Obstacles to Iranian influence in Iraq: Shi'i leaders' pattern of oscillation and Turkey's increasing footprint

As the US prepares to withdraw a number of factors may frustrate Iranian ambitions in Iraq. Iraq's Shi'i leaders conduct and Ankara's expanding role is slated to serve as a counterweight to Iranian influence.
Rachel Kantz Feder
1 July 2011

In light of the contentious impending US troop withdrawal, the political stasis and resurgent sectarian violence, and the reverberations from the Arab Spring, Iraq's political and economic landscape merit some attention. In such a discussion it is difficult to evade the question of Iran's ubiquitous influence in Iraq. Of course, perception of Iran's omnipresence enters – and often frames –debate on many current trouble spots in the region.  From the fear of a political and security vacuum in a post-US Iraq beset by the spectre of ethno-sectarian conflict, to Tehran's vital support for a plethora of political and military organisations, Iran's role in Iraq certainly looms large.

Iran is profoundly entrenched in Iraqi politics, economy, and society and enjoys an unprecedented degree of leverage in Iraqi affairs. This is indisputable. Tehran cultivates its reach and promotes its interests through aggressive economic penetration, co-optation of political and military groups (not exclusively Shi'i ones), and deep religious and cultural ties, to name only the primary conduits. Nevertheless, there are numerous factors that complicate Tehran's designs and problematize the narrative of Iran's hegemony in Iraq. In addition to intra-Shi'i divisions and internecine struggle among the communities that errantly are referred to as the monolithic "the Shia of Iraq," two other factors form a counterweight to Iranian dominion: Shi'i leaders' oscillation between cooperation with and defiance of Iran; and Turkey's rapid ascendance and commitment to rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure and economy.

Since 2003, Iraqi Shi'i leaders have adopted positions independent of Tehran's directives repeatedly reaffirming that they are not beholden to Iran as the narrative goes. Rather, they are in a continuous process of evaluating their relations with Iran vis-à-vis domestic political conditions and sometimes material constraints. The need for political, military, and tribal leaders to safeguard and advance their organization's status has produced a pattern that betrays raw survival tactics and calculated opportunism.

For example, although the southern Shi'i tribes are known to be fiercely anti-Iranian and are commonly perceived as bastions of Iraqi nationalism, in the absence of economic opportunity, many tribesmen participate in the industry of cross-border smuggling with Iran. According to security analysts, the paucity of resources and employment has fuelled acute despondency, which in extreme cases even has driven Shi'is to cooperate with al-Qaeda in attacks against their coreligionists for financial reward.

On the political level, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Muqtada al-Sadr's conduct embodies a trend whereby political expedience requires Shi'i leaders to lean on Iran for backing only to later defy Iranian interests when they return to a position of strength. Many observers regard any cooperation with Iran as proof of Tehran's control over Iraqi leaders. However, while acknowledging the success of active Iranian manoeuvring, the relationship is better understood as more of a two-way street. This nuanced take highlights the agency of Iraqi leaders who invite Iranian aid and comply with Tehran's wishes when it is politically suitable for them. The past eight years of intra-Shi'i struggle and sectarian conflict has resulted in this pattern, and the last few weeks in particular have witnessed interesting developments in this regard.  

Al-Maliki has a history of acrimonious relations with Iran dating back to his al-Dawa party's years in exile. He and other activists recall the days in which Tehran was far from hospitable to those who did not endorse Ayatollah Khomeni's concept of vilayet-i faqih (clerical rule) government and did not acquiesce to Iran's effort to dominate the Iraqi opposition against Saddam Hussein. Since al-Maliki assumed the premiership in 2006, he has resisted Iranian dictates, while instrumentally reminding his detractors in Baghdad that Tehran can act as his powerful and willing at his behest. He blatantly disregarded Tehran's wishes ahead of the 2009 provincial elections when he casted himself as a staunch Iraqi nationalist and established the State of Law bloc instead of running under the Iranian-backed Shi'i umbrella list. Al-Maliki correctly understood that Iraqis sought leadership that would not be subservient to Tehran's will.  Still, in the nine-month post-election stalemate, al-Maliki accepted Iran's offer to assist in coalition-building negotiations.

Recently, rising popular discontent with the government's egregious inefficiencies, political paralysis, and the divisive issue of continued US presence in Iraq have combined to weaken al-Maliki and push Iraq to the precipice. He has allegedly even lost backing within his own party. To make matters worse, following Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's call to improve state services, slash top officials' salaries, and eliminate superfluous positions that inflate the government, Adil Abd al-Mahdi of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq Party resigned at the end of May.  Abd al-Mahdi's resignation further increased the pressure on al-Maliki, embarrassing him for the lack of progress achieved during his stewardship, and highlighting Ayatollah Sistani's criticism of his performance.

The next week, al-Maliki and his al-Dawa party decided to submit to the religious authority of Grand Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi Shahroudi, who served as Iran's Chief Justice for a decade and was even rumored to be the successor of Iran's Supreme Leader. Ayatollah Shahroudi, an Iraqi-born cleric of Iranian origin, studied in Najaf until he was forced to flee to Iran after his mentor, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr's execution in 1980. He embraced Khomeini's revolutionary clerical rule early on and showed unrelenting support for the regime, placing him at odds with some leaders and members of  al-Dawa during their exile. Al-Dawa's preference for Ayatollah Shahroudi as their marja al-taqlid (source of emulation for religious guidance) instead of deferring to Ayatollah Sistani is telling. Ayatollah Sistani, who the same week refused to receive the Iranian ambassador, leads Iraq's religious establishment and enjoys the greatest religious following worldwide.

While the choice to follow Ayatollah Shahroudi was perhaps long in the making, it is the timing of this decision that’s most instructive. Since Grand Ayatollah Fadhlallah – a Lebanese cleric who rejected Iran's strain of vilayet-i-faqih (which in theory obliges all Shi'is to submit to Iranian clerical supremacy) - died nearly a year ago, al-Dawa has refrained from choosing a replacement ostensibly due to both the political implications that could result from selecting a religious authority in Iraq's turbulent political atmosphere and the challenge that it poses for party internal cohesion. Evidently, as al-Maliki found himself increasingly embattled and isolated by the day, he made an overture to Tehran and moved distinctly closer to – if not firmly within – Iran's orbit.

If al-Maliki recently deemed it prudent to turn to Iran during a low political point, then the leader of the heavyweight Sadr-ist trend, Muqtada al-Sadr, has been emboldened by his political ascendance and freely lashed out against Iran last week. Although al-Sadr's militia, Jaysh al-Mahdi, allegedly receives extensive financial support and training from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), al-Sadr has been scathingly critical of Iranian interference in Iraq for some time. He has employed anti-Iranian rhetoric and emphatically insisted upon Iraq's independence from all outside forces. When al-Sadr and his forces suffered stinging blows during his confrontation with al-Maliki in 2008 in the battle for Basra, he adopted language that was more in line with Iranian positions, but did not endanger his image as a warrior of Iraqi independence. Around a year ago he protested Iranian meddling and even threatened to relocate from the religious seminaries of Qom where he began his pursuit of religious studies and ostensibly sought refuge from American attacks in 2007. Thus, despite his aversion to Iranian influence in Iraq, he has been willing to cooperate with Tehran and accept its aid.

On June 20th, after Hassan Danai'far, the Iranian ambassador to Iraq and an IRGG commander of the Quds Force, announced to the Iraqi media that Iran would respond with force to any attack from Iraqi soil, Muqtada al-Sadr immediately rebuked his threat. He emphatically rejected the ambassador's remarks and warned that "we will not allow this to happen even if it is the occupiers who are targeted". Other senior members of the Sadr-ist trend reiterated that they are first and foremost concerned with Iraqi national interests and will not permit any country to settle scores in Iraq. al-Sadr's vehement condemnation of any Iranian attack on Iraqi soil came as a surprise to many observers, but once considered in the pattern of oscillation between cooperation with and defiance of Iran according to domestic political strength it should not stand out as a striking reaction.

Grand Ayatollah Sistani is perhaps one of the few Shi'i leaders who do not constantly re-evaluate his relations with Iran according to this pattern. Both his independence from the state and his choice to remain above the fray of everyday politics have afforded him the ability to maintain value-driven stances on critical issues that Iraqis face. Ayatollah Sistani –a passive opponent of the Iranian model of clerical involvement in politics – has adopted stances that are reflective of ‘Iraq-first’ nationalism, and has served as a unifying and democratic force in Iraq's pursuit of self-determinationSince 2003, his critical interventions in the state-building and peace-building processes have demonstrated his principled commitment to a democratic and constitutional system. Wikileaks documents revealed the extent to which he purportedly has toiled to thwart Iranian infiltration of Najaf's religious establishment and check Tehran's machinations to sway the Iraqi political process at various junctures. His freedom from domestic political constraints has exempted him from the oscillation pattern and allowed him to consistently counter Iranian objectives in Iraq.

Finally, Turkey's rapid economic rise in Iraq – and declared aspiration to assume a major role in Iraq's reconstruction and infrastructural development – constitute another compelling factor that curbs Iranian influence. In the past two years Ankara has increased its trade volume with Iraq by almost 70%, placing Turkey not too far behind Iran as Iraq's number one trade partner.

While Turkey is heavily invested in industry and trade in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, it has also significantly expanded into most Iraqi provinces, where Turkish goods now rival Iranian products.

 In 2009, with the aim of stimulating investment, Turkey opened a consulate in Basra, which is a major hub of Iran's commercial trade with Iraq, and had not witnessed economic competition of this calibre until Ankara came along. The Turkish government and Turkish companies and investors are deeply involved in pivotal components of Iraq's reconstruction effort. Turkish players are spearheading oil, gas, and electricity projects, housing developments, and major building projects such as new airports, malls, and stadiums.

Turkish cultural and political influences seep into Iraq alongside this booming economic collaboration. Ankara has cultivated relations with all of Iraq's political forces and factions. This past March, the fertile Iraqi ground for Turkish influence was underscored by President Recep Tayyib Erdogan's landmark visit to Iraq in which he was accompanied by an entourage of around 100 entrepreneurs and officials. If President Erdogan's reception by Kurdish leader Mas’ud Barzani (the Turkish military establishment's historic nemesis) was not historic enough, President Erdogan also became the first foreign Sunni political leader to meet with Ayatollah Sistani.

Whereas Saudi Arabia and Iran may continue to vie for hegemony in hot-spots such as Bahrain, Ankara may be replacing Riyadh as Iran's primary local contender for influence in Iraq. The added dimension of Turkish influence in Iraq poses an interesting prospect that may be palatable to major foreign actors in a post-US presence Iraq. As the American administration devises its exit strategy – irrespective of whether that takes place beyond the scheduled end of 2011 deadline – it may regard Turkey's rising role in Iraq as an attractive alternative to Iranian influence and breathe easier upon its withdrawal.  

When push comes to shove the Saudis, whose influence has waned in Iraq since the height of sectarian violence in 2006-2007, may also be more amenable to Turkey's role as opposed to Iran's. As for Iran, Iraq is a central component in its foreign policy and regional ambitions. Therefore while Tehran will be relieved to see the US out of its backyard, it may not be thrilled with Turkey's new assertive position in Iraq.  Furthermore, their clashing hegemonic aspirations in the region may set the two regional powers on a collision course further down the line. Still, Tehran may be more comfortable with Turkey as opposed to Saudi Arabia, which has been its major ideological and political rival since the Islamic Revolution.

 Whether the Turkish dimension in Iraq is contested or embraced by these various actors, it is evident that the Turkish rise is slated to serve as a critical counterweight to Iranian influence. The Turkish factor combined with widespread Iraqi anti-Iranian sentiment, Ayatollah Sistani's determination to keep Iran at bay, and Shi'i leaders' oscillation pattern all complicate the partial reality and narrative of Iranian dominion in Iraq, and most likely in a post-US Iraq.

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