With the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011, Iran became by default Iraq’s primary partner. As sectarian tensions with Turkey took their diplomatic toll, Iran became Iraq’s primary trading partner. Moreover, the Iranian frontier represents Iraq’s largest border. For all these reasons the two-day official visit of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to Tehran is normal in the context of Iraqi politics and diplomacy. Maliki met with President Hassan Rouhani, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Supreme National Security Head Admiral Ali Shamkhani and, of course, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, from whose meeting the article excerpt is taken.
The caricature of Iraq as an Iranian puppet, however, is exaggerated. While both Iran and Iraq might be overwhelmingly Shi’ite, the ethnic divide between Persians and Arabs is strong, and historical enmity borne of decades of conflict remains present. Iraqi businessmen accuse Iran of flooding the market with cheap goods, thereby undercutting Iraqi manufacturing, while Iraqi contractors accuse Iranian firms of overcharging for inferior service. As the Iraqi government works to repair relations with Turkey and reaches out to both China and Western countries, the Iranian government fears that its economic honeymoon might soon end.
Probably the main reason for Maliki’s visit has to do with Iraq’s political uncertainty, hinted at when Khamenei conveyed his “good wishes” for Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. It has now been more than a year since Talabani suffered a debilitating stroke. While the Iraqi press published a still photo of the president recuperating at the hospital — only the second photograph in a year — there is no indication that Talabani can function or, indeed, even move. His incapacitation highlights not only the political vacuum in the presidency, but also the horse-trading which will presage the 2014 Iraqi elections. The Iranian government has been active in lobbying to ensure that its interests are met in both Baghdad and Erbil — the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region — in the year of transition. As such, Khamenei and other Iranian figures likely discussed with Maliki not only his efforts to win re-election, but also candidates who might fill the presidency. Iraqi politicians from across the political spectrum have acknowledged in recent months tremendous pressure from Tehran to accept Iraqi Kurdish leader Masud Barzani as Iraq’s president. While Barzani is not normally considered pro-Iranian, the Iraqi presidency is more an honorific position, well-suited to Barzani, who values titles. Such a move would ensure Iranian predominance in both Baghdad, where Maliki or any successor would likely be mindful of Iranian interests, and Erbil, where Barzani’s move might clear the path to predominance for his nephew, Nechirvan Barzani, who is more solicitous of Iranian requests.
Regardless of how the Iraqi political landscape changes with the upcoming elections, the battle for paramount economic and political influence in Iraq continues. From the Iranian perspective, it is far from won and must be constantly attended.