Rolling Back Iranian Influence Begins in Baghdad

by Karim Elkady

The United States does not have a strategy for containing Iran’s destabilizing behavior in the Middle East. During his last trip to Baghdad, on March 7, 2018, Iranian Vice-President Es’hagh Jahangiri promised the Iraqi government a USD 3 billion credit line from the Islamic Republic of Iran to help finance Iraq’s reconstruction efforts. He also expressed Iran’s desire to improve connectivity with Iraq through a 30-km railroad and a bridge to the Iranian highway system. Surprisingly, the United States did not offer Iraq any financial support at Iraq’s Donors Conference that took place in February in Kuwait. Other than a few pledges from the Gulf States, the international community offered only minimal financial support to the Iraqi government.

If the Trump Administration is serious about rolling back Iranian influence in the Middle East, it will have to do much better than this. Thus far, U.S. President Donald J. Trump has offered strong rhetoric against Iran, and threatened to terminate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—the nuclear deal negotiated by his predecessor. Nonetheless, his administration overlooks Iraq’s centrality to Iran. Considering its regional weight and natural resources, Iraq should be at the forefront of America’s strategy for rolling back Iran’s influence. Without Iraq, the Islamic Republic loses significant access to the heart of the Middle East.

Iraq’s Centrality to Iran’s Regional Ambition

Iraq is key to Iran’s ambitions: it is the largest and only Shi’a majority Arab country with a population of close to 40 million people. Iraq is also home to the holiest spiritual sites of Shi’a Islam. The annual trade between the two countries exceeds $12 billion. Moreover, Iraq is the fourth-largest crude oil producer in the world. Because of their long shared border, Iraq is Iran’s territorial gateway into neighboring Arab countries. In other words, it is the center stage from which Iran projects its power. Iran sends militias – the Islamic Republic’s centerpiece instrument of power projection – into and through Iraq to Syria and other parts of the region.

While Iran draws strength from these strategic ties to Iraq, they can also be a source of vulnerability. If the United States can shake Iraq loose from Iran’s orbit and reverse the trend of increasing Iranian influence in Iraq, then the Islamic Republic will lose a critical ally and its influence in the region will significantly decline.

A Bulwark Against Iranian Influence

The idea of a bulwark state is not novel to the United States. Washington has in the past supported allies that protected strategic areas from hostile powers. West Germany was a bulwark against the spread of Soviet influence in Western Europe. South Korea played the same role in East Asia. Iraq itself was the Arab states’ bulwark against the spread of the Iranian Revolution into the Arab World. Hence, there is precedent for reshaping the United States’ relationship with Iraq in this model.

Equally important is that the Iraqis themselves want to curtail Iranian influence in their country. After all, the Iraq-Iran War was about containing the Iranian Revolution and Iraq’s Shi’a majority represented the rank and file of this fight. Many of Iraq’s Shi’a also rejected the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq Party after the U.S. invasion in 2003 because this party fought alongside Iran during the Iraq-Iran war. Moreover, Iraq’s religious Hawza, a very important religious institution to the Shi’a population, does not adhere to similar concepts as the Iranian Hawza in Qom, especially the Valyet El-Faqih concept. Indeed, Iraq’s Hawza under Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s leadership still maintains its independence and resists Iranian attempts to control it. Finally, Iraq is a bastion of Arab nationalism with an Arab-majority population. There are political forces within the Shi’a and Sunni communities, which still believe in Iraq’s Arab identity as a heritage, and resist Iranian interference in Iraq’s politics on this ground.

All of the above represent opportunities that the United States can make use of by engaging with particular Iraqi political forces in a long-term effort to remove Iraq from its current position as an Iranian bridge into the Middle East and to transform it into a bulwark against Tehran’s negative influence.

What Can the United States Do?

To recapture Iraq from Iran’s grip, the United States would have to work on three levels. All of these require partnerships with Iraq’s political forces, regional states, and international partners.

On the level of Iraqi domestic politics, the United States already has partners in Iraq who demand more U.S. involvement, and prefer American engagement in Iraqi politics to Iranian influence. Ayad Allawi, Iraq’s vice president and the leader of the National Accord, is one of those reliable friends of the United States. His coalition is not religious, unlike most of Iraq’s Shi’a political forces; it espouses non-sectarian policies, opposes Iranian influence, and integrates Shi’as and Sunnis in a single electoral bloc. Moreover, Allawi enjoys positive relations with Iraq’s Arab tribes, former Baath party members and Iraq’s Arab neighbors. More importantly, his coalition won the parliamentary elections in 2010, which means that his political bloc is relatively popular and has grass root connections.

The two main Kurdish political parties (the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) are also reliable partners of America, though the September Kurdish referendum has caused a rift between the Kurdish Democratic Party and the United States. But the United States could overcome this rift. The Kurds still need American guarantees to protect their autonomy, as well as assistance to fight ISIS. The two Kurdish political parties have overtly supported the American intervention in Iraq in 2003.

The Shi’a religious leaders of Iraq’s Hawza, with their weighty influence in Iraq’s politics, could potentially welcome American engagement if it helps build a buffer against Iranian interference, protects Iraq from terrorism, and promises financial support. As for the Arab tribes in the Sunni governorates, the United States still has an opportunity to work with them if it is willing to invest resources, build on an existing counterterrorism presence, and cultivate relationships as during the surge in 2007.

At a regional level, through more diplomatic and intelligence-sharing initiatives, the United States can take advantage of the efforts of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Egypt, and Jordan to contain Iran. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates all pledged USD 1 billion each to Iraq at the Donors Conference, but that sum pales in comparison with what Iraq needs to reconstruct the country and to free it from Iran’s orbit. Egypt could use its state reconstruction capacities to work in Sunni areas damaged by the war with ISIS and the earlier U.S. invasion. Jordan could leverage its influence with Arab tribes in western Iraq to persuade them to support the United States and a non-sectarian Iraqi government. The United States could spearhead these unified efforts the same way it did after World War II, when it led the rapprochement between West Germany and the Western European countries, especially France.

At the international level, building on NATO’s presence in Iraq, the United States could lead its European allies and Asian partners to invest in Iraq and ask the United Nations for more political involvement in Iraq’s politics. The United States has the latent capabilities to achieve these goals, but requires more focused diplomatic attention to make headway.

Through diplomatic, intelligence, and economic efforts, the United States can guide Iraq away from the Iranian orbit. This would be a long-term but low-cost strategy, especially when compared with a U.S. military escalation in the region. The good news is that pivotal states in the region are already demanding it, and most importantly some of Iraq’s major political forces demand it, too. The United States can realize the critical objective of bottling-up Iranian power by working closely with its partners in Iraq and throughout the region.

Dr. Karim Elkady is a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies.

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