Tehran and Washington: Unlikely Allies In An Unstable Iraq

It isn’t terribly remarkable that Iraq appears to be sliding back toward civil war. Between its own unresolved internal problems and spillover from the Syrian civil war, it was almost inevitable that Iraq would see a recurrence of violence. What is most intriguing is that given the power of the forces propelling Iraq back toward civil war, the situation there hasn’t gotten much worse much faster.

What needs explaining are the forces that are slowing the resumption of violence in Iraq. From my conversations with various Iraqis, I see three key factors that have put the brakes on Iraq’s plunge back into civil war:

  • The residual fear of many Iraqi leaders of a new civil war based on the uncertain outcome of the last civil war. Sunni tribal leaders are well aware that they were losing the civil war in late 2006 and had the United States not stepped in with the Surge to protect them from the Shi’a militias, they likely would have suffered horrific ethnic cleansing. Today, many Sunni tribal leaders see the mobilization of the Sunni world against the Shi’a threat as being a critical change since 2006, one that could bring them victory this time around. However, others are more wary of risking another war that they might lose.
  • Unexpected Kurdish restraint. In recent months, Kurdish President Mas’ud Barzani had resumed his belligerent stance toward Maliki, which was an important element in convincing the Sunnis to fight back against Baghdad. However, after the clashes last month, the Kurds unexpectedly decided to play peacemaker. Barzani’s reasons are complex and relate to a variety of factors including his need to get the withdrawal of the PKK from Turkey right and the problems of Kurdish internal politics.
  • Iranian pressure. According to a variety of Iraqi sources, Iran has been urging Maliki and other Shi’a leaders not to overreact to Sunni and Kurdish moves.

That last piece is an interesting and important one, and gets to the complex nature of Iran’s involvement in Iraq, which has often been misrepresented and exaggerated.

Iran’s Influence in Iraq

As always with Iran, we need to be careful about what we actually know. For obvious reasons, the Iranians don’t talk publicly about what they are up to in Iraq. The Iraqis do— endlessly— but every Iraqi politician has an agenda and those agendas often obscure the truth. All that said, it is clear that Iran has the ability to wield considerable influence in Iraq today. From their critical trade ties, to Iran’s ability to employ violence in Iraq, to its support for various Iraqi groups, the Iranians have a number of levers they can pull.

That said, it is important to understand that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki himself is no Iranian stooge, as is sometimes wrongly asserted. Although Maliki is a Shi’a chauvinist, he also sees himself as an Arab and an Iraqi nationalist. His proudest moment seems to have been Operation Charge of the Knights in 2008, when he ordered an Iraqi-American offensive that smashed Jaysh al-Mahdi— then Iran’s most important proxy in Iraq— and ousted it from the country. Especially because he is a Shi’a Islamist, the act of driving Iran and its allies from Iraq made him enormously popular among his countrymen.

Although Maliki dislikes the Iranians and would prefer to minimize their influence in Iraq, he has become uncomfortably dependent on them. On several critical occasions, the Iranians have saved Maliki’s political life. In 2010, it was Iran who ultimately brokered Maliki’s return to power as prime minister by strong-arming the Sadrists to back him. Once Maliki had Sadrist support, it was clear he would be the Shi’a candidate and the Kurds reluctantly fell in line, believing that only a Shi’a could be prime minister. Then, in the summer of 2012, the Sunnis, the Kurds and the Sadrists tried to bring down Maliki in a vote of no-confidence. Once again, it was the Iranians who reportedly saved his bacon by leaning on Iraqi President and PUK leader Jalal Talabani to refuse to call for the vote. Talabani grudgingly complied (reportedly in return for Iranian support for his succession plans for the PUK) and Maliki survived. Thus, Maliki hates the Iranians, but he also needs them and that adds to Tehran’s influence in Baghdad.

Iranian Goals in Iraq Today

Although most Americans tend to assume that the U.S. and Iran will be on opposite sides on every issue across the Middle East, in Iraq, that has often been untrue. In the early years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Iran was actually very helpful to the United States: Iran did not support the militias and insurgents, and instead it encouraged its Iraqi allies to go along with the American project of building a democracy there, probably because Tehran feared an open confrontation with the U.S., feared Iraq descending into chaos and civil war, and recognized that any Iraqi democracy would inevitably be dominated by the Shi’a, who would probably be on reasonable terms with Iran. Of course, once Iraq slid into civil war, Iran changed gears and backed both all manner of Iraqi militias and supported attacks on Americans to try to get the U.S. troops out of the way. But that change really did not occur until late 2005 or even early 2006, and before then Iran seems to have seen its interests as effectively aligned with our own.

The same seems to be true today. According to various Iraqi sources, Iran believes that it has its hands full with Syria and does not want to open up another front in the region-wide Sunni-Shi’a civil war that many Sunni extremists are now preaching. The Iranians apparently recognize that they are not benefitting from fears of a wider Sunni-Shi’a war and are trying to prevent one from emerging— which is precisely what would happen if civil war resumed in Iraq. Moreover, Tehran no doubt recognizes that a civil war on its doorstep would be particularly dangerous because the spillover could easily affect Iran’s own fractious minorities and fragile internal politics.

Other Iraqis report that Tehran sees a new civil war in Iraq as being potentially deleterious to its currently enviable position within Iraq. Unless the Shi’a could win a quick, overwhelming victory in a new civil war, the status quo is preferable to any other outcome for them. In any other scenario, Iraq would be torn by fighting and the Shi’a dominated government would likely lose control of parts of Iraq. Much better, from Tehran’s perspective, to have the Shi’a in nominal control over the entire country— in part to enable Iran to move supplies across it to their allies in Syria.

Thus, once again, Iraqis are baffled by the apparent collusion of Iran and the United States when it comes to Iraq. Although both Washington and Tehran claim to oppose the other, what Iraqis have seen— at least since 2010, but arguably longer— has been the Americans and the Iranians pushing in the same directions: in favor of Maliki against any and all opposition, and against renewed violence. It’s no wonder that many Iraqis believe that either the U.S. does not understand its own interests, or else we are selling them out to the Iranians in return for something that they cannot fathom.