Iraq has always in many ways been the odd one out in the region. Despite being the cradle of civilization — writing was invented here in the home of the first city (Uruk), as was the first written law (Hammurabi’s Code) — from the beginning, this great riverine plain has also been a theater of war. Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander the Great, Hajjaj, the Abbasid caliphs, the Mongol invaders and finally Saddam Hussein all launched devastating wars that killed civilians in their millions. In the last three decades alone, at least two million have died under repression and three long-lasting conflicts.
Iraq’s relations with its neighbors have not been friendly, especially to the east. But Iran is linked to Iraq by geography, history, culture and religion. In ancient times, Iraq was part of the Persian Empire, whose capital al-Mada’in was in the middle of Iraq. After the advent of Islam, Arab armies conquered Iraq then moved eastwards. From then on, for centuries, Iran was ruled from Baghdad. Iran and Iraq have influenced each other right through history: Iraq became Muslim, Iran followed suit. The Shia brand of Islam evolved in Iraq, then crept slowly into Iran. Farsi was an all-powerful language. When Arabic came along from Iraq, it swept over it, and now almost 50 percent of Farsi words are Arabic. Iraq has become a religious tourist attraction for most Iranians; they visit it in the millions every year, prostrating on the ground when visiting the holy shrines at Karbala and Najaf. To most Iranians, visiting Iraq at least once in a lifetime is a grand ambition.
Iraq has a sort of a democracy that is not acceptable to its powerful eastern neighbor, which has been trying to export its brand of political Islam since the triumph of the Iranian revolution in 1979.
The Iranians have always believed they could change things in Iraq due to their perceived influence on the Shia population in the country. But, to their disappointment, they found this was not the case. Iraqis, Shia or Sunni, value their independence and resent interference in their affairs, especially from Iran. Arab-Persian rivalry is manifest in Iraq, with the Shia-Sunni divide rarely getting in the way (though it has been used to mobilize the Shia population against Sunni rulers in the past).
Iran hopes for far-reaching influence in Iraq. It has all the tools to achieve it. Most Iraqi Shia leaders were either based in Iran or supported by it during their opposition to Saddam Hussein. Those leaders who rule Iraq today have good relations with Iran’s rulers. However, they still have to explain this closeness with Iran to their citizens, who remain wary of Iran’s intentions. Many Iraqis cannot forget that Iran fought Iraq for eight long years, causing the death of half a million Iraqis, with a similar figure wounded and handicapped. Most Iraqis blame Iran for prolonging that war unnecessarily. Even Shia zealots believe Iran should have been keener to preserve the lives of Iraqi Shias, as Saddam Hussein was happy to put them in harm’s way. Iranian insistence on getting war reparations upsets all Iraqis, hence any cozy relations with Iran will be viewed with a degree of suspicion.
The Iranians are masters of realpolitik — very patient pursuers of their long-term goals. Of course, no one can tell what exactly the Iranians want from Iraq, but it is obvious they want her as an ally and are prepared to do whatever it takes to achieve this. They now have good relations with all political operators in the country, albeit to varying degrees. They expected a lot more from their friends in Baghdad, but are happy to accept less influence for the time being. Iran doesn’t want Iraq to be an enemy ever again, and this can be achieved through deep-rooted relations in the economic, religious, political and social spheres. One immediate worry for Iran was the American presence in Iraq, but to Iranian delight, this worry is easing as the US will clearly be packing up and leaving, come hell or high water.
America, once so enthusiastic for democracy and influence in Iraq and the Middle East, seems to be giving in to Iranian influence and indifference to what might happen in the region following its withdrawal. With the exception of its relations with Israel and its oil interests in the Gulf, where it has shown real commitment, the US seems to have a short-term strategy regarding its relations with Arab countries. Each successive administration has its own approach and policies. Current US policy towards Iraq seems to be centered on the fact that the invasion was a mistake, thus the US must leave Iraq to Iraqis and get out as soon as possible. Vice-president Joe Biden had a scheme to divide Iraq into three states when he was a senator, but his scheme fell apart when most Iraqis rejected it completely.
Iraq cannot afford to be a satellite of Iran, nor can it afford to be an enemy of that huge and influential country. It cannot be a rival either. It has to play it safe and "walk on Iranian eggs", as it were, for many years to come. But even for this, it needs consensus within its political landscape. Political rivalry within Iraq will invite and encourage outside intervention, especially Iranian. But Iranians can only achieve their objectives if Iraqis allow them to do so. If Iraqis have no major power to lean on as a counterbalance, they will be weak before a powerful ideological Iran. If the US is leaving and the Arabs are absent and divided, Iran is left as the only strong player in the country. This will remain the case unless power dynamics shift in other directions in the near future.
Hamid Alkifaey is a writer and journalist. He was the first government spokesman of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq and founder-leader of the Movement for Democratic Society. Currently he is researching democratization at the University of Exeter in the UK. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org