Iran Has Less Power in Iraq Than We Think

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Iraq's seven-month political deadlock looks to be entering a new phase, thanks in part to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki received the support of the Sadrist political wing earlier this month, likely ensuring another term for Maliki but also giving Sadr, who has been living in exile in Iran since 2007, an important voice in the country's political future.

For many in the U.S., what should be cause for relief and hope that the current impasse may be coming to an end has instead produced fear and suspicion over Iran's influence in Iraq. Americans on the political right and left are warning that Iran has engineered this political about-face and that Sadr's rise will cement Iran's role as the chief architect of Iraqi politics. Not only does this misunderstand the fundamental nature of Iran-Iraq relations, it repeats a mistake we have made repeatedly since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. U.S. exaggeration of Iran's influence in Iraqi politics isn't just hyperbolic and misguided, it actually makes an independent and Iran-resistant Iraq less likely.

Clearly, for the U.S., the rise of Sadr's followers is less than ideal. Their unbending hostility to the U.S. has included armed conflict with the U.S. military: the Mahdi Army fought major battles against American forces, opened up a two-front insurgency, and fuelled the country's descent into sectarian civil war.

So it's understandable why so many in the U.S. are worried about Sadr's political inclusion. U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad James F. Jeffrey even responded with a public warning that Sadr's involvement might jeopardize U.S.-Iraq ties. However, the Sadrists, who primarily represent the Shiite poor, are an enduring feature of Iraq's political landscape and secured their current position legitimately through the democratic process.

For many here in the U.S., concern over the Sadrist role is, at root, based on a simplistic understanding of Iran's role in Iraq. But Sadrist political participation cannot be ascribed merely to the machinations of Iran. While linked to Iraq by ties of history, commerce, and religion, observers in the U.S. have often ascribed the Islamic Republic with near-magical powers to orchestrate events within its war-torn neighbor's borders. However, Iran's role in post-invasion Iraq has often been destructive. At various junctures Iran has emphasized inflicting damage to the U.S. by giving money, advice, and training to various Shiite militia groups in Iraq, including the Sadrist Mahdi Army. These actions have eroded their influence in Baghdad political circles and increased suspicions of Iranian motivations.

Recent Iraqi history should make clear that Iran cannot force its desired policy outcomes on Iraq, where lack of cohesiveness among the dominant Shiite factions threatened Iran's goal of a friendly, Shiite-led government in Baghdad. The pre-election decision by Maliki to run independently thwarted Iran's hopes of seeing a unified Shiite list contesting the elections and ensuring Shiite preeminence. It should also speak volumes that Iran's closest ally among the Shiite political parties, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, is now the most recalcitrant party to Maliki's retention of power. The Iranian desire for Shiite cohesion was also set back by Maliki's March 2008 Basra offensive against the Mahdi Army and other irregular Shiite militias supported by Iran. This intra-Shiite military confrontation clearly demonstrated Iran's lack of actual control over its purported allies in Iraq. The offensive was a turning point for Maliki, bolstering his reputation as an independent nationalist who is focused on law and order. Iran can help shape events but cannot force Iraqi political figures to act contrary to their own perceived interests.

Our perception of Iran as the puppet master of Baghdad is rooted in decades of enmity between the U.S. and Iran, which continue today. Also, Iran's broad support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and its monetary support for Hamas in Gaza makes it easy to imagine Iran replicating this strategy in Iraq. But the biggest factor in our willingness to see exaggerated Iranian influence in Iraq is something much simpler: partisan U.S. politics. For years, both parties have exaggerated Iran's role to score political points. Iran hawks on the right have done so to bolster their case for greater U.S. hostility to the perceived Iranian menace. During the 2008 presidential primaries and general election, Republicans also used the threat of Iranian encroachment to argue against any drawdown in Iraq. Today, they maintain this line in attacking President Barack Obama's Iraq policies as strengthening Iran. Meanwhile, voices on the left have, since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, latched onto to the notion of an unstoppable Iran expanding its influence throughout the region. This extension of the recriminations against the Iraq war, much like the conservative criticism of Obama, is an effort to further discredit President George W. Bush's invasion by accusing him of ceding Iraq to Iran. This distortion on both sides is unfortunate because it paints Iraq as a mere prop for the purpose of polemics and because it is unmoored from the more prosaic reality of contemporary Iraq.

Presented by

Michael Wahid Hanna is a fellow and program officer at The Century Foundation, where he focuses on international security, human rights, post-conflict justice, and U.S. policy in the Middle East.

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