing economic and political support for Shia communities, as it makes the case that it is Iraq’s only reliable defender and in so doing opposing Shias to Sunnis. Iran has invested heavily in Iraq’s tourist facilities and infrastructure for pilgrims, since millions of Iranians visit the Shiite holy sites in Karbala, Najaf and Samarra annually. Iran’s political and religious agenda has been established not only through the mosques, but also through Iran-funded medias showing news in Iraq only from the Iranian perspective. Most significantly, Iran’s presence in Iraq can be felt in the trade and the economy between the two Gulf countries.

Iran has been intentionally flooding Iraqi markets with Iranian goods and assuring the participation of Iranian businesses in any new project in Iraq, refusing to support local industry and making it fully dependent on Iranian.

Given these points, there is a logical question that would follow – why is Iran investing so much in Iraq instead of investing in its own collapsing economy and struggling population, especially since Iraq doesn’t pose a threat anymore? “Iraq doesn’t have anything to offer Iran,” Vahid Gachi said in 2017, an Iranian official in charge of a border crossing. But the truth is that Iraq is very important to Iran not only due to security or religious reasons. Iraq’s geographical location makes it of critical significance for Iran’s political influence around the Middle East. Especially after U.S. withdrawal, Iraq’s territory has vastly been used by Iran as a corridor to move men and guns to proxy forces in Syria and Lebanon. Iraq can also play the role of a buffer and protection for Iran against spreading conflicts in other Middle Eastern countries.

After Iraq was devastated by the U.S. invasion and ISIS’s campaign, the country was so vulnerable and defenseless, that it couldn’t resist any foreign interference. It also couldn’t afford to refuse any economic support and since the USA didn’t offer much, it came from Iran. But this comes with a price, Iraq is starting to look more like Iran’s client state and not a sovereign country. Many Iraqis say that Iran’s presence in Iraq is already achieving a free rein. And while the Trump administration has indicated that it will pay closer attention to Iraq as a means to counter Iran, the question is whether it is too late.