How much influence does Iran wield in Iraq? This question has long been a matter
of debate and in light of the US troop withdrawal has become all the more
relevant, especially with rumors of Iranian plans to have Mahmud Shahrudi, who
is an Iraqi-born member of Iran’s Guardian Council and advocates clerical
involvement in government, succeed the quietist Ali al-Sistani in
Unfortunately, partisan politics on the left and right have
precluded serious analysis on the subject.
In any event, we can begin by
noting that Iraq has close economic ties with Iran. According to the Iranian
ambassador to Baghdad, quoted in a report by the Tehran Times, trade
transactions between the two countries over the past Iranian calendar year
(ending on 19th March 2012) amounted to more than $11 billion.
noted that around 1.2 million Iranian pilgrims visited the Shi’a holy cities of
Najaf and Karbala in that same year. In the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, a
lifting on import tariffs by the Coalition Provisional Authority led to an
influx of cheap goods from Iran, and shopkeepers in Karbala have not been
unaware of the increase of Iranian products on sale in their stores.
is there a shortage of signs in Farsi advertising accommodation for pilgrims,
and many Iraqis in the city have now learnt the Persian language.
Unsurprisingly, these developments have provoked suspicions of Iranian cultural
When there was a US troop presence in Iraq, Tehran provided
backing for small Shi’a militant organizations known as the “Special Groups.”
These militias came into increasing conflict with the central government as the
sectarian civil war began to subside in 2007-8.
Nonetheless, after the
American withdrawal, the Special Groups have had no casus belli, and so it is
that they have either disbanded or turned to the political process.
case-in-point is the League of the Righteous, led by Qais Khazali, who is at
odds with Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers that comprise an important part of
the ruling coalition. By backing the groups that can give rise to internal Shi’a
rivalries, Iran can increase its own influence by playing a role as mediator,
adviser and kingmaker.
Linked to this point is the fact that in the
aftermath of the 2010 elections, which entailed a prolonged stalemate among
Iraq’s political factions, the Sadrists and the strongly pro-Iranian Islamic
Supreme Council of Iraq [ISCI] eventually joined the current Prime Minister
Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc on Iran’s advice.
Thus, it cannot be
denied that the Iranian influence exists economically and
Oddly enough, both the US and Iran backed Maliki for a
second term as prime minister following the 2010 elections, but of the two
countries, it was Iran that showed a degree of influence on the political
process in advising the Sadrists and ISCI to unite with Maliki. The US in
contrast had no role in suggesting or facilitating
Yet it does not follow that the Iraqi government
simply subordinates what it perceives to be its own interests to those of Iran.
Iraq is still a leading customer for US arms, despite Iranian disapproval, and
will probably remain so over the coming years.
It is also notable that
the negotiations over the question of an extension of the US troop presence were
conducted in such a way as to exclude the Sadrists from the Iraqi government’s
The reason the discussions broke down was because of a
universal consensus among Iraq’s political factions that no legal immunity could
be granted to US troops; otherwise all agreed on a postponement of the
withdrawal deadline. The voices of pro-Iranian factions were completely
Further, while the Iraqi government has generally not come
out in support of the Syrian uprising (with the Sadrists declaring Bashar Assad to be a “brother” solely by virtue of his supposed Shi’a identity), it
is not necessarily the case that this stance is due to Iranian influence, for it
is clear that the Iraqi government is also keen to avoid actively aiding the
Assad regime, as evinced by Baghdad’s warning to Tehran in March that it would
not permit arms shipments to Syria to pass through its territory or
This announcement came partly in response to American concerns
that Iraq was in violation of the UN Security Council Resolution 1747 that bans
arms exports from Iran.
What then of the rumors that Iran is aiming to
have Shahrudi succeed Sistani in Najaf? If this were to happen, it would indeed
have a profound impact on Iraqi politics, shifting the country towards a much
more decisively pro-Iranian alignment.
Nevertheless, there are numerous
obstacles that render the prospect of Shahrudi acquiring a position of dominance
in Najaf unlikely, primarily because such a move would probably encounter
stringent opposition from the Dawa party that is led by Nouri al-Maliki and is
the most powerful Shi’a political faction in Iraq (far more so than either the
Sadrists or the ISCI).
The Dawa party, unlike the Sadrists or ISCI but in
keeping with the consensus in Najaf that itself hinders the possibility of a
Shahrudi takeover, has generally not embraced Khomeini’s doctrine of
velayat-efaqih (governance of the jurist).
Besides, al-Maliki and his
bloc, whose greatest concern has always been consolidation of their own power
base, are aware of Sunni Arab and Kurdish anxieties about shifting towards an
Iranian model of government, and accordingly, as analyst Reidar Visser notes,
have been working with al-Iraqiya – the main opposition bloc – and the Kurds to
block attempts by ISCI and the Islamic Virtue Party – a branch of the Sadrist
movement – to introduce clerical veto in Iraqi law, such as is practiced in
In short, Iraq is not a satellite state of Iran. In general, the
Iraqi government thinks it is in its best interests to maintain good relations
with both Iran and the United States. Although Iranian influence in the country
is undoubtedly present economically and politically, it does not follow that
Iraq complies with Tehran’s wishes.
When it comes to Iraqi politics, what
matter more than any foreign influence are the rivalries between and within the
various factions, often entailing personal power struggles going back many
In the end, the formation of the current Iraqi government as per
the Arbil compromise struck by Massoud Barzani had nothing to do with the US or
Iran, but was rather rooted in the problem of the personal animosity between
Maliki and Ayad Allawi, who is leader of the opposition bloc but like Maliki a
Shi’ite and has many Shi’a groups in his bloc such as the White Iraqi National
Movement.The author is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford
University, and an adjunct fellow at Daniel Pipes' Middle East Forum.