Iraq, Petraeus, Iran: Coming to Grips with Reality

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

In his opening briefing to the Congress recently, US Gen David Petraeus, named Iran 105 times to emphasize how important the Islamic Republic has become to the future of the American occupation of Iraq. In doing so the general gave belated recognition to the reality everyone in the Middle East has known for years: Iran is the big winner of the American decision to invade and occupy Iraq.

Iran is a big winner because it benefits from a weak and malleable Iraq. Its greatest enemy, Saddam Hussein’s Baathist Iraq, is dead and gone. Hussein’s Iraq fought an eight-year war to destroy the Islamic Republic, killing hundreds of thousands of Iranians and devastating its economy. In its place is a Shiite-Kurdish government in Baghdad filled with former exiles that spent that war in Tehran. Baghdad and Tehran have ever-closer relations: Iranian intelligence operates throughout the country; pilgrims visit the Shiite holy cities. Many believe it was Iran that vetoed Iraqi participation in US President George W Bush’s Middle East peace summit at Annapolis last fall. Iran has certainly pressed its friends in Baghdad not to have any serious contact with Israel.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Baghdad on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the invasion earlier this year. His visit was announced in advance, unlike those of our leaders, and he traveled openly around the capital, where he signed billions of dollars in new economic deals. With oil prices over a hundred dollars a barrel, no wonder he was smiling everywhere. All that was missing was a “mission accomplished” banner.

The Iraqi Shiite are also winners, although battered and bruised. For the first time in five centuries, they control Mesopotamia’s Shiite holy sites, the most important in the world to Shiites, and they control the oil-rich southern part of the country and its only outlet to the sea. Their triumph has sent shockwaves through the Islamic world from Lebanon to Pakistan and encouraged Shiites everywhere.

But the Shiites are badly divided and may be on the brink of a Shiite- Shiite civil war. Even that may benefit Iran, because it has cleverly maintained good relations with all the Shiite parties to better manipulate them. It was no accident that the ceasefire that ended the recent fighting in Basra, at least temporarily, was negotiated in Iran.

The Iraqi Kurds are winners too and also closely tied to Tehran. An all but independent Kurdistan exists in the north of the country, making oil deals with outsiders independently of Baghdad. It has its own army and police force loyal to the two Kurdish warlords. A Kurd, Jalal Talabani, is President of Iraq, yet the Iraqi flag does not fly in Kurdistan.

I have known Talabani for almost two decades. He is a patriot and will try to guard his independence. But he is also well aware of Iran’s power in Iraq. His power base, Sulaymaniyah province in Kurdistan, depends on Iran for most of its trade. In 1996 when his then rival, and now partner, Masoud Barzani, joined forces with Saddam to attack Sulaymaniyah, Talabani fled into Iran. It was from Iran, and with its help, that he staged his comeback.

Judging by the testimony we heard, Iran seems to have decided to make the occupation increasingly costly for America by providing weapons and expertise to some of those harassing our forces. Tehran probably calculates that it should help make the American adventure in Iraq even more painful than it already has been to ensure no American leader will ever try to occupy a state on Iran’s periphery again, let alone attack Iran. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is said to have commented several years ago that America in Iraq is like a wolf caught in a trap: It can either chew its own paw off to live or bleed to death.

So far Iran has been careful not to overplay its hand and arouse anti- Persian Iraqi nationalism. While that may still happen, in the long run, both time and geography play to Iran in Iraq. The US will leave Iraq sooner or later, but Iran will always be next door. The next administration will need to find a way to deal with Iran in Iraq: it will be no easy task.