Contrary to what most experts think, the nixed nuclear deal with Iran, is not the focal point of the U.S.-Iranian struggle. Rather, it is the disproportionate growth of Iran’s influence in the Middle East – the result of Washington’s decision to effect regime change in Baghdad. If the United States wants tangible results in rolling back Tehran’s influence in the region, Iraq is the key. Washington must focus its diplomatic energies there in order to counter Tehran’s growing clout.
Shiite Factions and Iran’s Power
On May 12, Iraq held its fourth parliamentary elections since the 2003 U.S. invasion. Maverick Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement won the largest number of seats (54). For those who have long been watching the evolution of the Iraqi Shiite political landscape since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, this was an expected outcome. In all three prior elections, the al-Sadrite movement (long the representative of the poor Shia masses) won a large number of seats but could not lead a government because former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Hizb al-Dawah held the upper hand and became the establishment Shiite force.
This all changed in the summer of 2014, when Daesh seized control of large swathes of territory in the largely Sunni areas north and west of the capital and proclaimed a caliphate. The emergence of the transnational jihadist regime increased pressure on al-Maliki, who for many years faced opposition from Sunni, Kurdish, and even prominent Shiite factions for what they saw as his autocratic style of governance. After a couple of months of power struggle and mediation by Iran, al-Maliki agreed to step down and hand power to the current premier, Haider al-Abadi. Al-Maliki’s fall represented the fracturing of the Shiite establishment, which allowed the al-Sadrite movement to gain ground.
Another development that altered the intra-Shiite balance of power was the formation of the Shiite militia force known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). This group played a critical role in degrading Daesh and retaking Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. Under the leadership of the PMF’s Hadi al-Ameri, the political party, Conquest Alliance, was formed and then secured 47 seats – coming in second place in the elections. Al-Abadi’s Victory Alliance was in third place with 42 seats, while al-Maliki’s State of Law and Ammar al-Hakim’s National Wisdom Movement secured 25 and 19 seats, respectively.
These five Shiite political groups combined control 187 seats – 22 more than the 165 needed to form a majority in the parliament. Negotiations continue between al-Sadr and al-Abadi’s parties, as well as with other Sunni and Kurdish political parties, to form the next coalition government. In the aftermath of previous elections, the Shiite factions came together to form the core of the central Iraqi government – a process overseen by Iran.
For the Iranians, the deep divisions among Iraqi Shiites are both an advantage and a disadvantage. The disadvantage is that Tehran needs the Iraq’s Shiites to maintain intra-communal harmony to ensure that the majority community dominates the Iraqi political system – a prerequisite for Iran maintaining influence in Iraq. After all, before the rise of the Shiites, Iraq was an enemy state with whom Iran had fought a long and devastating war during the 1980s. On the other hand, the advantage of intra-Shiite divisions is that the Iranians can play the various factions off of one another and thus maintain Tehran’ status as arbitrator of the squabbles within Iraq’s majority communal grouping. Iraqi Shiites dependency on Iran is something that Tehran leverages when it needs to counter Washington’s influence on Baghdad.
Tehran and Washington: It’s Complicated
The United States and Iran have been locked in a complex cooperative-competitive relationship with regards to Iraq since before the 2003 war. In its attempts to oust the Hussein regime, the United States had to rely on Shiite partners with whom Iran enjoyed considerable and long-standing influence. This reality has been hardwired into the post-Baathist Iraqi political system. Thus, Washington and Tehran have been in a ceaseless tug of war, pulling the Iraqi Shiites in opposing directions.
It should be noted that conventional wisdom imposes a false dichotomy on Iraq’s Shiite factions: They are viewed as either pro-Iran or anti-Iran. We often hear how al-Abadi and al-Sadr are opposed to Tehran and how militias make up most of Iran’s Shiite allies in Iraq. However, the past 15 years have shown that all Shiite factions — to varying degrees — are in Iran’s orbit. Geosectarianism — triggered by the U.S. move to engage in regime change in Iraq and catalyzed by jihadism and the rise of Daesh — has allowed Iran to deepen its influence in the Iraqi state and ironically through coordination with the United States.
During his keynote remarks at a recent Atlantic Council panel discussion on Iran, Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq during President George W. Bush’s second term, explained that while it is not talked about much the United States and Iran have indeed worked together to establish political stability in Iraq. At that same event, Norman Roule, former National Intelligence Manager for Iran at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, pointed out that “beleaguered Shia” are a necessity for Iran’s ability to push ahead with its regional ambitions.
In 2011, Iran leveraged its Shiite allies which held the majority in the Iraqi parliament to ensure that the United States withdrew its forces from Iraq by the end of that year. By making sure that Washington could not negotiate a new Status of Forces Agreement to maintain troops in country beyond Dec. 31, 2011, Tehran demonstrated the extent of its influence over the Iraqi Shiite. More importantly, the U.S. withdrawal allowed Tehran to entrench itself even deeper in the Shiite-majority Arab state. Iran’s influence went to an even higher level recently when the clerical regime played a critical role in supporting Iraqi forces in the war against Daesh, especially in the battle for Mosul.
Regardless of the makeup of the next Iraqi government, Iraq will continue to be under considerable Iranian influence. The Iranians will once again use their influence in Iraq to their advantage in response to the Trump Administration increasing pressure on the clerical regime. Washington needs to be able to preempt Tehran’s countermoves as it tries to renegotiate the nuclear deal and reduce the latter’s geopolitical footprint in the region. Finding a way to put greater distance between Iran and the Iraqi Shiite factions is where the United States must focus its energies. This can be achieved through forging closer ties with the Iraqi Shiites so as to reduce their dependence on Iran.
Kamran Bokhari is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Global Policy and a Senior Lecturer at the University of Ottawa’s Security and Policy Institute for Professional Development. He tweets at @KamranBokhari
The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.