Are Iran and Iraq Headed toward Another Conflict?

Protesters in BasraProtesters in Basra

by Shireen T. Hunter   

The latest protests in Iraq have taken a distinctly anti-Iran character, as shown by the attack on Iran’s consulate in Basra. According to reports in Iranian and some Iraqi news outlets, the Iraqi security authorities were lax in preventing the attack. More or less simultaneously, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) targeted the bases of the Iranian Kurdish Democratic Party, which in the last several months had increased its violent activities in the northwestern regions of Iran with large Kurdish populations. The IRGC noted that the attack was a warning to the Iraqi Kurdish government in Erbil to be more diligent in preventing anti-Iran activities conducted at least partly from its territory.

Despite Arab and Western claims—and some Iranian officials’ boasts—that Iraq has become a satrapy of the Islamic Republic, Baghdad was never and will never be a vassal of Tehran. Even from the early days of the post-Saddam era, tensions and rivalries existed between Iran and Iraq at both the governmental level and at the level of their religious establishments. Iran’s influence, to the extent that it existed, was mostly a function of the Sunni Arab government’s shunning Iraq’s Shia-dominated government and its efforts to undermine it.

Meanwhile, the behavior of some Iranian officials and commanders and their comments about Iran’s influence in Iraq helped to undermine Iran’s image and generated resentment among Iraqis. More important, it was obvious from the beginning that once Iraq recovered from its problems, it would assert its national and state identity and try to regain its regional role. Such a development, in turn , was also bound to bring to the fore the competitive aspects of its relations with Iran. Moreover, in the process of redefining and recreating its national and state identity, it was almost inevitable that Iraq , as in the past, would use Iran as the hostile other against whom the Iraqis should define and defend themselves.

This process was in evidence during the latest Iraqi parliamentary elections and even before that, when Muqtada al-Sadr and his communist allies made anti-Iranism a key element in their electoral campaign. Even Iran’s former proteges, such as the Hakim family, now represented by Amar Hakim, did not go as far as Muqtada, but distanced themselves from Tehran. Ayatollah Sistani, despite his Iranian origin, does not approve of the Islamic Republic and has obliquely sided with the anti-Iran trend in Iraqi politics. This also shows that when power and politics are at issue, sectarian affinity counts for little.

However, until the last few weeks, anti-Iran sentiments, speeches, and views had not reached such virulent levels. Now, at least the Basra demonstrators, having forgotten that their fellow Arabs helped the Islamic State and other extremist groups, are blaming Iran for all their problems, from the shortage of electricity to the lack of essential services.

Given the extent of Iranian presence in Iraq, a cooling in the friendship was to be expected, since familiarity often generates contempt, whether justly or unjustly. In fact, a similar process has been happening in Iran where the issue of Iraqi men coming to Iran’s holy cities, especially Mashhad, for the purpose of having easy and temporary relationships with women, possibly through the institution of Sigha (temporary marriage), has become controversial. In other words, a process of mutual disenchantment has set in between the two peoples. The two states’ governments, but especially that of Iran, have blamed recent developments on the enemies of Iran and Iraq wanting to undermine their friendship. Yet, the fact that new currents are animating Iran-Iraq relations cannot be denied.

Nothing specific to Iran-Iraq bilateral relations has occurred in recent months that can justify the recent escalation of tensions. Therefore, part of the explanation lies with regional and international politics, especially the harsher American policy towards Iran and America’s greater determination to eliminate Iran’s influence from any future Iraqi government. The Iranian media and commentators especially focus on this factor. However, similar feelings exist in some Iraqi quarters, especially among groups with close ties to Tehran.

There is also much talk about the role of Saudi Arabia in generating anti-Iran sentiments and even orchestrating the Basra protests. Saudi Arabia , as well as the UAE, has for some time now been trying to coax Iraq into abandoning its ties to Tehran. Saudi Arabia has been eager to establish consulates not only in Basra but also in the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf. In April 2018, it was reported that the Saudi consulate in Basra would reopen soon. This desire per se is quite legitimate, except that Saudi Arabia has been the country most angered by Iran’s enhanced presence in Iraq. Therefore, the idea that it might have encouraged anti-Iran demonstrations should not be dismissed out of hand.

However, the more relevant factor is the increasingly negative American approach to Iran in general and to its presence in Iraq in particular. The Trump administration has said openly that it wants to create turmoil in Iran, hence the increased Kurdish activities inside Iran launched from Iraqi territory. It has also said that it wants to crush Tehran’s regional allies, including those in Iraq. The offices in Basra of all the groups affiliated with or sympathetic to Tehran were also attacked, while those of groups linked to Muqtada al Sadr and Haidar Al Ebadi remained safe. Some Iranian commentators have warned that the Basra violence could reach Iran’s port cities of Khorramshahr and Abadan, which are close to the Iraqi city. They have warned this might in fact be the intention of some states. In that case, Iran might be forced to intervene, which in turn could provide an excuse for Arab states, and possibly America, to attack Iran.

Such comments might be the product of an overanxious mind. However, increased political turmoil in Iraq with its strong anti-Iran dimensions has a real potential to degenerate into a much more serious conflict between Tehran and Baghdad. This time around, such a conflict could turn into a full-scale regional war as well as plunge Iraq again into civil war. The latter could happen even if a regional war is avoided.

Yet, despite the mutual disenchantment that hangs over Baghdad-Tehran relations, the two states and peoples have a lot of interests in common. More important, despite its tarnished image, Iran still has significant constituencies in Iraq. Thus it would be better for all concerned to work towards a modus vivendi structured around a functioning and independent Iraqi government at peace with all its neighbors, rather than trying to set up an anti-Iran government in Baghdad. Iran must meanwhile recognize the limits of its own power and influence, especially in the Arab world, and adopt a policy that serves its own national interests. The Basra events are a wakeup call for Tehran to abandon its Arabian illusions.

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Shireen Hunter

Shireen T. Hunter is a Research Professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. Her latest publication is God On Our Side: Religion, Foreign Policy and International Affairs (Rowman & Littlefield, December 2016).

SHOW 6 COMMENTS

6 Comments

  1. There is a big difference between saying that Iran has a lot in common with Iraq, and that the Ayatollahs have a lot in common with certain Shi’ite factions in Iraq.

    There is obviously in Iran a devout Shia following. But they are not on the same wavelength as the fanatic Ayatollahs. The Ayatollahs have a totally different agenda which we all know about.

    It is very important to use the correct phrases Shireen. Don’t just say Iran. For most of your article you should have said the Ayatollah regime not Iran. Big difference.

  2. The spark that created the protest / riots / consulate attacks was when Iraq stopped paying Iran for electricity service to Basra and Iran finally suspended the service.

    Hmm …. what happened about that time? That was also when the U.S. twisted Iraq’s arm into joining our sanctions regime against Iran. Iraq is our colony, not Iran’s. We most likely threatened Iraq with sanctions and suspension of whatever military aid we give them. I doubt (and certainly hope) that we didn’t tacitly threaten them with our military presence.

  3. Watching the dramatic shifts in core identity in Iraq since 1958 has been fascinating. The dynamic interplay of very competing yet overlapping influences has been like a pendulum. The shifting of central identity between Iraqi nationalism, Arab/Kurdish ethnicity, theocratic Islamic sects, tribal loyalties, keeps shifting in emphasis. These changes are no small subject – millions have died or made homeless as a result. The unique result of thousands of years of conflict and interaction we in the US have little awareness of or ability to relate.

  4. Iran has threatened to stop electricity in 2019 because of domestic needs

  5. Both Iran and Iraq are majority Shia countries, Shias are the minorities in the western Asia. Weather Ms. Hunter likes or not only due to a common protection and security need facing the majority and more wealthy Sunnis, these Shia countries and communities need and will stick together to protect themselves against the ideologically hostile majority. This was the reason Iran rush to help and stop ISIS in Iraq before any other country. As we written here before Ms. Hunter is not an honest analyst geopolitics of Iran, her analyses are just another state prescribed propaganda. Simply in any community including ants, like it or not, the minorities form alliance due to common security need, there is nothing US or KSA or Israel can do to change this fact. Brits tried to control the southern Iraq back in invasion of Iraq in 2003 they failed miserably. Iran didn’t and wouldn’t need to do anything to have Iraqis as allies, same is true for Iraq or Hezbollah, or even Houthis they all need and share the same common security need against the majority .Ms. Hunter is time to tell the truth like it is.

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