The overthrow of Saddam Hussein by the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 dramatically changed the Middle East’s strategic landscape and redefined the regional distribution of power. Two years earlier, the United States had led the NATO invasion of Afghanistan in response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks perpetrated by al-Qaeda. By 2004, the two pre-eminent regional counterweights to Iran had been removed inadvertently by American invasions.
While Iranian political ambition has yet to firmly establish itself in Afghanistan, its influence in Iraq has had a defining effect on the country’s development. However, though Iraq’s Shia resurgence continues, all indicators point to it assuming a fresh course, more independent of Tehran and more in step with the country’s growing nationalism.
For Iran, the historical US military presence on its borders in Iraq and Afghanistan has taken skilful management, especially after its complicity in toppling both Saddam and the Taliban. Critically, Tehran needed to ensure the United States did not develop a strategic long-term presence in both countries but it also had to prevent former regime remnants from making a way back into power.
Iraq, with a Shia majority population liberated from the staunchly secular but also anti-Iranian, anti- Shia regime of Saddam, quickly became a key area of influence for Iran. The breakdown of security and social institutions following the US invasion made religious identity and association central to political affairs. Shia politicians, while welcoming of the invasion that toppled Saddam, sought to take over as quickly as they could while conceding as little as possible to the Americans, influenced in large part, no doubt, by friends in Iran.
Using ties to Iraqi Shia opposition groups cultivated throughout the 1980s, Tehran pursued a multi-pronged strategy to pursue its objectives in Iraq. Iran successfully reached out to a broad collection of pro- and anti-US secular and religious Shia political groups, effectively positioning itself as kingmaker, a role it arguably enjoys to this day.
There are signs that the extent and depth of Iran’s influence will soon be checked by a resurgent Iraqi nationalism among Shia political forces. With general elections in Iraq next year, key players are presenting markedly independent narratives for their election campaigns and political future.
Iran’s allies in Iraq, its critics declare, have delivered corrupt and elitist governments that have not been politically inclusive of the country’s different ethnic and religious communities. They have created and used sectarian tensions for political gain, overseen the militarisation of Iraqi society and created dependence on militias to fight Iraq’s wars, sought to effectively return Iraq to authoritarian rule and readily take orders from Tehran.
Ammar al-Hakim, a close ally of Iran during the US occupation, recently stepped down as leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, one of the country’s main alliances of Shia religious parties, and established the National Wisdom Movement. Another past ally, Muqtada al-Sadr, who has been critical of successive governments in Baghdad, visited Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in August, surprising many observers. Al-Sadr has called for the Iranian-dominated al-Hashed al-Shaabi — a coalition of local militias that his Mahdi Army once worked closely with — to be disbanded and for Iraq to move towards a new democratic future and balanced foreign relationships with neighbours.
Iran’s influence will remain deep for the foreseeable future, and its allies in Iraq will likely keep a fairly firm grip on political power. Ultimately, the traditional Shia clerical establishment has always been dismissive of the revolutionary Shia ideology of Iran, and its velayat-e faqih (rule by the clerical establishment) model — though not to the point of hostility — on theological grounds.
Iran has been aware of these undercurrents in Iraqi politics for some time. However, when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dispatched Mahmoud Shahroudi to iron out differences between Tehran and its Iraqi allies, as well as attempt to reunify Iraq’s Shia politicians, he was unable to meet with either al-Sadr or Iraqi cleric Ali al-Sistani.
The combined popular appeal of al-Sadr, especially, as well as Hakim, and their support together with Sistani for a new coalition government headed by incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi are becoming increasingly likely. As such, these developments do not signal an end to Iranian influence or its political excommunication from Iraqi politics. However, the future will be one in which Tehran will need to compromise. More immediately, Iran may find its preferred candidate, former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, might fail at the ballots yet again.
Sabahat Khan is a senior analyst at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA).