About that Iranian Influence in Iraq

When the Wikileaks document dump came out, many hawks and anti-Iran agitators grumbled that the document “proved” Iran’s nefarious influence in Iraq. I wrote, twice, about the lack of caution in these assessments, based mostly on anonymous conclusions and single-source reports.

Well, now the deputy commander of U.S. operations in Iraq is telling us that Iranian influence appears to be waning and not scaling up, contrary to what Iran hawks would have you believe.

Then today, the New York Times reported on the early stages of a deal to end the impasse on forming a new Iraqi government. And — surprise! — the supposed agent of Iranian influence in process, the paradoxically nativist cleric Muqtada al Sadr, has an “unclear…role” in the formation of a coalition to run government. The hawks’ earlier consternation was based on Sadr’s residence in the Iranian holy city of Qom. Soon-to-be prime minister again Nouri al Maliki’s men visited Sadr there to try to gain the cleric’s support for the government.

But, first, the U.S. brass in Iraq, via AFP (with my emphasis):

A top US military officer said Monday that Iran’s influence has waned in neighboring Iraq, where prolonged negotiations have struggled to decide on a new government.

“Probably in the last couple months, in this period of government formation, I think that we think that the Iranian influence has diminished somewhat,” said Lieutenant General Robert Cone, the deputy commander of US operations in Iraq.

Cone gave a nuanced take on the role of Iran, which is a sworn foe of the United States but also strongly opposed Saddam Hussein’s regime.

We see all sorts of Iranian influence — some of it positive, in fact,” Cone told reporters in Washington by video-link.

We believe some of it (is) negative, although it’s very difficult to attribute that to the Iranian government,” he said, explaining that weapons heading across the border could come from non-government players.

So that’s that, for now at least, as it seems to always be in Iraq.

Then there’s the coalition wrangling. Remember there was much concern among Iran hawks that Sadr, a Shia anti-American firebrand who was forced into exile during the late stages of the civil war, became a person of interest when it appeared he might be playing kingmaker for the coalition. A bloc with his blessing was likely to be even more staunchly sectarian than his fellow Shia Maliki would be on his own.

But now the Times reports that, far from a clear kingmaker, Sadr’s role is “unclear”:

Also unclear is the role for the bloc led by the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr, whose surprise support for Mr. Maliki all but ensured the prime minister a second term. The broader alliance among parties and sects proposed by the United States was intended to minimize the influence of the Sadrists.

For the moment, it seems the new government will have the support of other sectarian and ethnic groups. The Kurds will retain their seat as president (which they were set to reluctantly do anyway, even with Sadr in the mix). And it appears that even the leader of Iraq’s most prominent Sunni bloc, Ayad Allawi, will have a place in government.

The Times again:

The deal late on Wednesday ensured, for now at least, the participation of Sunni Arabs, who supported the bloc led by Mr. Maliki’s chief rival, Ayad Allawi, which narrowly won the most seats in elections in March. The deal was struck when Mr. Allawi’s group relented and agreed to join the new government, said Jaber al-Jaberi, one of Mr. Allawi’s chief allies, despite months of adamantly insisting it would never do so.

In exchange, Mr. Allawi’s bloc, called Iraqiya, was given the position of speaker of the Parliament as well as leadership of a newly created committee overseeing national security, officials from three factions said. The creation of the committee was a compromise pushed by the Obama administration to ensure the participation of Sunnis, Iraq’s former rulers, who have been underrepresented in the Iraqi government since the American invasion.

So if the Iranians are, as hawks allege, trying to make a power play in Iraq using Sadr to ensure across-the-board Shia dominance, they seem to be doing an exceedingly poor job of it.

And that’s that, for now at least, as it always seems to be in Iraq.

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.