by Graham E. Fuller
Saudi, Israeli and US neoconservative voices warn us tirelessly that Iran’s imperial sway has now come to dominate the governments of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and now Yemen, and still threatens Bahrain.
Analytically speaking such views are not just exaggerated, but misleading and dangerous, and have led to the recrudescence of ugly sectarian politics –Shi’ite vs Sunni—across large parts of the Middle East. As if the region had not already had enough problems—poor economies, poor education, unemployment, lack of rule of law, stifled freedom of the press, and ethnic divides—this new admixture of sectarianism is proving to be particularly virulent. And once unleashed, it is hard to calm.
Let’s just talk for today about Iran’s power in Iraq. The actual political and social dynamic is much more complex and nuanced than “the-Iranians-are-coming” crowd would have it.
First, yes, there is no question, control of state institutions in Iraq have shifted dramatically from hundreds of years of Sunni control to new governance under largely Shi’ite control. Why? The US overthrew Saddam Hussain’s harsh regime and introduced a considerable measure of democratic process into Iraq. When you have elections, majorities win. And the Shi’a represent the clear majority of the Iraqi population. Iran had no role in the ascension of the Shi’a majority to power—the US did—although the Iranian ayatollahs were nonetheless delighted with the outcome.
The Iraqi Shi’a, not surprisingly, are neophytes to national governance and have made a lot of mistakes, particularly in not according to the Sunni minority an equitable stake in the new order. This is understandable, but not acceptable. The Shi’a are determined that their newly-won power not be wrested from their hands by some vengeful Sunni coup or militia force. The fear is not groundless: many Iraqi Sunnis, as well as Sunni regimes in the Gulf, outright question the legitimacy of a Shi’ite government in Iraq; Riyadh has yet to open its embassy there. With Saudi rhetoric slamming Iran for “taking control in Baghdad,” it is little wonder that the Shi’a feel insecure in their new-found power.
That said, Iranian influence in Iraq is indeed quite real. Armed Iraqi groups resisting the American occupation emerged early on under Shi’ite militia leaders who were closely linked to Iran, and who had taken refuge in Iran under Saddam. Unquestionably Iran was keen to support anti-US militias at a time when neoconservative voices in the Bush administration talked about a Phase Two—invading Iran from its bases in Iraq. Tehran will always strenuously oppose any hostile foreign power in neighboring Iraq—an Iranian Monroe Doctrine if you will.
Iran today has senior military advisors closely assisting the Iraqi army, particularly in the struggle against ISIS (the “Islamic state”). The Shi’ite dominated Iraqi government welcomes such support—at least for now while civil conflict still rages on.
Iran has roughly triple the land mass and population of Iraq, a long sea coast, and highly diversified and sophisticated (if lagging) economy; all these factors inevitably exert permanent Iranian influence over Iraq as well.
But let’s not oversimplify. The Shi’a in Iraq now feel existentially threatened by Sunni power (foreign or domestic like ISIS); they of course look to Iran to protect them. But as the Shi’a’s new position in society and governance stabilizes—as it inevitably will with time—then Iraqi Shi’a will not look so heavily to Tehran. Few Iraqi Shi’a want to be under the control of “big brother” Iran if they do not have to.
Furthermore, it would be absurd to think that all Iraqi Shi’a think alike. Some are religious, some are not. Some are more secular-minded and look to Tehran only when they are existentially threatened. Iraqi Shi’a furthermore point out cultural differences between Iraqi and Iranian Shi’ism: Iranian Shi’ism is more “martyr-oriented” in focusing on the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandsons Hasan and Hussain; Iraqi Shi’a are more inclined to focus upon the figure of ‘Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law, as a figure of nobility and love. There are temperamental differences between Iraqi and Iranian Shi’a: Arab culture and language versus Iranian culture and language. The one truly universally recognized Shi’ite religious figure, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, is Iraqi and lives in Iraq. He is no puppet of Iran by any stretch of the imagination. And the holiest Shi’ite sites are in Iraq, not in Iran.
As Iraq slowly stabilizes, Iraqi Shi’a will inevitably push back against excessive Iranian intrusion into their affairs. That hour of predictable friction will likely come sooner rather than later. Iraq is a major center of Arab nationalism and can be so under Shi’a as well. Unhappy Arab Shi’ite minorities down the Gulf are more likely in the future to look to Shi’ite figures in Arab Iraq to speak on their behalf, rather than to Persian Iran. And Iran and Iraq are energy rivals.
Iranians are subtle politicians. They know that they have to tread cautiously in their relations with Iraqi Shi’a and Sunnis if they are to retain their influence there. The last thing Iran wants is a divided Iraq. If Iran is to have influence, it wants to have it in all of Iraq and not just in some Shi’ite rump state.
Iraq of the future will always have to keep a weather eye cocked towards Iran. It is a powerful neighbor in size, geopolitical position and cultural weight. The mixed sectarian and ethnic character of Iraq demands policies that take into account the feelings of all its citizens, Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurd if the state is to be successful.
Like all individuals, Shi’a possess multiple identities—not just simplistically Shi’ite. They have differing regional affiliations, political ideologies, and differing professional and class attachments. If there is no pressing existential crisis, their views will differ on many things, as among Sunnis. This is normal. The tragedy of much of the Middle East today is how war, chaos and violence have created existential crises for all, forcing every group back into its rawest and most elemental communal identity, just to survive. Tribalism everywhere stems from distrust of governmental authority to protect.
So the quicker the toxin of sectarian struggle in the eastern Arab world dissipates, the quicker the identities of all Iraqis will return to more “normal” complexity. And Iran’s influence over Iraqi politics will accordingly diminish as well.
Nothing is written in stone. Iraqi Shi’a will be the first to resent accusations that they are under Iranian control.
Photo: Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf, Iraq
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com. This article was first published by Graham E. Fuller and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright Graham E. Fuller.