Iran emerges as dominant player in Iraq
U.S. toppled regime, but Tehran called victor in contest of influence
BAGHDAD — Walk into almost any market in Iraq, and the shelves are filled with goods from Iran — milk, yogurt, chicken. Turn on the television, and channel after channel broadcasts programs sympathetic to Iran.
A new building goes up? It is likely that the cement and bricks came from Iran. And when bored young Iraqi men take pills to get high, the illicit drugs are likely to have been smuggled across the porous Iranian border.
And that’s not even the half of it.
Across the country, Iraniansponsored militias are hard at work establishing a corridor to move men and guns to proxy forces in Syria and Lebanon. And in the halls of power in Baghdad, even the most senior Iraqi Cabinet officials have been blessed, or bounced out, by Iran’s leadership.
When the United States invaded Iraq 14 years ago to topple Saddam Hussein, it saw Iraq as a potential cornerstone of a democratic and Western-facing Middle East, and vast amounts of blood and treasure — about 4,500 U.S. lives lost, more than $1 trillion spent — were poured into the cause.
From Day 1, Iran saw something else: a chance to make a client state of Iraq, a former enemy against which it fought a war in the 1980s so brutal, with chemical weapons and trench warfare, that historians look to World War I for analogies. If it succeeded, Iraq would never again pose a threat, and it could serve as a jumping-off point to spread Iranian influence around the region.
In that contest, Iran won, and the United States lost.
Over the past three years, Americans have focused on the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq, returning more than 5,000 troops to the country and helping to force the militants out of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul.
But Iran never lost sight of its mission: to dominate its neighbor so thoroughly that Iraq could never again endanger it militarily and to use the country to effectively control a corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean.
“Iranian influence is dominant,” said Hoshyar Zebari, who was ousted last year as finance minister because, he said, Iran distrusted his links to the United States. “It is paramount.” A 1,400-year-old schism
The country’s dominance over Iraq has heightened sectarian tensions around the region, with Sunni states, and U.S. allies, like Saudi Arabia mobilizing to oppose Iranian expansionism. But Iraq is only part of Iran’s expansion project; it also has used soft and hard power to extend its influence in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, and throughout the region.
Iran is a Shiite state, and Iraq, a Shiite majority country, was ruled by an elite Sunni minority before the U.S. invasion. The roots of the schism between Sunnis and Shiites, going back almost 1,400 years, lie in differences over the rightful leaders of Islam after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. But these days, it is about geopolitics as much as religion.
Iran’s influence in Iraq is not just ascendant, but diverse, projecting into military, political, economic and cultural affairs.
At some border posts in the south, Iraqi sovereignty is an afterthought. Busloads of young militia recruits cross into Iran without so much as a document check. They receive military training and are then flown to Syria, where they fight under the command of Iranian officers in defense of the Syrian president, Bashar Assad.
Passing in the other direction, truck drivers pump Iranian products — food, household goods, illicit drugs — into what has become a vital and captive market. ‘Smarter than America’
Partly in an effort to contain Iran, the United States has indicated that it will keep troops behind in Iraq after the battle against the Islamic State. U.S. diplomats have worked to emphasize the government security forces’ role in the fighting and to shore up a prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, who has seemed more open to the United States than to Iran.
But after the United States’ abrupt withdrawal of troops in 2011, U.S. constancy is still in question here — a broad failure of U.S. foreign policy, with responsibility shared across three administrations.
Iran has been playing a deeper game, parlaying extensive religious ties with Iraq’s Shiite majority and a much wider network of local allies to open a 15mile stretch of dusty road near the border in Diyala province to carry Shiite militiamen, Iranian delegations, trade goods and military supplies to proxies in Syria, where Iran is an important backer of Assad, and to Lebanon and its ally Hezbollah.
“Iran is smarter than America,” said Nijat al-Taie, a Sunni member of the provincial council in Diyala and an outspoken critic of Iran. “They achieved their goals on the ground. America didn’t protect Iraq. They just toppled the regime and handed the country over to Iran.”
Abadi, who took office in 2014 with the support of both the United States and Iran, has seemed more emboldened to push back against Iranian pressure since President Donald Trump took office.
He has promoted an ambitious project for a U.S. company to secure the highway from Baghdad to Amman, Jordan, which Iran has opposed. He also has begun discussing with the United States the terms of a deal to keep U.S. forces behind after the Islamic State is defeated.
But many Iraqis say the Iranians already have free rein. And while the Trump administration has indicated that it will pay closer attention to Iraq as a means to counter Iran, the question is whether it is too late.
“Iran is not going to sit silent and do nothing,” said Sami alAskari, a senior Shiite politician who has good relationships with both the Iranians and Americans. “They have many means. Frankly, the Americans can’t do anything.”
Workers unload boxes of Iranian goods at the customs checkpoint in Mandali, Iraq. Iran has never lost sight of its mission to make a client state of its neighbor.