For the first time since 2003, Iran has stumbled in Iraq. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s decision to confront Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Basra and Sadr City last month caught Tehran off guard. The Mahdi Army lost more than face: It surrendered large caches of arms, and many of its leaders fled or were killed or captured. Crucially, the militias lost strategic terrain—Basra and its chokehold on the causeway between Kuwait and Baghdad and Iraq’s oil exports; Sadr City and the threat it posed to Baghdad security. Visiting Basra this month, I saw city walls covered with pro-Maliki graffiti. Commerce is returning to the city center. Trouble spots remain in both places, as Tuesday’s car bombings show, but the Mahdi Army’s unchallenged hold has ended.
Iran wants U.S. forces to leave Iraq and assumes that a friendly Shiite government would then protect Iran’s interests. Tehran has looked to Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, to manage its strategy of supporting Shiite unity and resisting American occupation. But these efforts do not go hand in hand. The first means supporting stability and state-building and working with Iraq’s government; the second involves building violent militias that undermine government authority.
It was easy for Tehran to do both when a sectarian war united Shiites against a common Sunni enemy. But sectarian violence has largely ceased, and Sunni insurgents and al-Qaeda are no longer imminent threats.