Iraq Torn between Iran, the United States, and the Islamic State

Iraq again finds itself at the center of a crossroads during this period of turmoil in the Middle East. There is no doubt that Iraq remains of interest to numerous regional and international powers, which seek to influence its policies. What is debatable, however, is the ability of the Iraqi government to resist dictates and govern its territory in isolation from the pressures of other actors that have interest in Iraq. Today, there are three main forces that compete, each according to its capabilities, over Iraqi territory, trying to steer the country in its own direction: the Islamic Republic of Iran, the United States, and the so-called Islamic State (IS).

Looking at developments in Iraq over the past 16 years––since the 2003 American-led invasion––Iran has shown itself to be the most adept, capable, and influential player with regard to its interference in Iraqi affairs. One of its objectives has been to use Iraq as a station along its desired corridor of influence, from China’s borders through Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to the Mediterranean Sea. Iran likely sees such a corridor as an insurance policy against international isolation and ostracism and tries to manage its relations with those different states in a way that preserves its strategic position regionally and internationally.

Iraq has had its confrontations with Iran for decades. The consequential state-to-state conflict, the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran War, represented an Iraqi attempt at halting the march of the Islamic revolution that the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini unleashed in 1979. In 2003, the ongoing hostilities between the two countries ended due to the invasion by the United States and its allies, one that not only destroyed the Iraqi state’s ability to confront the Islamic Republic but exposed Iraq to Iran’s influence and made it an outpost on Iran’s march to the Mediterranean.

The Iran Project

While it hosts the shrines of eight of the twelve Shia imams, it would be a mistake to consider Iraq a mere extension of Iran or simply a center of Shia religious doctrine. Baghdad indeed is seen by Tehran as the heart of a regional project that aims to subjugate neighboring states. Iraq contains both adherents to and opponents of the Iranian project, with Shia political parties and militias holding powerful instruments of control. Opponents are from different ethnic and religious communities (including Shia) and have coalesced to resist both the American occupation and Iranian hegemony. For example, the Basra demonstrations in the summer of 2018 were populated heavily by Arab Shia protesters who were fighting against poor social services; they attacked and set fire to the Iranian consulate in the city as a representative of foreign dominance over Iraq’s interests. It was therefore logical that the pro-Iran militias in Basra were the ones to quell the anger and protests.

Since the 2003 invasion, Iran has put in effect a number of policies to assure its control, most efficiently funding and arming militias that have become as powerful as Iraq’s national army—which, at any rate, has been infiltrated by these very militias. Many of these militias believe in and defend Iran’s doctrine of wilayat al-faqih (guardianship of the Islamic jurist); they are ready to fight for Iran in any future confrontation and are prepared to help Tehran control sources of wealth and money. Interestingly, even Iranian pilgrims to Shia shrines in Iraq have been used as political tools for control. What has become more worrisome is a new citizenship law, passed by the parliament in Baghdad after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to Iraq, which allows people who reside in Iraq for one year to apply for citizenship. This type of demographic engineering is a source of worry for Iraqi Sunnis, already a minority in the country, since large numbers of Iranian pilgrims take residence in Iraq every year.

Indeed, it was obvious that Rouhani’s visit in March 2019 was a complete success in helping to sideline at least the influence of the United States in the country. Such a success was buttressed not only by the ideological tendencies of Iran’s allies in Iraq but also by some institutional mechanisms; these include the Shia parties’ victory in winning seats in parliament and positions in the cabinet. This is in addition to instrumental business deals, including those addressing Iraq’s electricity and energy needs and ameliorating environmental concerns resulting from decreased water levels in the south of the country.

Iran has also succeeded in synchronizing its elements of power with those of Iraq and Syria. An example is the Damascus meeting in March 2019 of the military chiefs of staff from Iran, Iraq, and Syria, which resulted in the agreement to open the border to allow for easy access of Iranian assets into Syria. Feeling empowered, Iran even demanded that the United States end its deployment in Syria.

The American Project

By contrast, and despite its similarity to Iran’s involvement in its illegality, the American project in Iraq seems to have receded in importance after the Obama Administration began its withdrawal from the country. This withdrawal made Iran’s plans easier and more achievable. At the very least, Iran has been able to fill the resulting void, politically, economically, and militarily. In comparison, after 2014 the United States limited its objectives to fighting the Islamic State, which had succeeded in occupying a large portion of Iraq.

But with President Trump and the change he instituted in how the United States deals with Iran––withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal and renewing American sanctions––the Iraqi government finds itself in a difficult situation. Iraq now has to accommodate the United States both because of political ties and the presence of US troops in its territory. At the same time, it has to try to mollify the opposition to American policy emanating from pro-Iran factions and militias. Iraq has had to ask the United States for extensions to comply with its prohibitions on importing Iranian goods, winning yet another waiver recently. At present, the Trump Administration is urging Iraqi officials to look for a replacement of Iranian oil and gas with Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti commodities, and this is eliciting much resistance from Iran and its friends in Iraq.

Iraq is paying a heavy price for President Trump’s position toward Iran. When he suggested that US troops in Iraq would fight the Islamic State but would also keep a close eye on Iran, the declaration riled political forces in Iraq, including President Barham Salih. However, Trump’s visit to Iraq last December gave some Iraqis hope that the United States might help tip the balance against Iran; after all, he had objected to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. But it soon became apparent that such hope was unfounded as Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, quickly visited Baghdad, after which President Rouhani signed a series of agreements to help Iran offset US sanctions. American attempts to persuade Iraq not to deal with Iran soon appeared void of real substance, especially that many Iraqi parliamentary blocs today are pushing legislation to force all US troops out of the country. In the end, if Iraq finds itself subject to American sanctions, the real impact will be focused on Iraq’s poor.

What indeed looks possible at this juncture is that the United States may revert to a policy of containing Iran, similar to the situation in Iraq under Saddam Hussein in the 1990s and early 2000s. This may be the most effective option to limit Iran’s expansion. Containment and political and economic pressures may be a workable combination to force Iran to curtail its activities in Iraq and Yemen, although Iraq would have to pay a heavy price.

The Fate of the Islamic State

The Islamic State remains a factor in how Iran and the United States deal with Iraq, despite the losses the organization has suffered there and in neighboring Syria. The United States has invested much treasure and effort in training Kurdish forces to fight IS, including arming the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, known as an associate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which Washington considers a terrorist organization. Recently, these forces succeeded in defeating the Islamic State in its last confrontation in northeast Syria, putting Iraq in a very precarious situation.

With tens of thousands of IS fighters at large after their Syrian defeat, their threat remains significant. European countries and the United States appear to refuse to take those few IS fighters who were arrested. Iraq took some prisoners, although it may not be able to prosecute them because it does not have jurisdiction over events in another country (Syria). There remain thousands of dedicated and extremist fighters who are more likely to make their way surreptitiously to Iraq’s western provinces, where they will undoubtedly await an opportunity to wage another insurgency and perhaps more violently this time. Their future impact is not only limited to Iraq but also to all the countries in its proximity: Syria (again), Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Kuwait.

Caught between Powerful Actors

Iraq is likely to remain a victim of difficult regional and international struggles that will mostly affect its civilian population who have suffered over the last 16 years from an American-led invasion, violent domestic conflicts, Iranian interference, and ethnic and sectarian divisions. Until today, Tehran poses a significant challenge to Baghdad because it has succeeded in projecting its power through loyal political factions and militias in Iraq. Washington’s current policies in Iraq are not likely to succeed in containing Iran, considering the balance of forces in the country. They will, however, cost the Iraqi people more troubles and calamities.

Abdulwahab Al-Qassab is a Visiting Scholar at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Dr. Abdulwahab Al-Qassab and read his previous publications click here