Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies


Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies


Article excerpt

American policy toward Iraq altered profoundly with the inauguration of Barack Obama. US officials, including the president, often repeated that America's goal was to "end the war" and promised to abide by the December 2011 deadline to remove all US forces from Iraq--despite the fact that both US and Iraqi leaders who had signed the agreement including that commitment had expected it to be renegotiated. The extremely activist role the United States had played, for good or ill, in Iraqi politics under President George W. Bush was replaced by a much more passive and hands-off approach under President Obama. For all of these reasons, and, perhaps even more because of the rapid reductions in US military presence in Iraq after 2009, US influence in Iraq steadily waned, Iran's steadily grew, and the scope for Iraq's leadership to balance between the two was constrained. Iraq today is not an Iranian puppet by any means, and the same resentments that have always clouded relations between these two neighbors remain latent and powerful. But for now, Tehran appears to hold most of the cards, and the Iraqis have long shown themselves to be adept at adjusting to realities.

Review of Iranian Objectives in Iraq

Iran has had a number of enduring objectives in a post--Saddam Hussein Iraq. First and foremost, Iran seeks to ensure that Iraq never again poses the military threat it had for decades under Hussein. As a second and related objective, Iran seeks to maintain a Shi'a-dominated, weak, and fractured Iraqi government that will be friendly toward Iran and generally support Tehran's foreign policy objectives in the region. To maintain Shi'a dominance of Iraq's political system, Iran has pursued sectarian strategies in Iraq promoting unity among Iraq's Shi'a political groups, including funding Shi'a parties, encouraging them to run as a single coalition during past elections, stoking sectarian identity politics, and promoting a political process polarized along sectarian lines. Iran has also fostered ties with a number of Shi'a, Kurdish, and Sunni political groups to ensure it remains the major powerbroker within Iraqi politics even outside the Shi'a Arab realm.

Iran's third main objective is to counter the influence of Western, Turkish, and regional Sunni Arab states in Iraq--first and foremost by ensuring that all US military forces withdrew from Iraq permanently. Iraq is an important front in the broader regional sectarian competition. The presence of US forces in Iraq presented a threat to Iran, which feared that Iraq would be a staging ground for an American attack. Iran sought to expel the US presence from Iraq by attacking American troops and diplomats via its armed proxies and by pressuring Iraqi politicians not to extend the American presence. Even after the departure of US forces from Iraq, however, Iran has continued to maintain its support for armed militant groups to influence Iraqi politics and as a means to retaliate against other adverse developments in Iraq or the region.

Finally, Iran seeks to ensure that Iraq is a base for projecting influence in the region. A friendly Iraq is an important part of the Iranian-led "axis of resistance," historically comprised of Lebanese Hezbollah, Syria, and Hamas. Growing uncertainty over the future of the Assad regime in Syria and the apparent split between Hamas and Tehran makes Iraq even more important as an Iranian gateway to the region. As it is a large market for licit and illicit trade, Iraq may provide Iran an opportunity to evade the increasingly harsh international sanctions regime and continue financing regional groups.

These broad objectives drove Iranian involvement in Iraq from 2008 to 2011. Iran currently pursues a policy that generates instability in Iraq and undermines Iraq's political and economic development. Iran's IRGC Quds Force, under the command of Major General Qassem Suleimani, controls its Iraq policy. Suleimani reports directly to Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei and also directs Quds Force activities in the Levant, Gaza Strip, Bahrain, and Afghanistan. …

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