Is Iraq an Iranian Proxy?

Inquiring minds want to know.


In recent weeks, the U.S. media has highlighted Iraq’s ties to the Islamic Republic of Iran — namely, how it has helped Iran subvert the international sanctions regime and enabled Iranian support to the Syrian regime. This is leading to uncomfortable questions over whether the new Iraq is an ally of the United States, as President Barack Obama’s administration claims, or a client state of Iran, as many of its neighbors fear.

In fact, Baghdad’s political allegiances are not so easy to pigeonhole. To understand Iraq’s foreign policy, it is important to recognize how domestic and regional environments shape its behavior.

The Iraq war had three unintended consequences in the Middle East. First, it dramatically shifted the regional balance of power in Iran’s favor, due to the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s vehemently anti-Iranian regime and the destruction of Iraq’s military. Iran’s resurgence, along with the extension of its influence into Arab countries, sets off a struggle for regional leadership between Iran on one side and the United States and Saudi Arabia on the other. This competition manifests itself today in Persian-Arab and Shiite-Sunni tensions across the Middle East.

Second, the Iraq war brought about the evolution and growth of jihadi groups — Sunni extremists who were inspired to fight U.S. forces in Iraq and the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. Such groups see new opportunities in the Arab Spring to expand their power in the region. Although al Qaeda in Iraq has been weakened, it is threatening a revival, boosted by the perceived successes of jihadi groups in Syria. On Sept. 28, for instance, al Qaeda launched an attack on a prison in Tikrit, freeing dozens of its members. This was part of the terrorist group’s "Destroying the Walls" offensive, which has seen a wave of attacks throughout Iraq over the last few months.

Third, the war led to a bloody sectarian conflict in Iraq, as various militias competed to fill the power vacuum created by the overthrow of the Baath regime. Iraq is still emerging from this civil war: Most stakeholders are participating in the political process, but they still maintain the capacity to fight. Mistrust and fear prevent the implementation of power-sharing agreements, and the specter of a return to civil war still lurks in the background.

The fragility of the Iraqi state harms its ability to project a consistent, coherent foreign policy. Iraqi politicians are gripped primarily by the desire to protect and expand their own power and resources. To do so, they often look for foreign patrons: It is no secret that many of Iraq’s politicians take funding from neighboring countries, as well as from state coffers. Unsurprisingly, there is little willingness across the political spectrum to push forward a law in parliament that would reveal details of party financing. However, though Iraqis may be influenced by their "donors," this does not mean they are controlled by them.

It’s not just foreign patronage that skews Iraqi policy — it’s the pernicious influence of sectarianism, which the Iraq war heightened. This phenomenon has come and gone in waves through the centuries — in recent memory, the 1979 Iranian revolution reverberated across the region, creating apprehension in other states that feared its influence on their Arab Shiite populations and on local Islamic movements.

Today, sectarianism has replaced the Palestinian cause as politicians’ most reliable means to rally support — and to distract from their own failures to deliver. While many of Iraq’s elites have become increasingly wealthy thanks to the increase in oil exports, Iraq’s people still struggle to receive basic services, such as electricity.

Identity politics also undermines Iraq’s attempts to establish a consistent foreign policy. For instance, some Shiite politicians portray the alternative to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a fundamentalist Salafi regime, which will support the creation of a "Free Iraqi Army" — Sunni rebels funded by Qatar and Saudi Arabia — to overthrow Iraq’s Shiite government. Some Kurdish politicians also play on fears that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is turning into a dictator who will deploy U.S.-supplied F-16s against the Kurdish people. Meanwhile, some Sunni politicians claim that Iraq is becoming an Iranian client state led by Shiite clerics.

These tensions have led to questions about the viability of the Iraqi state. Some observers portray Iraq as an "artificial" state made up of three homogenous and antagonistic communities — Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. They argue that it was held together only by dictatorship and that Saddam’s removal inevitably led to fighting due to "ancient hatreds." But that is an inaccurate reading of Iraq: While Iraq’s different peoples have at times had a troubled history with the country’s rulers, relations between the communities themselves have been mostly peaceful over the centuries — much more so than relations between Protestants and Catholics in Europe. Iraqi tribes have members who are Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish, and intermarriage has been common since the time of the monarchy.

It’s the explosion of sectarian hatred following the U.S. invasion that is the anomaly. During the Iran-Iraq War, Shiites constituted around 80 percent of the foot soldiers and 20 percent of the officers of the Iraqi Army — and fought loyally for the Iraqi state. Most Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs are Iraqi nationalists — even though they have different interpretations of what the concept means and what Iraq’s foreign-policy orientation should be. Sunnis tend to believe that Iraq should be aligned with the Arab world against Iran, while Shiites believe some Sunni countries pose a threat to them.

The question is: What equilibrium will Iraq find? Will it revert back to authoritarianism, with its leader crushing dissent, this time with U.S.-trained and U.S.-equipped security forces? Some people certainly worry it will. In the old Middle East, dictatorship produced extremism — today, new elites may use the very methods that were once used against them to put down threats to their rule.

Will Iraq’s elites reach agreement on the rules of the game by which politics will be conducted? One positive indicator of this was the recent willingness of political parties from different coalitions to work together in parliament to prevent Maliki from increasing the number of commissioners on the Independent High Electoral Commission, as they believed it would be to his advantage.

Will the next elections bring to power new elites who pursue a national agenda, providing Iraqis with a positive vision of the future? In the new Iraq, everything is possible.

Iraq’s relationship with the United States also depends on the answers to these questions. While Kurds tend to be highly supportive of the United States, Iraq’s Arabs are more ambivalent. Sunnis feel a sense of disenfranchisement in the post-Saddam political order, complaining that they were held collectively responsible for the previous regime. Many Shiites remain suspicious of U.S. motives as well — even if the United States portrays itself as the country that overthrew their tormentor and put them in power. The followers of Moqtada al-Sadr are a textbook example of this: After being excluded from power in 2003, they mobilized their base around resistance to the U.S. occupation and blamed the United States for supporting Saddam. They also hold the United States responsible for imposing sanctions on Iraq, which caused great suffering to the Iraqi people — and left the Baath regime with an even tighter grip on society.

Some Iraqi politicians believe that a regional sectarian war is brewing, with the United States on the side of the Sunni countries against the Shiites. They fear that the United States may sacrifice Iraq’s Shiites in its confrontation with Iran — betraying them as it did in 1991, when President George H.W. Bush called for Iraqis to rise up against Saddam — and when they did so, stood by while they were slaughtered.

The United States faces many pressing questions that will deeply affect how it is viewed by Iraqi Shiites. For instance, will U.S. support for the Syrian opposition bring a Salafi government to power? Will the United States remain silent in the face of Saudi and Bahraini oppression of their Shiite populations? Will the United States and Israel bomb Iran’s nuclear program?

Many Iraqis fear for the future of their country, due to both problems of their own making and those coming from outside Iraq’s borders. Iraq still struggles with the incapability of politicians to advance truly national interests, the incompetence of the bureaucracy, and regional struggles that pull Iraqis in different directions. Should Syria break down into sectarian enclaves, the reverberations will be felt in Iraq. Many Iraqis predict the end of the nation-states created by Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916.

Iraq finds itself walking a tight rope, caught between the United States and Iran — as well as in the proxy war playing out between Sunni and Shiite powers in the region. Iraq’s government calculates that the United States needs it as an ally to keep oil flowing and to have it buy U.S. weapons. But as U.S. influence declines, Turkey and Iran are once more filling the power vacuum in the region. Iraqis have seen this movie before.

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