Iraq, four years later: an Iranian playground

Illustration by Edel Rodriguez for FP In honor (is that the right word?) of the fourth anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq, we’ll be blogging this week about our cover package, Who Wins in Iraq? For those of you who haven’t read it, it’s a fascinating set of stories about the top ...

603193_070218_WWiI_1_iran2.jpg
603193_070218_WWiI_1_iran2.jpg



Illustration by Edel Rodriguez for FP

In honor (is that the right word?) of the fourth anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq, we’ll be blogging this week about our cover package, Who Wins in Iraq? For those of you who haven’t read it, it’s a fascinating set of stories about the top ten winners of a war that, at least so far, hasn’t turned out very well for either the United States or the Iraqis.

Story number one, Vali Nasr’s take on Iran’s triumph in Iraq, tells a tale that many Iraq analysts got wrong early on.

I remember reading an otherwise prophetic article by Jon Lee Anderson, “Dreaming of Baghdad: What Regime Change Means to the Iraqi Shia Opposition,” which came out in the February 10, 2003 edition of the New Yorker. It’s no longer online, so I’ll have to quote from the print version: 

Iranian and Arab Muslims have a very distinct sense of identity, which contradicts the long standing American assumption that Iraqi Shias would probably ally themselves with Iran in a post-Saddam scenario …. In Tehran, I had spoken with Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a political analyst who worked in the Iranian mission to the U.N. under the Shah, and who now teaches political science and international law. “The Iraqi Shias’ dedication and devotion to Arabism is much stronger than to Shiism,” he said. “If a Shia were to take power in Iraq, there would be a honeymoon with Iran, but this would soon end.”

This analysis was echoed in dozens of other outlets, and similar thinking led the Bush administration to believe that the new Iraq wouldn’t become an Iranian playground. But as Nasr notes, the particular groups that emerged to become players in the new Iraq had deep ties to Iran. Some of them, such as the Badr Brigades affiliated with the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, actually fought on Iran’s side in the past. Others, such as Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, maintained good ties with Iran in order to survive. So it wasn’t enough to point to the “Arabness” of Iraq’s Shiites in general, because the specific groups and individuals running the show were predisposed to be friendly with the neighbors to the east.

The honeymoon may yet end. Iraqi’s Shiites might someday decide that their true friends are not the devious Persians, but the Sunni Arabs of Iraq, many of whom are trying to blow them up at the moment. For now, though, Shiite Iran is in the driver’s seat and riding high.

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows the Statue of Liberty holding a torch with other hands alongside hers as she lifts the flame, also resembling laurel, into place on the edge of the United Nations laurel logo.
An illustration shows the Statue of Liberty holding a torch with other hands alongside hers as she lifts the flame, also resembling laurel, into place on the edge of the United Nations laurel logo.

A New Multilateralism

How the United States can rejuvenate the global institutions it created.

A view from the cockpit shows backlit control panels and two pilots inside a KC-130J aerial refueler en route from Williamtown to Darwin as the sun sets on the horizon.
A view from the cockpit shows backlit control panels and two pilots inside a KC-130J aerial refueler en route from Williamtown to Darwin as the sun sets on the horizon.

America Prepares for a Pacific War With China It Doesn’t Want

Embedded with U.S. forces in the Pacific, I saw the dilemmas of deterrence firsthand.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, seen in a suit and tie and in profile, walks outside the venue at the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. Behind him is a sculptural tree in a larger planter that appears to be leaning away from him.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, seen in a suit and tie and in profile, walks outside the venue at the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. Behind him is a sculptural tree in a larger planter that appears to be leaning away from him.

The Endless Frustration of Chinese Diplomacy

Beijing’s representatives are always scared they could be the next to vanish.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomes Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman during an official ceremony at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, on June 22, 2022.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomes Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman during an official ceremony at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, on June 22, 2022.

The End of America’s Middle East

The region’s four major countries have all forfeited Washington’s trust.