Leaks of Iran influence no surprise to Iraqis

Ground-breaking disclosures of secret intelligence reports within the Iranian government revealed how Iran controls much of the Iraqi government since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Thursday 21/11/2019
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, reviews armed forces with Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, during a ceremony at Iran's Air Defense Academy, in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019. (AFP)
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, reviews armed forces with Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, during a ceremony at Iran's Air Defense Academy, in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019. (AFP)

LONDON - Ground-breaking disclosures of secret intelligence reports within the Iranian government revealed how Iran controls much of the Iraqi government since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Official documents from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security were published by the Intercept, an online news publication, which collaborated with the New York Times on reporting the information. However, exposure of such Iranian activities did not come as a surprise to many Iraqis.

Aside from protesting against chronic corruption, unemployment and lack of basic services, the demonstrations in Iraq have had a heavy focus on ending Iranian influence in Iraq. Chants such as “Iran out, out! Iraq will remain free,” have frequently been used.

During his reign, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein did everything in his power to prevent Iranian influence in Iraq, particularly following Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1979 Islamic Revolution when Khomeini sought to export the revolution globally.

The threat of Islamic Revolution spreading to Iraq provided Saddam with pretext for initiating a war, which lasted for eight years. Saddam also sought to annex Iran’s Khuzestan province, which is mostly inhabited by ethnic Arabs.

Iran’s hostile behaviour since 1979 played a significant role in the United States’ decision to support Iraq during the war with Iran.

From Saddam’s perspective, Iraqi troops prevented Iranian hostility, safeguarded the Arab population of the Middle East who were at risk of Khomeini’s revolution and prevented a Kurdish rebellion and partition in the north.

Until Saddam’s downfall, Iran-Iraq relations improved significantly, particularly after US influence in Iraq deteriorated following the departure of US troops in 2011. In post-Saddam Iraq, Iran had several objectives it sought to achieve and Tehran held a secure grasp over Iraq.

The first objective for Iran was making sure that Iraq would never use its military strength to threaten Iran again. Widespread corruption following the downfall of the Ba’ath Party regime contributed to ensuring a weak Iraqi Army.

A second aim was ensuring that Iran safeguarded a Shia-controlled, fragile and splintered Iraqi government that would be welcoming towards Iran and back Tehran’s foreign policy aims.

The fall of Saddam’s regime in 2003 and the rise of pro-Iranian Shia factions -- Islamic Da’wa Party and Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq -- within the muhasasa taifa (sectarian appointment system) led to the stabilisation of relations between the two countries. In 2010, Iran and Iraq signed more than 100 economic and cooperation deals.

To protect Shia supremacy of Iraq’s political system, Iran pursed strategies pushing for unity among Iraq’s Shia parties, encouraging the parties to run as a single coalition during elections, strengthening sectarian identity politics and endorsing a political process separated along sectarian lines. Iran nurtured close ties with a range of Kurdish, Shia and Sunni political groups to guarantee it remained the key powerbroker in Iraqi politics.

Iran’s third aim was to divert Western and Turkish influence in Iraq. Countering the influence of regional Sunni Arab countries has been crucial for Iran. The permanent withdrawal of US troops was the first step towards achieving that goal.

Iran also sought to ensure that Iraq would become a key base for transmitting influence in the region. A welcoming Iraq was a significant part of the Iran-led “axis of resistance,” traditionally consisting of Lebanese Hezbollah, the Syrian regime and Palestinian faction Hamas. Increasing ambiguity over the future of the Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime and the evident divide between Hamas and Tehran made Iraq a crucial asset and Iranian gateway in the area.

While those aims drove Iranian participation in Iraq, the objectives fuelled political and economic instability.

Farmers, particularly in southern Iraq, suffered tremendously because of Iranian influence in Iraq. However, Iran is not entirely to blame for Iraq’s economic instability or its agricultural production.

The post-2003 Iraqi government failed to manage Iraq’s water crisis, which led to issues concerning safe and efficient irrigation. Water flow in Iraq is too low or the water too saline to ensure the production of vegetables, such as tomatoes, which in recent years faced what was termed a “tomato disaster.”

Iranian influence has done more damage than good in Iraq. Religious parties, mainly backed by Iran, have led the political sphere and although oil-rich Iraq has an income of hundreds of billions of dollars, the truth for many Iraqi citizens is that their lives have become similar with life in poverty-stricken Arab countries: unemployment, a deteriorating health-care system and limited services.

For Iraq to fully regain its independence from regional as well as external powers, it needs a transition of government once more. The type of transition should be one that is not based on ethnic and sectarian identities, in which one sect gains leverage over the other.

Could a new military ruler be the answer to bringing an end to Iraq’s woes? Recent media reports demonstrated that this is exactly what the Iraqi population is calling for.