Iran and Iraq
- The overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime provided Iran with a historic opportunity to transform its traditional Iraqi enemy into a partner or ally.
- 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 this influence, however, have often backfired, leading to a nationalist backlash by Iraqis and tensions with the Iraqi government.
- As the United States withdraws its forces from Iraq, the uncertain security situation will present both risks and opportunities for Iran.
- 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.
- 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 has since used this position to build a power base in the government and the army—parts of which now function as a personal and party militia.
Maliki shares 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 has tried to tread a middle path between Tehran and Washington, and has avoided a full-fledged embrace of Tehran.
- 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, have gained him support among the Shiite urban poor.
Though politically aligned with ISCI and Dawa, the Sadrists have also had a contentious and violent relationship with both parties. Sadr fled to Iran in 2007 to avoid being targeted by U.S. and Iraqi forces, and to pursue his religious studies. He reportedly hopes to become an ayatollah to acquire the key religious leadership credential he currently lacks.
- 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). But Tehran has conducted occasional cross-border artillery strikes against Iranian Kurdish guerillas based in northern Iraq.
- 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.
- Iran-Iraq relations will continue to be bedeviled by a variety of unresolved issues dating to the Iran-Iraq War and by an Iranian tendency to pursue policies viewed as harmful to Iraqi interests.
- Geography, politics, economics and religion ensure that Iran will retain a modicum of influence in Iraq. And there will always be some Iraqis willing to work on behalf of Iran, for ideological and mercenary reasons.
- The most powerful constraints on Iranian influence in Iraq are Iran’s own policies and high-handed behavior, Iraqi nationalism and U.S. information activities that highlight Iranian meddling in Iraq.
- Over the long-term, Iraq’s relations with Iran will depend largely on its security situation, the political complexion of its government, and the type of long-term relationship it forges with the United States and its Arab neighbors.
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