Iran and Iraq
- A long, porous border and extensive political, economic, religious and cultural ties provide Iran the potential for significant influence in Iraq.
- Iranian attempts to wield influence, however, have often backfired, leading to a nationalist backlash by Iraqis and tensions with the Iraqi government.
- The U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 allowed Iran to enhance its influence, attempting to incorporate Iraq into the “axis of resistance.”
- The rise of the so-called “Islamic State” has created a new opportunities for Iran to expand its influence in Iraq and to present itself as the country’s savior.
The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) was established in Tehran in 1982 by expatriate Iraqis, and was based there until returning to Iraq in 2003. Its militia, the Badr Corps, was trained and controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and fought alongside Iranian forces during the Iran-Iraq War. After 2003, thousands of Badr militiamen entered southern Iraq from Iran to help secure that part of the country. Many were subsequently integrated into the Iraqi security forces, particularly the army and the national police. Ammar al Hakim has led ISCI since the death of his father, Abd al Aziz al-Hakim, in 2009.
The Badr Organization split from ISCI in 2012, and has since operated as an independent party. After the fall of Mosul to ISIS in June 2014, Badr and its leader, Hadi al Amiri, have spearheaded the military campaign against ISIS, greatly increasing the organization’s domestic political profile. As of 2015, Hadi al Ameri was one of Tehran’s closest allies in Iraq.
Dawa, founded in the late 1950s, enjoyed the Islamic Republic’s support during the latter phase of its underground existence in Iraq. After 2003, Dawa joined the political process, but its potential was limited due to its lack of an armed militia. Its leader, Nuri al-Maliki, was selected by the more powerful ISCI and Sadrists as a compromise choice for prime minister in 2005, but he subsequently used this position to build a power base in the government and the army—parts of which functioned as a personal and party militia. Following the 2014 elections, Maliki was replaced as prime minister by another Dawa member, Haidar al Abadi.
Maliki shared a general affinity with Tehran’s Shiite Islamist worldview, but not its doctrine of clerical rule. Mindful of his dependence on Washington for survival, he tried to tread a middle path between Tehran and Washington, and avoided a full-fledged embrace of Tehran.
Abadi, who spent his years in exile in the United Kingdom, represented a less insular tendency within the party. He continued Maliki’s policy of trying to hew a middle path between Washington and Tehran, while calling for reconciliation with Iraq’s Sunni Arab community. But the influence of sectarian elements within his State of Law Coalition and the ruling Iraqi National Alliance prevented him from implementing this agenda.
The Sadrists have emerged as a major force in politics and the Iraqi street since 2003. Their leader, Muqtada al Sadr, has played on his family name as the sole surviving son of the revered Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al Sadr, who was murdered by regime agents in 1999. His populist, anti-American rhetoric, and the muscle and patronage offered by his Jaysh al Mahdi (Mahdi Army) militia, recently renamed the Saraya al Salam (Peace Companies), have gained him support among the Shiite urban poor.
Though politically aligned with ISCI, Badr, and Dawa, the Sadrists have also had a contentious and violent relationship with several of these parties. Sadr fled to Iran in 2007 to avoid being targeted by U.S. and Iraqi forces, and to pursue his religious studies. He returned to Iraq in 2011 and continued to play an important role in Iraqi politics, though he has often distanced himself from Iranian policies.
Kurdish parties—the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—have long-standing ties with Iran. Kurdish guerillas (Peshmerga) fought alongside Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. And Tehran armed the PUK during its fighting with the KDP from 1994 to 1998. Iran continues to enjoy close ties with the PUK and KDP, as well as Iraq’s northern Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). In the past, Tehran conducted occasional cross-border artillery strikes against Iranian Kurdish guerillas based in northern Iraq, though these activities have waned in recent years. Iran’s relationship with the Kurds has likewise improved as the KRG region became an important trading partner with Iran – a hub for busting international sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
- Its lavish use of state funds for the activities of its politicized clerics.
- The 2010 death of Grand Ayatollah Hussein Fadlallah, an influential Lebanese cleric trained in Najaf.
- And the advanced age of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani—the foremost member of the Najaf school and marja, or source of emulation, for perhaps 80 percent of all Shiites. He was born in 1930 and is reportedly ailing.
- Geography, politics, economics and religion ensure that Iran will retain significant influence in Iraq. There will always be Iraqis willing to partner with Iran for pragmatic, ideological, or mercenary reasons, especially as long as Iran is seen as a rising power and the leader of the region’s most cohesive axis.
- The most powerful constraints on Iranian influence in Iraq remain Iraqi nationalism, Iran’s own policies, and it sometimes high-handed behavior. But without a determined U.S. effort to counterbalance the Iranian presence, Iran will remain the most influential outside power in Iraq.
- Over the long-term, Iraq’s relations with Iran will depend largely on its security situation (particularly the fate of ISIS), the political complexion of its government, and the type of long-term relationship it forges with the United States and its Arab neighbors.
Photo credits: Abadi and Rouhani via President.ir; Qassem Soleimani by Aslan Media via Flickr Commons [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]; Saddam Hussein via Wikimedia Commons; Ammar al Hakim by US Dept of State via Flickr Commons (cropped)
This chapter was originally published in 2010, and is updated as of August 2015.
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