Author: Dr. Mustafa Alani
Director, Security and Terrorism Program
Gulf Research Center
(Contact details of Dr Mustafa Alani is available to registered journalists)
Iran’s interventionist policy in Iraq has a long history. Tehran’s objective to influence developments in Iraq is motivated by a number of strategic factors, as well as cultural and religious interests. The most important factor is that the history of the two nations has been characterized by a near permanent state of rivalry and political-military conflict.
In terms of the cultural, religious and ethnic dimensions, Iraq represents the outer perimeter and the final frontiers of the Arab nation and culture confronting the Persian nation and culture. From a cultural, religious and ethnic dimension, Iraq represents a perfect setting for Arab-Persian confrontation. Iraq also represents the point where Sunnis and Shiites converge as well as confront each other. Therefore, Iraq-Iran rivalry has always had wider Arab national and historical dimensions, besides narrow local ones.
In terms of strategic considerations, Iraq always represented the power that acted as a counterbalance to Iran and effectively fulfilled the task of Arab containment of Iran. A Sunni-led Iraq has been the main instrument of the containment of Shiite influence beyond the sect’s Iraq-Iran heartland.
In the Gulf region and the wider Middle East, the balance of power between Iraq and Iran is the key to regional stability. Each of them has tried to alter this delicate balance and taken advantage of the other’s weakness at one point or other. As a result, the two neighbors have been governed by deep mistrust and antagonism, resulting in a number of direct, indirect, or proxy confrontations, and full-fledged wars.
Iran’s present plan to intervene in Iraq has its roots in the Iranian government’s decision to lend full support – overt and covert – to Iraqi Shiite opposition groups shortly after the success of the Iranian revolution in 1979. Then came the adoption of a plan to help the pro-Iranian Shiite religious and political groups – based inside Iraq or operating from the Iranian territories, and some operating from Iran’s strategic ally in the region Syria, or even from certain European capitals – topple Iraq’s Baáthist regime and seize power. But after more than 20 years of operation, and despite unlimited Iranian and Syrian political, financial and military support and propaganda, none of these Iraqi Shiite groups proved capable of posing any serious threat to the Iraqi regime. During the course of the Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988), the Iranian leadership mobilized the pro-Iran, mainly Iraqi Shiite opposition parties – Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Islamic Dawa Party – to support Iran’s military efforts in the hope of achieving victory. These two parties helped Iran with vital intelligence from Iraq; besides their cadres participated in Iran’s military operations along the border, even carrying out a number of attacks against Iraqi targets. The Baáthist regime in Iraq managed to prevent Iranian plans to interfere in Iraqi internal affairs. Indeed, until the US-led invasion of Iraq in the April 2003, Iranian strategy to intervene in Iraq proved a complete failure.
By mid-2002, the balance began to tip in Iran’s favor with the escalation of the Iraq-US confrontation. The pragmatic Iranian leadership accurately judged the seriousness of the post-9/11 Iraq-US conflict and US President George W. Bush’s determination to oust the Baáthist regime in Iraq at any price and by any means. Thus, while the American administration was fully engaged in plotting the removal of the Iraqi regime, the Iranian leadership was also busy planning how Tehran could strategically gain from any American adventure in Iraq.
This approach became evident in a number of high-level decisions taken by Tehran during 2002-2003. For example, first, against all declared ideological and political principles of the Iranian revolution and its proclaimed enmity toward the US and its polices, the Iranian leadership encouraged its allies – the main Iraq Shiite opposition parties – to move closer to the US, especially during the crucial months preceding the US invasion when Washington was preparing for post-invasion political arrangements. From mid-2002 to invasion, Iraqi ayatollahs and prominent Shiite political and religious figures frequently visited Washington or met high-ranking US officials openly. This unusual and ideologically contradictory alliance was formulated with the approval of Tehran’s religious and political leadership. They endorsed the fact that in Iranian political and strategic decision-making process, strategic interests outweigh ideological commitments or religious principles and taboos. In fact, the roots of this ‘realpolitik’ were evident in the practices of the Iranian Ayatollah’s policies long before the Iraq crisis – when the Islamic government of Iran decided to purchase US-made arms from Israel during the Iraq-Iran war and agreed to a direct supply route for the arms deal, in what became the Iran-Contra scandal.
Second, as part of the preparation to capitalize on the Iraq-US confrontation, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution – who represents the highest religious and political authority in Iran – ordered in August 2002 the formation of a Special Committee on Iraq to monitor the development of the crisis, formulate an Iran strategy and mobilize the state’s resources to promote Iranian interests in post-Saddam Iraq. The special committee consisted of representatives from defense, intelligence, political, diplomatic, and religious institutions of the state. The intelligence arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Forces – Al-Quds, created shortly after the Iranian revolution and was responsible for promoting “external jihad” – was in charge of most, if not all, Iranian activities related to the ‘Iraqi theater of operation’, including the sponsorship and control of the pro-Iran Shiite opposition groups in Iraq and a direct and crucial control of these groups’ intelligence and armed wings, as well as militias. Thus, at the time of the US-led invasion of Iraq, Iranian institutions were well placed to serve the Tehran’s strategic objectives.
Among the chief aims of these institutions were: first, prevent an American success in Iraq to ensure that it did not undermine the stability and security of Iran, as well as threaten the survival of the Islamic regime, at a later stage; second, establish a viable and sustainable Iranian influence in ‘new Iraq’ that could serve Iran’s long-term strategic interests in the region and beyond; and third, prevent the emergence of a ‘strong Iraq’ that could maintain its traditional challenge and competition with Iran, or revive the traditional balance of power between the two states and the practice of containment.
Thus, the Iranian formula was simple and well defined: a failed US + a weak and fragmented Iraq = a strong and influential Iran.
Further, by virtue of its past association, Iran has links with all the important power centers in ‘new Iraq’ too. First, the Iranian intelligence apparatus maintained strong links with and influence over the militia forces and intelligence arm of the Iraqi Shiite parties that are in power now. At the same time, the Iranian intelligence community established an overt and covert presence in Iraq, particularly in the Shiite heartland in southern Iraq, Shiite holy cities, and parts of Baghdad. Second, the Iranian leadership had strong links with the new Iraqi Shiite political leadership. Such links were rooted in the traditional Iranian sponsorship of the Iraqi Shiite political opposition groups since 1980. Moreover, many of these groups were established and even operated in Iran until the downfall of the Iraqi Baáthist regime in April 2003. Third, the Iranian religious leadership maintained strong links with its Iraqi Shiite counterparts because the two centers of Shiite spiritual authority – Najef and Qum – are now closer than ever before. Both religious centers perceive the situation with common interest, which requires a high degree of coordination, and both have huge moral and practical leverage over Iraq’s political and security leaderships.
In conclusion Iranian interventionist policy in Iraq has already attained a significant part of its objectives. In fact, despite US forces occupying the country, Iran has more influence over developments in post-Saddam Iraq.