Iran’s Post-U.S. Influence in Iraq

Interview with Ambassador Jim Jeffrey

By Garrett Nada
            Jim Jeffrey was U.S. Ambassador to Iraq from 2010-2012. He was also ambassador to Turkey, and deputy national security advisor under the George W. Bush administration. He is now a visiting fellow at The Washington Institute.
What has Iran done to increase its influence in Iraq since the U.S. drawdown began in September 2010?
            People should not be shocked, surprised, disappointed or discouraged by Tehran’s close relationship with Baghdad. Iran has actually played a significant role in Iraq since 2003. Iran has had considerable influence among the various Shiites political parties in Iraq. Most of them have their headquarters or leadership based in Iran. That’s true of the Supreme Council, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s Dawa party and Muqtada al Sadr.
            Iran has significant economic and religious ties to Iraq. It is one of Iraq’s top trade partners after Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. It also has a very strong and understandable national security concern in ensuring that Iraq never invades it again. The United States understand that.
            The problem is that Iran uses its influence with both the Shiites and the Kurds, to some degree, to try to win Iraq over to its side on various issues like Syria. Syria has changed the nature of Iran’s relationship with Iraq more than the U.S. drawdown.
            The United States also did not set out to recreate Iraq as an American colony. Iraq lives in the neighborhood and has to deal with issues like Syria. Iran is an important neighbor with extraordinary ties to Iraq, particularly to the Shiites and Kurds who combined make up 80 percent of the population. Iraq is under pressure from both Iran and the United States. That is normal.
            U.S. combat troops were not necessarily keeping Iranian influence under control. U.S. troops [who fought alongside Iraqi forces] were effective in helping the Iraqis defeat Iranian-backed militias in 2008.
How has the Syrian crisis affected Iran’s relationship with Iraq?
            Syria has complicated the relationship to an extraordinary degree. Iraq, with its majority-Shiite population and significant Kurdish and Sunni Arab minorities, is caught in the middle of the wider Shiite-Sunni clash.
            There is a huge concern throughout the region that the conflict will turn into an ethnic-religious one. Elements in the Sunni-Arab camp and the Syrian Alawis associated with Bashar Assad, and to some degree the Iranians, want to divert attention from the oppression of the Syrian people. They want to start a sectarian conflict similar to Lebanon’s civil war from 1975 to 1990. Many Iraqi Shiites feel that a Sunni victory in Syria will lead to an upsurge of al Qaeda and Salafi influence in Iraq. This could pull the country back into civil war.
            Iran is also particularly concerned with losing its ability to project influence into the Mediterranean region. It would be more difficult to support Hezbollah if Assad falls.
            There is also tension between Baghdad and Tehran on Iranian flights over Iraq. The planes are believed to be carrying weapons to the Syrian government. This would be a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. The United States has been pressuring Iraq, sometimes successfully, to ground those flights and inspect them. The effectiveness of inspections is disputed.
What influence does Iran have on Prime Minister Maliki?
            Maliki is in the middle of a tug-of-war between the United States and Iran. The Iraqi prime minister can tell the Iranians that he cannot make concessions because of U.S. interests. Then he can say to the Americans that his hands are tied by Tehran.
            But this is how the United States is going to have to make foreign policy in the new Middle East. The situation with the Egyptians is similar and I dealt with this in Turkey too. The leaders of these countries are representative of their populations, which have diverse world views and are generally not enthused about the United States. The governments act professionally and recognize that they have to deal the world as it is. But even when the United States objectively is helpful to these governments, leaders use a great deal of rhetoric and avoid dealing with their population’s problems. There is a lot of dancing and bobbing and weaving.
Iran signed a defense agreement with Iraq in October 2012. What does this mean?
            The two countries have had close contacts at the security level before, although that visit by Iran’s defense minister was troubling. It is too early to tell if anything significant will come out of the agreement. They almost certainly discussed Syria, which is Iran’s main concern.
What are the key issues on which Iraq and Iran agree and disagree?
            There is actually very little common ground between Iraq and Iran on major issues, despite having significant trade with each other. Tehran would prefer Baghdad to export less oil. Iraq surpassed Iran in oil production in July 2012. Iraqi exports are allowing the international oil market to absorb the dramatic cut in Iranian exports due to U.S. and E.U. sanctions. So Iraq is a major factor in squeezing Iran right now on the nuclear issue. But the Iranians know that selling oil is an important Iraqi national interest.
            On Syria, Iran and Iraq have differing interests. But Iran may be able to garner more sympathy from Iraqis [than on other issues].
            The two major Shiite religious centers, Najaf in Iraq and Qum in Iran, are also competitors. Qum’s institutions promote the principle of velayat-e faqih, or guardianship of the jurist, which is unique to Iranian theology.
Has Iran increased its activities in Iraq since 2010--or sought to take over roles previously played by the United States? In Afghanistan, for example, Iran supports large infrastructure projects, which are very popular among Afghans.
            Iran has not taken over any previous U.S. roles. U.S. technical expertise in counterterrorism, intelligence and capacity building are vastly different than Iran’s. But Tehran has funded a fair amount of projects in southern Iraq. Iran has a lot of economic, commercial and trade influence there. It is providing some 15 percent of Iraq’s electricity and funding some infrastructure construction projects.
            Despite these projects, Iran’s image in Iraq has never been particularly good. Iraqis, including the Shiites, are somewhat skeptical of Iran’s intentions. But they generally want to maintain a good relationship with Tehran.
            Just a few years ago, there were militias that were armed, supported, equipped, trained and, to some degree, guided by Iran. Nobody wants to see that again. So there is a certain threat that Iran exercises through the potential to use these groups. Iraqis do not want Tehran to unleash these groups again.
What interests do Iran and the United States share in Iraq? On what issues do they differ?
            Both want to see a unified and stable Iraq, and they want to ensure that it cannot threaten its neighbors.
            But Iran does not have an interest in Iraq pumping additional oil. It does not want Iraq to have a close relationship with the United States, the Arab states or with Turkey. Iran also does not want Iraq to develop a significant defensive military capability. Ideally, Iran would like to have Iraq under its thumb, yet retain its independence and sovereignty.
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