In yesterday’s Daily Talking Points we covered Michael Hanna‘s Atlantic piece about how the U.S. tends to exaggerate Iranian influence in Iraqi electoral politics. Indeed, with Iran-based Muqtada al-Sadr throwing his support behind Nuri al-Maliki recently, there have been a lot of neocon hysterics about the role that Iran played.
Instead of tendentious conclusions that would, for the most part, support escalating measure against Iran, Hanna actually looks at the Iraqi political machinations that have resulted in an apparent second term as prime minister for Maliki.
After that, he offers reasons why — both on the left and the right — the U.S. view of these political maneuvers tends to see out-sized U.S. influence. It’s got little to with Iraq or Iran, actually. It’s all about electoral politics in the U.S. And here’s the rub: The hyperventilating is actually bad for Iraq and, therefore, bad for U.S. interests there.
Our perception of Iran as the puppet master of Baghdad is rooted in decades of enmity between the U.S. and Iran, which continue today. Also, Iran’s broad support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and its monetary support for Hamas in Gaza makes it easy to imagine Iran replicating this strategy in Iraq. But the biggest factor in our willingness to see exaggerated Iranian influence in Iraq is something much simpler: partisan U.S. politics. For years, both parties have exaggerated Iran’s role to score political points. Iran hawks on the right have done so to bolster their case for greater U.S. hostility to the perceived Iranian menace. During the 2008 presidential primaries and general election, Republicans also used the threat of Iranian encroachment to argue against any drawdown in Iraq. Today, they maintain this line in attacking President Barack Obama’s Iraq policies as strengthening Iran. Meanwhile, voices on the left have, since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, latched onto to the notion of an unstoppable Iran expanding its influence throughout the region. This extension of the recriminations against the Iraq war, much like the conservative criticism of Obama, is an effort to further discredit President George W. Bush’s invasion by accusing him of ceding Iraq to Iran. This distortion on both sides is unfortunate because it paints Iraq as a mere prop for the purpose of polemics and because it is unmoored from the more prosaic reality of contemporary Iraq.
It is true that the toppling of Saddam Hussein was a strategic windfall for the Islamic Republic, but it has not allowed Iran to dictate Iraq’s agenda. Iraqi nationalism and suspicion of Iranian intentions, nearly universal in Iraq, simply do not allow for the kind of Iranian power one hears about in the U.S. While Maliki and Sadr’s ascent in Baghdad are in line with the Iranian desire for Shiite Islamist supremacy, their rise is a reflection of Iraq’s demography and politics. Of course a Shiite-majority, Islamist-leaning country will elect a Shiite-majority, Islamist-leaning government. Unfortunately, this is how democracy works in a war-scarred country where ethno-sectarian identity remains stubbornly vital to political affiliation. Sadr’s political participation, though it may make Iraq less likely to follow every American interest, is simply a reflection of the realities of Iraq’s nascent, flawed democracy.
Vilifying and exaggerating Iran’s role in Iraq will cloud U.S. perception of both countries and runs the danger of contributing to the formulation of bad policy. Simplistic notions of Iranian hegemony will poison U.S.-Iraqi bilateral relations, with each development judged in blunt zero-sum terms of whether it benefits the U.S. or Iran. In assuming such inherent conflict, the U.S. will be tempted to try to use Iraq as an American proxy in a broader struggle against Iran. This would serve no useful purpose; why wage a proxy war where none exists? Worse, it would weaken Iraq and enable the very Iranian influence we are so afraid of. In fact, American and Iranian long-term interests converge in Baghdad to a great extent. At root, both countries need a stable Iraq.
While still dependent to a large degree on outside assistance, thus prone to interference and meddling, Iraqis are not interested in being a puppet of either the U.S. or Iran. Pushing a proxy conflict and asking Iraq to be a front-line pillar in the wider regional struggle against Tehran would subordinate Iraqi interests to those of United States, alienate Iraqis, and potentially undermine Iraq’s relative stability.