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Iran continues to raise concerns in Washington that it is intent on destabilizing postwar Iraq. Most recently, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad accused Iran of meddling in Iraqi affairs by financing and training militia groups that sow sectarian violence. Iran, a Shiite theocracy, also promotes Islamist politicians, including followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, a prominent Shiite cleric who controls a militia known as the Mahdi Army. Iranian officials have also repeatedly issued statements calling on Britain to pull its forces out of the southern city of Basra, most recently after videotapes showed British soldiers abusing Iraqi teenagers, and pushed for the creation of an Islamist-led autonomous zone in the predominantly Shiite south. All of the above have hindered the ability of Iraqi leaders to form a unified government.
What are Iran’s main goals in Iraq?
Iran’s involvement in Iraq is far more complex than previously realized, experts say. "It’s a mistake to assume there’s a unitary approach in Iran," says Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s military and security studies program. "There are debates in Tehran that fall in along ideological as well as pragmatic fault lines." Khalilzad recently told reporters Iran is pursuing a double-edged policy in Iraq. On one hand, he said, Iran is supporting an insurgency that threatens to undo Iraq’s fledgling government and create a failed state on Iran’s borders; on the other hand, Iran is cultivating ties with Iraq’s Shiite-led government as a future partner in the region. "They’re using a variety of tools that to you and I would look very contradictory but to them is part of a comprehensive strategy," Khalizad said.
Iran’s goals in Iraq are seen as threefold:
- Push out coalition forces. This explains Iran’s support for the Sunni-led insurgency, experts say. After infrared-triggered bombs killed ten British soldiers in Basra last year, British Prime Minister Tony Blair accused Iran of abetting insurgent elements in the south (Britain later retracted this accusation for lack of sufficient evidence). However, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), or roadside bombs, share similar traits to those used by Hezbollah in Lebanon, many of which were manufactured in Iran, experts say. Eisenstadt agrees that while a withdrawal of U.S.-led forces is in Iran’s long-term interest, a "manageable" state of conflict is in their short-term geo-strategic interest. "To a degree, this keeps [U.S. forces] tied down and not available for use in Iran," he says. Not everyone agrees with this theory. "The Iranians want us to withdraw in embarrassment and shame," says F. Gregory Gause, a Middle East expert at the University of Vermont. "It’s a threat to them if we can consolidate our position [in the Middle East]." Experts do agree, however, that it’s not in Iran’s interests for Iraq to become either a failed state or an Islamic caliphate run by Sunni extremists.
- Keep Shiites in power. Iran enjoys strong ties with Iraq’s governing Shiite bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), including its two major parties—the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Dawa Party. SCIRI, Iraq’s largest political party, was formed by Iraqi exiles in Iran in 1982. Dawa, the party of newly re-appointed Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, also enjoys close relations with Tehran.
- Support Iraqi federalism. Iran favors a supra-federation in Iraq that allocates more power to the provinces for two reasons, Gause says. First, "the more disunited your potential enemies are, the better off you are," he says, implying that a federal Iraq divided among Shiite, Kurdish, and Sunni regions would be weaker than a strong centralized state. Second, Iran has pressed for a Shiite-led, conservative Islamist state in the south of Iraq—"something they see as their client," Gause says. "If I were the Iranians," he adds, "I wouldn’t be worried about Baghdad; I’d be consolidating influence in the south. SCIRI and Badr basically run these towns. Iranians have real influence on the ground [there]."
Iran has repeatedly denied U.S. charges of interference in Iraqi affairs. In official statements, the Iranian foreign ministry has expressed support for an "evolutionary process" in Iraq with the broad participation of Iraqi political and ethnic groups.
Does Iran want Iraq to mirror its own form of government?
Experts say Iranians support the establishment of a Shiite-led government in Iraq based on sharia, or traditional Islamic, law. Iran does not want Iraq to become a democratic outpost in the Middle East that is beholden to U.S. interests, experts say. "If Iraq were to evolve into an Islamist democracy, this would be a bad example for Iran, which would be forced to entertain alternative forms of an Islamist state that differ from the current iteration," says Geoff Porter, a Middle East analyst with the Eurasia Group. Further, Eisenstadt says, "a government that is seen as a viable democratic model might be a source of embarrassment for Iran."
What is Iran’s relationship with Iraq’s religious clerics?
It is complex, experts say. For example, with Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most influential religious leader, "there’s not a whole lot of overlap with Iranian officialdom," Eisenstadt says. "Sistani has been very clear he doesn’t want an Iranian system of government but also doesn’t want what we could call a separation of church and state. He would apply Islamic law, but doesn’t want clerics to rule." However, experts say Iran’s influence on Moqtada al-Sadr, a more radical religious leader, is more pronounced. Sadr supports an immediate U.S. withdrawal, a stronger role for religion in politics, and closer ties to Iran. In a recent visit to Iran, he even promised to fight alongside the Iranians in the event of an attack by the United States. Neither Sistani nor Sadr is actively involved in politics, but both hold considerable sway over political events in Iraq. Sistani is a behind-the-scenes kingmaker who favors the UIA bloc but rarely endorses specific candidates. Sadr, whose followers control the largest number of parliamentary seats in the UIA bloc, was active in the re-nomination of Jaafari for prime minister (experts say Iran favored the preferred candidate of both SCIRI and, ironically, the United States: Adel Abdul Mahdi).
What is Iran’s influence on Iraq’s militias?
SCIRI’s military wing, the 12,000-strong Badr Brigades, reportedly continues to receive financial and training support from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Sunni Arabs accuse Iraqi leaders of allowing Badr members to infiltrate Iraq’s security forces and carry out sectarian violence. Iran also supports Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which has clashed with the Badr Brigades in recent months. "Iranians like to keep all their bases covered," says Michael Knights, a London-based associate with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Is Iran more involved in Iraqi affairs than before?
Despite recent complaints by U.S. and British officials, it’s unclear. "There’s nothing obvious that says the Iranians are turning up the heat [in Iraq]," Gause says. However, some experts say the controversy swirling around Iran’s nuclear program may have prompted Tehran to actively involve itself more, not only with Iraqi politics, but also with the newly elected Hamas-led government in the Palestinian Authority. "Given the direction the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has taken," Porter says, Iran has tried to distract attention from its nuclear program and diversify its foreign-policy initiatives "to mitigate the impact of the IAEA’s referral of Iran to the Security Council." Porter adds the Iranians may "see the window for influencing the Iraqi government as closing," given that once Jaafari is approved by the parliament, he has only thirty days to form a government. "Had Mahdi [of SCIRI] been chosen, that window would have remained open a little longer," he says.
What other interests does Iran have in Iraq?
Iran’s interests in Iraq are not limited to politics. Tehran also has a commercial stake in Iraq’s future. In addition to building a $25 million airport in Basra, Iranian businessmen are buying up property in southern Iraq. In addition, a large number of Iranians also make religious pilgrimages to Iraqi holy places, and the Iranian government has an interest in ensuring their security (the aforementioned airport’s primary users will be Iranian pilgrims).