Iran emerges as dom­i­nant player in Iraq

U.S. top­pled regime, but Tehran called vic­tor in con­test of in­flu­ence

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - NATION | WORLD - By Tim Arango

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.”

Sergey Pono­marev / New York Times

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.

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