Has Iran overplayed its hand in Iraq?


A man rides a motorcycle past the site of a car bomb attack in the Habibiya district in Baghdad May 11, 2014.

Article Highlights

  • Sunni-Shi'ite tension long predates Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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  • Many Iraqi Shi'ites tend to place Iraqi nationalism above sectarian solidarity with Iran.

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  • By sponsoring militias inside Iraq, Iranian authorities try to impose through force of arms what is not in the hearts and minds of ordinary Iraqis.

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Key points in this Outlook:

  • While some analysts attribute the 2003 US invasion and occupation of Iraq with unleashing sectarian strain there, Sunni-Shi'ite tension long predates Operation Iraqi Freedom. 
  • As Iranian-backed militias expand their influence in Iraq, Iraqi Shi'ites place Iraqi nationalism above sectarian solidarity with Iran.
  • Nevertheless, force of arms sometimes trumps hearts and minds, and so Iranian sponsorship of extremist groups inside Iraq will continue to pose risks to both Iraqi stability and US security interests.


This Outlook is a reprint of an article by Michael Rubin published on the Foreign Military Studies Office's Operational Environment Watch website. See http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/OEWatch

Al Qaeda's seizure of Ramadi and Fallujah in January 2014 propelled questions of sectarianism in Iraq to the forefront of Iraqi politics. Sectarianism, of course, is nothing new in Iraq. While some analysts attribute the 2003 US invasion and occupation of Iraq with unleashing sectarianism, the tension between Sunni and Shi'ite Iraqis long ­predates Operation Iraqi Freedom. Ba'athism, the ideology that late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein embraced, was inherently sectarian. While it embraced Arabism as its central pillar, Saddam and many of his aides saw true Arabism through a sectarian lens. He suspected Shi'ites of harboring loyalty to Iran; indeed, he often labeled Iraqi Shi'ites "Safawi," the Arabic name for the 16th-century Safavid dynasty that converted Iran to Shi'ism. Beginning in the 1960s with the Ba'athist seizure of power and then in the 1980s with the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War, the Ba'athist regime stripped tens of thousands of Shi'ites of Iraqi citizenship and deported them to Iran. The Shi'ites, however, have from the beginning of Iraqi statehood considered themselves and their more traditional tribal ways as representing a more pure Arab identity.1

Iraqi Shi'ites have experienced a religious renaissance since a US-led coalition ousted ­Saddam, but the idea that the Iraqi Shi'ite ­community seeks for sectarian reasons to attach themselves to or be dominated by Iran misunderstands Iraqi history and politics and the attitudes of Iraqi Shi'ites. Rather than separate from their country, Iraqi Shi'ites have for decades worked both to integrate themselves into Iraqi society and to resist Iranian attempts to subvert their communal independence. Despite attempts by Iran to dominate Iraq politically, culturally, and economically, Iraqi Shi'ites have in recent years been successful at resisting Iranian attempts at dominance. That does not mean that Iraqi Shi'ites will be pro-American or anti-Iranian, but only that they will not allow themselves to be ­puppets of a foreign state.

"Iraqi Shi'ites have for decades worked both to integrate themselves into Iraqi society and to resist Iranian attempts to subvert their communal independence."

Ethnicity vs. Religion

The Iraqi-Iranian border is not only a political boundary, but an ethnic one as well. Iraq is overwhelmingly Arab, although Kurds predominate across the north of the country and Turkmen maintain centuries-old communities in and around Kirkuk and Tel Afar. In Iran, in contrast, ethnic Persians now represent only slightly more than half of the country, and Azeris and other Turkic minorities another fifth. Today, only about two percent of Iran is Arab.2

While religion is an important part of most Iraqis' identity, boiling identity down to only religion would be misleading. Iraqis are not simply Muslims or Christians, or Sunnis or Shi'ites, but are also Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen; urban or rural; educated or not; and tribal or more modern in outlook. To assume sectarian solidarity between Iraqi and Iranian Shi'ites discounts centuries of ethnic distrust, if not outright hostility. While Shi'ites embraced Iraqi statehood, rivalry with their Persian counterparts drove a wedge between the two national communities. Iraq hosts Shi'ite Islam's most prominent shrines and centers of scholarship.
Iran, however, has for centuries maintained its own seminaries in Qom, a city less than 80 miles south of Tehran.

Nor does the Sunni-Shi'ite divide correlate to an embrace or rejection of Iraqi nationality. The Shi'ites led the 1920 revolt against the British that culminated in the establishment of the Iraqi kingdom, although the anti-British colonial uprising had enjoyed cross-sectarian appeal and participation. Sunnis dominated Iraqi governance in the wake of the country's independence, but rather than reject the state, Shi'ites pushed for greater participation. While the Iraqi king long enabled Shi'ites to run the Ministry of Education, with time they also assumed other portfolios including the presidency of Iraq's Senate and premiership.3 

During the Iran-Iraq War, Shi'ite conscripts fought on the front lines while those more privileged by their tribal connections to Saddam served more safely in the rear. Indeed, Shi'ites comprised 70 percent of ordinary soldiers but only 20 percent of the officer corps.4 Despite the discrimination Shi'ites (and Kurds) faced at the hands of the Ba'athist regime, few outright defected from Iraq to Iran during the war; rather, the Ba'athist government forced many to leave either by revoking citizenship or by decreeing membership in Shi'ite parties such as the Islamic Da'wa Party to be a capital offense. Those who did defect to Iran represented a far smaller group than those who, like the Mujahedin al-Khalq, a revolutionary terrorist group, defected from Iran to the service of Saddam. Both during and after the Iran-Iraq War and, indeed, to the present day, Iraqi Shi'ites observe Iraqi Armed Forces Day on January 6 because for Shi'ite conscripts and the broader community, the problem was always Saddam rather than the institution of the army.

The Evolution of Shi'ite Politics in Iraq

Shi'ite political thought was well developed in Iraq when the Ba'athist regime seized power in 1968. The constitutional movement in Iran infused new political thought into clerical circles, both in Iran and Iraq. In 1909, Mirza Muhammad Hussein Gharawi al-Na'ini wrote The Admonition and Refinement of the People, which imbued traditional Shi'ite thought with anticolonial politics and argued that until the hidden imamShi'ite Islam's messianic figurereturned, the people had to choose between tyranny and constitutionalism.5

Sheikh Mahdi al-Khalissi, also a top Shi'ite cleric, led the 1920 revolt against British rule. While Khalissi died in 1925 and Na'ini passed away in 1936, just four years after the Kingdom of Iraq gained its full independence, subsequent generations of theologians and political theoreticians whom Na'ini taught in Najaf built upon his work to outline the interplay between religious precepts and a constitutional framework encouraging popular representation through the appointment of deputies. This of course justified full Shi'ite participation in the Iraqi state.

In 1963, the Iranian shah launched the White Revolution, a modernization drive toward which he tolerated little dissent. However, as the shah moved to impose women's suffrage, encourage literacy and public health, and undertake land reform, he clashed with more conservative Iranian clerics like Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whom he ultimately expelled from Iran. After a year in Turkey, Khomeini settled in Najaf, where he began to teach and preach. It was there that he resurrected the older clerical notion of a guardianship of the jurisprudent [wilayat al-faqih], which he developed most notably in a 1970 series of lectures later compiled into the book Islamic Governance [Hukumah al Islamiyah].6 While Khomeini's peers largely rejected his arguments, he imposed his philosophy by force on Iran after the Islamic Revolution.

"Khomeini's overbearing attitude-and the poor treatment of many Iraqi refugees in Iran—did not endear the Islamic Republic to Iraqi Shi'ites."Many other clerics in Najafand, indeed, many in Irangravitated more toward the writings and philosophy of Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, a senior cleric who outlined the idea of a guardianship of the people [wilayat al-umma], which preached that man could be the trustee of God [Khilafat al-insan]. While Khomeini claimed that a supreme leader should act as the deputy of the messiah on earth and rule over man, Sadr argued that governance was "a right given to the whole of humanity."7 Sadr wrote frequently on political and social issues of the day, not only parrying Khomeini's religious arguments but also deconstructing the Marxism that many Iraqi intellectuals embraced, and encouraging the publishing of booklets and pamphlets outlining an Islamic take on the primary social and political issues of the day.8

Khomeini was ideologically intolerant and developed personal enmity toward Sadr for rejecting Khomeini's notion of clerical rule in favor of empowering ordinary people. Khomeini's enmitycoupled with that of Saddamultimately sealed Sadr's fate. While Sadr supported the Islamic Revolution in Iran and recognized Khomeini as a grand ayatollah, Khomeini refused to affirm Sadr's religious rank and refused him shelter in Iran once Saddam began his crackdown on the Islamic Da'wa Party, for whom Sadr served as the spiritual mentor.9 Saddam's regime subsequently imprisoned, tortured, and, on April 9, 1980, executed him.

Sadr's views shaped the development of the Da'wa Party, which he founded in 1958. But historically, Da'wa has been fractious. Da'wa initially attracted Shi'ites predominantly from the educated middle class, the very constituency whose political consciousness Saddam and the Ba'ath Party found most dangerous. Sadr did not exclude Sunnis from his vision; he encouraged Da'wa to establish and maintain relations with Sunni Islamist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb al-Tahrir, thus augmenting the danger that Sadr's activism posed to the Ba'athist regime.10 Accordingly, Baghdad outlawed Da'wa and deemed membership a capital offense.

As Saddam's secret police began targeting Iraqi Shi'ite political activists, Da'wa activists fled the country, many finding uneasy refuge in Iran, with smaller communities establishing themselves in the United Kingdom or Syria. Those who fled to Iran were quickly disenchanted by the Shi'ite paradise they sought in the newly formed Islamic Republic. Khomeini measured loyalty not in religious devotion but in the embrace of his own religious philosophy. Those who dissented quickly found themselves targeted by Khomeini's security agencies. Many held true to Sadr's ideas but had little choice but to remain silent; they could not continue the political debate in which their counterparts in the United Kingdom engaged. This exacerbated divisions in Da'wa, which became clear when the two sides reunited after Iraq's liberation.

Before that day, however, British-based Da'wa activists found themselves effectively muzzled out of fear that Khomeini might respond to any direct challenge to his interpretation by targeting the Iraqi Da'wa members who had effectively become his hostages. Khomeini's overbearing attitudeand the poor treatment of many Iraqi refugees in Irandid
not endear the Islamic Republic to Iraqi Shi'ites. While many of those Iraqi refugees returned home in the wake of Saddam's ouster, their lingering resentment of Iran continues.

Shi'ites are not monolithic, and not all Iraqi exiles remained true to Sadr and his emphasis on popular sovereignty. Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, who had worked closely with Sadr until his execution, did receive refuge in Iran. Rather than resist Khomeini's vision of clerical rule, Hakim embraced it. He split from Da'wa and formed a new group, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), now renamed the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and dedicated to ousting the Ba'athist regime in Iraq and replacing it with a Khomeini-style theocracy.

Repression of the Iraqi Shi'ites increased throughout the 1980s against the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq War. The Iraqi government, questioning the loyalty of both its Shi'ite and Kurdish communities, forcibly displaced many who sought university placement or state jobs, sending Shi'ites north into Kurdish regions and forcing Kurds south into predominantly Shi'ite cities like Basra, Najaf, or Diwaniya. The aftermath of Operation Desert Storm and the US-led liberation of Kuwait compounded the problem. During a February 15, 1991, campaign stop, President George H.W. Bush called for "the Iraqi people [to] take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein the dictator to step aside." Iraqis listened and rose up against Ba'athist rule in 14 of Iraq's 18 governorates. Ironically, this US-encouraged 1991 uprising marked the first significant Shi'ite uprising in Iraq against the Iraqi government.11

"Iraq's liberation reinvigorated Shi'ite practice and scholarship inside the country."

Perceptions in the Middle East can mean more than reality. Whatever the logic behind and actuality of subsequent policy decisions in Washington, Iraqi Shi'ites almost universally see betrayal: the United States did not intervene as Saddam moved to crush the uprising. While the United States, in conjunction with France and Great Britain, sponsored a safe haven for Iraqi Kurds, there was no corollary protection for Iraqi Shi'ites: the southern no-fly zone did little to stop Iraqi tanks from crushing the uprising.

Shi'ites also sense conspiracy in the fact that the US military released Republican Guard prisoners of war against the backdrop of the uprising, enabling Saddam's forces to regroup and move against the Iraqi rebels. As Saddam augmented sectarian repression in the wake of the 1991 uprising, Iranian officials whisper that the American betrayal of Iraq's Shi'ites was deliberate and that, whether Iraqi refugees liked Iran or not, the Islamic Republic is the only trustworthy protector of the Shi'ites. Hence, Iran's state-controlled press often pushed conspiracy theoriessuch as secret visits by George W. Bush to Saddam's prison to plot Saddam's returnto once again betray and repress Iraq's Shi'ites. Whereas Iraqi Shi'ites may have embraced the American military in 1991, the bitterness of perceived betrayal and more than a decade of continuous Iranian propaganda led to sustained resentment among the majority, and active hostility among a smaller cadre.

Post-Liberation Shi'ite Dynamics

Such resentment became apparent upon Iraq's 2003 liberation. While Iraqi Shi'ites reveled in their newfound religious freedom, their embrace of the American troops who had liberated them was far less enthusiastic than in 1991 when US forces had first pushed back Saddam's Republican Guards.

In Iraq (and also in Iran) there is a clerical aristocracy with a few families producing generations of renowned scholars marrying cousins or into other elite theological families. Of course, family name is not everything, and not every family member distinguishes himself or herself with mastery of existing Shi'ite scholarship and writing of new treatises. Some family members become black sheep and embarrassments to family name and reputation. This has been the case with Muqtada al-Sadr. Muqtada was a son-in-law of Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and was the fourth son of Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, Iraq's preeminent ayatollah in the 1990s until his assassination in 1999. Muqtada never excelled at scholarship and was paid little heed either by his father or Iraq's other top ayatollahs. After all, he had three older brothers. No one imagined that, thanks to Saddam's murderous campaign against the clerics of Najaf, Muqtada would be the only one of his generation of Sadrs to survive.

Not surprisingly, the American government had very little sense of Muqtada before Iraq's liberation. This ended on April 10, 2003, when a mob loyal to him set upon rival cleric Sayyid Abdul Majid al-Khoei in the Imam Ali Shrine, Najaf's holiest site, and hacked him to death. Khoei, the son of and successor to a prominent and popular ayatollah who had fled in 1991, had returned to Najaf with American assistance. Khoei embraced Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr's notion of popular rule and thus stood in sharp contrast to the theological interpretations embraced by Khomeini and his successor, Ali Khamenei, in Iran.

Muqtada al-Sadr and the Iranian leadership might not have agreed completely on theology, but they did have a common grievance. The United States was effectively seeking to restore the power of the Iraqi Shi'ites' religious hierarchy. This presented a challenge not only to Iran's concept of clerical rule but also to Muqtada al-Sadr's personal ambition, since he could not compete in prestige or rank with the top ayatollahs in Najaf. Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps did not hesitate to coopt and channel Sadr's resulting anti-American fervor. Sadr's embrace of Khomeini's wilayat al-faqih
was seldom enthusiastic or consistent, but the Iranian regime was looking more for a tool with which to wage undeclared war against the Americans than simply a theological clone.

"Iran's willingness to play hardball has even led many Iraqis to reconsider their attitudes toward the American military."

Whether with regard to Muqtada al-Sadr, who never left Iraq before the US-led invasion, or SCIRI founder Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, who spent a lengthy exile in Iran, Iranian authorities soon realized that their influence was more limited than they expected. For all of Muhammad Baqir's rhetoric while residing in Iran, as soon as he returned to Iraq he abandoned his previous embrace of wilayat al-faqih. "Neither an Islamic government nor a secular administration will work in Iraq but a democratic state that respects Islam as the religion of a majority of the population," Muhammad Baqir declared upon his return after 23 years in exile.12 While a car bomb killed him on August 29, 2003, neither his brother Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who succeeded him, nor Ammar al-Hakim, who took ISCI's mantle upon Abdul Aziz's death in 2009, has returned the party to its one-time embrace of wilayat al-faqih.

Indeed, this has been a consistent pattern in post-liberation Iraq, much to the chagrin of authorities in Tehran. Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps trained or helped organize multiple Iraqi militias, most prominently Muqtada al-Sadr's Jaysh al-Mahdi [Army of the Messiah, or JAM] and ISCI's Badr Corps. Sponsorship of multiple political groups and militias might seem counterproductive to Western policymakers, who traditionally seek to streamline decision making and policy execution, but it is part and parcel of traditional Persian statecraft: duality enhances control because it enables the Iranian leadership to make patronage a competition and to play clients off each other for Iran's broader interests. This in effect creates a seesawor cyclicaleffect, as one group rises while the other falls but neither group ever either fails completely or gains enough strength to become truly independent.

The competition between the Badr Corps and JAM illustrated well Tehran's struggle for control: while both retained their staunch anti-American and anti-occupation positions, after returning to Iraq many Badr Corps commanders ceased following direct Iranian orders and instead began to allow Iraqi nationalist attitudes to color decisions that lumped the United States and Iran together  as "the other." So long as the Badr Corps was willing to hunt down and murder Iraqi Air Force pilots who had participated in the bombing of Iran during the Iran-Iraq War, Tehran would fund ISCI generously and provide enough weaponry to give ISCI a qualitative and quantitative edge over other Shi'ite groups.

However, as soon as the Badr Corps began acting too independently of Iranian interests or dictates, Tehran's largesse would shift to Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr always embraced Iraqi nationalism, even if he harbored a different vision of it than that put forward by liberal Iraqis and established clergy. He did not hesitate to accept Iranian largesse, even if it came at a cost to his independence, but as soon as he asserted himself too much or believed he could continue without heeding his Iranian minders, he would find himself cut off from resources. Hence, during the years of American military occupation, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and Sadr seemed to repeatedly alternate their position of Iranian favor.

Is Shi'ism Iran's Achilles' Heel?

While some American policymakers and many military analysts conflate all Shi'ites under the Iranian umbrella, waging insurgency against coalition troops was not the only objective of Iran-trained militias. Shi'ism is not only the Islamic Republic's raison d'être, but it is also revolutionary Iran's Achilles' heel. Saddam's suppression of Najaf and Karbala had ironically strengthened the Iranian regime because it prevented any real religious challenge to Khomeini and, subsequently, Khamenei's authority.

The Iranian security apparatus, meanwhile, works to suppress religious dissent at home. Iranian authorities, for example, kept Grand Ayatollah Husayn Ali Montazeri under house arrest until his death, and banned publication of his memoirs.13 Iraq's liberation reinvigorated Shi'ite practice and scholarship inside the country. Long-constrained political and theological debates resumed as Da'wa exiles from London, Damascus, and Tehran reunited in Baghdad. Millions of Iraqi Shi'ites marched in religious processions long prohibited by the Iraqi regime. Najaf-based grand ayatollahs like Ali Sistani (himself an Iranian) could once again preach openly and communicate with not only Iraqi followers but also Iranian religious pilgrims.

Sistani recognizes that the Islamic Republic is just as vicious toward dissenting clergy as Saddam was. Sistani survived Saddam's rule by understanding who controlled the guns outside his house. He is no chameleon: he will not parrot those in power, but he will calibrate his vociferousness in the challenge to that power. He was noticeably more restrained in his willingness to challenge Iranian dictates when Badr Corps or JAM militiamen controlled the streets of Najaf than he was during periods of US military or Iraqi Army control. Hossein Kazemeyni Boroujerdi, a prominent Iranian ayatollah who opposes clerical rule, remains in poor health in prison after his 2006 arrest in Qom for opposing wilayat al-faqih. Iran maintains a Special Clerical Court to prosecute clergy who stray from the Iranian supreme leader's approved line.14 

In February 2013, Iranian security forces arrested prominent Iraqi religious scholar Ahmad al-Qubanshi during a visit to Iran. Qubanshi had for more than 30 years published articles and books criticizing the theological arguments at the basis of Iran's Islamic Republic.15 Iran fears that, should Iraqi Shi'ites achieve an independent space to conduct theological discourse removed from Iranian control, the result might be a theological challenge to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's notion of himself as the primary source of emulation and the deputy of the messiah on earth.

By sponsoring militias inside Iraq, Iranian authorities try to impose through force of arms what is not in the hearts and minds of ordinary Iraqis. Hence, Badr Corps militiamen posted themselves outside girls' schools in the Kadhimiya district of Baghdad to enforce a dress code not enshrined in Iraqi law or custom, and Muqtada al-Sadr's militiamen harassed, detained, and beat university students in Basra participating in a spring social. The Iranian strategy has not worked, however. Both the Badr Corps and JAM have antagonized more Iraqis than they have rallied. Across southern Iraq, Shi'ite leaders acknowledge that the twenty-somethings who embraced sectarian Shi'ite parties with enthusiasm after Iraq's liberation have come to recognize that they offer no panacea to Iraq's myriad woes. This does not mean that Iraqi youth are turning away from sectarian parties on political Islam, but they do not approach such institutions with the revolutionary fervor that Iranian authorities can more easily exploit.

Trade or Exploitation?

If militias represent a kinetic strategy to control and subordinate Iraqi Shi'ites, economic domination represents a softer lever of power that, of course, aims to control not only Baghdad and southern Iraq's Shi'ite population, but also, more broadly, Iraqi society as a whole. Close economic ties are natural. The two countries share a 900-mile frontier, and Iran's population is perhaps three times that of Iraq. Economic relations have expanded exponentially since Saddam's fall. While Iran-Iraq trade was negligible from the war years of the 1980s through the days of sanctions, by 2004, the first full year after Saddam's fall, bilateral Iran-Iraq trade was just $800 million. By 2012, the last year for which statistics are available, bilateral trade had reached an estimated $12 billion.16

While Iraqis welcome the millions of dollars that Iranian religious pilgrims spend in the hotels, shops, and restaurants of Najaf and Karbala, trade is largely one way. Iraqi Kurdistan, Kirkuk, Baghdad, and al-Amarah have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on Iranian electricity, even before a July 2013 four-year bilateral $14.8 billion deal for Iran to supply Iraq with natural gas to power its electrical plants.17

In addition, Iran floods Iraq with manufactured goods, agriculture, and foodstuffs, harming Iraqi industries.18 Iranian merchants do not hesitate to undercut Iraqi competition, further stymying Iraq's economic recovery and leading to a great deal of resentment toward Iran not only in the Kurdish north of Iraq, but also in Baghdad and even in predominantly Shi'ite areas in southern Iraq, such as Basra and Nasiriya.

Iraqi businessmen, whether Sunni, Shi'ite, or Kurdish, regularly complain that they cannot access the Iranian market or, indeed, travel easily to Iran to conduct business because of the sometimes onerous and arbitrary Iranian permit process invoked more for Iraqi Shi'ites than other Iraqis. It is one of the ironies of post-war Iraq that Iraqi Kurds find it easier to travel to Iran than do their Shi'ite counterparts, for whom Iranian authorities make border crossing permits difficult to acquire, largely out of fear that Iraqi Shi'ites might harbor subversive religious views.

Iranian contractors have developed a reputation for seeking inflated prices for substandard goods. Many Iraqis have accordingly begun to seek alternatives to Iranian business and increasingly seek to encourage American and European firms to bid on contracts. Despite the resentment that its business practices build, Iran does not hesitate to use its Iraqi clients to hamper competition. SCIRI and Sadrist officials at the Basra Airport, for example, have sought to saddle American and European businessmen with nonexistent regulations to hamper their operation. This has only further antagonized relations as Iraqi businessmen feel themselves forced into deleterious partnerships with Iranians, whom they dislike. Indeed, Iran's willingness to play hardball has even led many Iraqis to reconsider their attitudes toward the American military. After an Iranian squad seized a Fakka oil well in the Maysan Governorate in January 2010, Iraqi papers called on the United States to help Iraq protect its territorial integrity.19 


Decades of war and sanctions eviscerated the Iraqi economy and Iraqi power. The United States managed in a matter of weeks to do what Iran could not do, even after eight years of unrestricted warfare: oust Saddam. Iraq essentially became a vacuum that multiple forces sought to fill: the United States and the coalition it led hope to rebuild Iraq and allow the country to rejoin the international community as an Arab democracy; al Qaeda sank roots in al-Anbar, Mosul, and Baghdad and propagated a radically different vision; Iran sought to assert its dominance over Iraq's Shi'ites and the central government; and Turkey sought unsuccessfully to fill Iraq's economic vacuum.

The new Iraqi government, for its part, was too weak to fight off all competing interests and instead sought to create space for independent action by playing regional interests off each other: Iraqi officials would tell both Iranian and American diplomats and military officers that their respective actions were constrained by the other and then pursue policies that made neither Tehran nor Washington happy.

The December 2011 American withdrawal upset Baghdad's traditional balance and undercut Iraqi politicians' ability to resist Iranian demands. That said, Iraqi Shi'ites continue to make clear their resentment of what they see as Iran's overbearing attitude. When Khalaf Abdul Samad, the governor of Basra, sought to inaugurate a new bridge over the Shatt al-Arab on June 4, 2013, Iranian officials warned him to choose a different date as June 4 marked the commemoration of Khomeini's death. Abdul Samad responded by simply increasing the fireworks display so Iranians, who can see the lights of Basra from their homes, could witness the Iraqi celebrations on what, for the Islamic Republic, was a day of mourning.

Such independence and insults do not pass without a cost. Even though Abdul Samad was popular in Basra for the development projects he initiated and was the top vote-getter in provincial elections, the Iranian government pushed ISCI and the Sadrists into an uneasy coalition to oust him shortly after. Raw power can still trump hearts and minds.

For that reason, Iranand those inside Iraq whom it coopts and coerceswill still pose a risk to US regional security interests. Banners in Basra announce the obituaries of those killed fighting for Syrian regime forces or Hezbollah in Syria, a conflict in which the Iraqi government is officially neutral. Iraqi officials acknowledge the problem of Iranian recruitment inside Iraq but say they are simply too weak to roll back Iranian influence without a countervailing one. They also first face more existential threats given the resurrection of al Qaeda and potential Kurdish separatism.

As individuals, some Iraqi Shi'ites might, for ideology or privilege, embrace militias backed by the Islamic
Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iraqi politics are, however, far more complicated than the all-Shi'ites-are-Iranian-puppets narrative would allow. As Iranian-backed militias augment their presence in Iraq, they either force a backlash within the communities they seek to represent or they lose their ideological purity to the more powerful, seductive forces of Iraqi nationalism. Iranian leaders may want a compliant little brother or even a puppet in Iraq. No matter what their caricature in the West, however, Iraqis Shi'ites show no desire to oblige.


1. Yitzhak Nakash, Reaching for Power: The Shi’a in the Modern Arab World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), 83–86.
2. See Bernard Hourcade et al., Atlas d’Iran [Atlas of Iran] (Montpellier: Reclus, 1998). This study, based on Iran’s 1996 census, found that slightly less than half of Iran’s population was Persian. However, more recent estimates suggest an increase in the relative proportion of the Persian population.
3. Yitzhak Nakash, The Shi’is of Iraq (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 127–29.
4. Nakash, Reaching for Power, 93.
5. Mirza Muhammed Hussein Ghawari al-Na’ini, Tanbih al-ummah wa-tanzih al-millah [The Admonition and Refinement of the People] (Qom: Bustan-i Kitab, 2003); and Sama Hadad, “The Development of Shi’ite Islamic Political Thought,” in Dissent and Reform in the Arab World, eds. Jeffrey Azarva, Danielle Pletka, and Michael Rubin (Washington, DC: AEI Press, 2008), 32–40.
6. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Hukumah al-Islamiyah (Qom: Intisharat-i Azadi, 1980).
7. Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, al-Islam Yaqudu al-Hayah [Islam Directive to Life] (Beirut: Dar al-Ta’aruf lil-Matbu’at, 1990).
8. Laurence Louër, Transnational Shia Politics: Religious and Political Networks in the Gulf (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 83–84.
9. Chibli Mellat, The Renewal of Islamic Law: Muhammad Baqer as-Sadr, Najaf and the Shi’i International (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 52.
10. Louër, Transnational Shia Politics, 85.
11. Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007), 188.
12. Ali Akbar Dareini, “Top Shiite Leader, Fresh from Exile, Now Calling for Democratic Government in Iraq,” Associated Press, May 13, 2003.
13. Husayn ‘Ali Montazeri, Matn-i kamil-i khatirat-i Ayatallah Husayn ‘Ali Muntaziri [Full Text of Ayatollah Husayn Ali
Montazeri’s Memoir] (Spånga, Sweden: Baran, 2001).
14. Mirjam Künkler, The Special Court of the Clergy (Dādgāh-Ye Vizheh-Ye Ruhāniyat) and the Repression of Dissident Clergy in Iran (Social Science Research Network, Princeton University, May 13, 2009).
15. Al-Sharqiyah News (London), February 19, 2013, 13:00 GMT.
16. “Iraq Eyes $15b Annual Trade with Iran,” PressTV (Tehran), December 23, 2013, www.presstv.com/detail/2013/12 /23/341512/iraq-eyes-15b-annual-trade-with-iran/; Michael Eisenstadt, Michael Knights, and Ahmed Ali, Iran’s Influence in Iraq (Washington, DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, April 2011), www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads
; and Edward Wong, “Iran is Playing a Growing Role in Iraq Economy,” New York Times, March 17, 2007.
17. “Iraq Signs Deal to Import Iranian Gas for Power,” Reuters, July 22, 2013; and Hassan Hafidh, “Iran Seeks Respite from Sanctions in Iraq,” Wall Street Journal, July 22, 2013.
18. Gulnoza Saidazimova, “Iran/Iraq: Trade Flow Increases, but Mostly from Tehran to Baghdad,” Radio Free Europe /Radio Liberty, March 4, 2008, www.rferl.org/content/article/1079581.html.
19. “Basra’s Unionists Urge US to Protect Iraqi Lands,” Aswat al-Awsat (Erbil), January 1, 2010.

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No events scheduled this day.