Small Wars Journal

Iraq in the Middle Part II: Reidar Visser on Iraq’s Relations with Iran

Mon, 06/11/2012 - 6:02am

As sanctions bite and pressure mounts on Assad, Iran steps up its involvement in Iraqi affairs. But how extensive is their influence?

RT: It’s now clear that the regime in Iran is going through very tough times: the Supreme Leader says sanctions have had “no effect,” while the country privately pushes for them to be lifted. As India announces it will cut oil imports from Iran, oil exports (80% of Iran’s total exports) are being squeezed from almost all sides.

Iran’s long term ally in Syria is running out of time and money. Iran in turn, is running out of funds to help Assad. We might suppose that Iran’s logical next step is to expand its involvement in Iraq to compensate for these foreign policy losses. In March, Iran Khodro, the country's largest car manufacturer announced it would make 30,000 cars in an undisclosed production site in Iraq. Here is what  not for profit advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) has to say about Khodro: “

Iran Khodro are subsidiaries of the Iranian Development and Renovation Organization ("IDRO"), an entity blacklisted by the U.S., UK and EU for its activities in a wide range of nuclear and military activities. Moreover, the IRGC commander, Rostam Ghasemi, currently holds a position on IDRO's Board of Directors. In August 2010, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (“OFAC”) formally sanctioned Mr. Ghasemi.”  

Considering this, and the recent Stratfor report which suggests pro-Iranian groups are smuggling $20 million dollars’ worth of Iraqi oil into Iran every day, do you think that sanctions and the collapse of Assad is forcing Iran to stretch its tentacles further into Iraq?

No doubt they also fear a surge in Iraqi oil production which would eat away at their own oil revenues. Meanwhile, the Iraqi government appears to be allaying Iranian fears by hailing the growing trade between the two nations...

RV: Iran will likely seek to compensate any loss of influence in Syria through attempts at digging in even more firmly in Iraq. Bilateral trade has been growing steadily, but in this respect there is competition from Turkey and even from some of the smaller GCC countries. Iran is however unique in also seeking influence in Iraq’s Shiite holy cities, particularly through the tentative moves to build support for Ayatollah Shahrudi, a long time servant of the Iranian revolution, as the successor of the current grand ayatollah, Ali al-Sistani.

RT: The Stratfor report claims Iranian backed groups still have considerable influence in parts of southern Iraq, and suggests that Fadhila’s opposition to foreign oil companies in Basra may be an Iranian scheme, using trade unions etc. as a cover for their plans.

Considering how vital oil revenues are to the central government in Baghdad, I imagine Maliki will not tolerate this situation getting beyond his control. But the Stratfor report suggests that politicians in Baghdad are being paid off with money from the stolen oil: 

”Iran's most effective way of ensuring its influence over the political authorities in Baghdad is by maintaining a strong grip over its oil smuggling operations in the south. Iran uses its energy clout in Iraq to ensure that Iraqi government authorities, including al-Maliki, get a hefty share of monthly revenues from the oil theft -- amounting to millions of dollars -- giving Baghdad less inclination to protest Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs.”  

I somehow find it hard to believe that Maliki is tolerating this situation in return for a bribe, considering his zero tolerance approach to Sadrists in the past, his condemnation of Special Groups, or anyone who challenges his power. I would also question that Iran has “energy clout” in Iraq.

Certainly there is cooperation between the two countries in a number of areas in the hydrocarbon sector, some of it notable in size. But not compared to the sum of other foreign hydrocarbon investment. Considering this, and the Basra provincial council’s talk of greater independence from Baghdad, do you think Maliki is able to reassert control over the south, or is “Iranian clout” too big now? Perhaps they have trapped Maliki by “betting on all the horses” -including Maliki.

RV: The Stratfor report gives a very dated view of the situation in southern Iraq. Fadila’s influence has been waning over the past two years, and it was in any case always firmly anti-Iranian in the Basra area. Similarly the claims of oil smuggling and Sadrist influence seem overdone compared to what most others report from the area. Stratfor also overplays the influence of the ISCI-sponsored scheme for a Shiite region, which has mostly disappeared since 2009. There is an indigenous movement seeking to establish a federal region of the governorate of Basra. It has supporters from most of the Shiite parties, including Maliki’s, despite the fact that most of these parties have leaderships in Baghdad and Najaf that now are more sceptical about federalism.

RT: Last month, I mentioned to F. Gregory Gause III how Iraqi Minister of Transport Hadi al-Amiri, head of the Badr Organisation, claimed that Iranian flights carrying arms over Iraqi airspace to Syria were “US lies.”(These flights were apparently detected by intercepted radio communications.)

America did manage however, to get Iraq to scold Iran over the existence of these flights. Earlier this year, an Iraqi court said it should release Ali Moussa Dakdouk, the Qods force member behind the so called Karbala raid which killed 5 US soldiers (Dakdouk was also possibly involved in the kidnap and murder of 4 British contractors.) Last summer, we saw Iraqi Special Forces General Noman Dakhil arrested by ISF on allegedly fake corruption charges. According to Col.Scott Brower, Dakhil was an excellent ally, working with the Green Berets and Navy Seals to apprehend members of “Special Groups” in southern Iraq.

There are a couple of vague reports suggesting Dakhil is still serving in the ISF however, perhaps because of US pressure? Whatever has become of Dakhil seems typical of the complex intra Shia struggle happening within the Iraqi government. Contrast these scenarios with the recent US DoD statement after meeting Iraq’s acting Minister of Defence in Washington:

 “The Governments of the United States of America and the Republic of Iraq reaffirmed their commitment to a strong and long-term security partnership between the two countries at the inaugural meeting of the Defense and Security Joint Coordinating Committee (JCC) of the Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA), from May 22-24, 2012.

” Of course, this statement is publicly optimistic but the aforementioned situations with Dakhil etc, beg the question: Did the Coalition create a new Pakistan in Iraq? In other words, a country that is officially our partner against terrorism, but in reality is divided and in some ways sympathetic to our enemies?

RV: Pakistan is in some ways an apt parallel, though Maliki will probably be more restrictive in letting these tendencies grow than Pakistani military leaders are. The simple reason is that Maliki will likely be stuck with whatever radical groups are allowed to prosper since their activities are less likely to get exported to neighbouring countries than in the case of Pakistan. For that reason, any privileges extended to radical Shiite Islamists by Maliki are likely to be exceptional concessions for political gain rather than a deliberate attempt to build them up as parallel military structures.

RT: Moqtada al-Sadr was apparently recently in Iran. The latest story suggests that the Iranian government wants him to support Maliki as the campaign to have a no confidence vote grows. While few think that there is much chance of the divided opposition becoming broad enough to unseat Maliki (even if al-Sadr snubs Iran) one wonders why the Iranians are so happy to have Maliki in power.

For example, Al-Dawa as a party does not support the Iranian Wilayat al Faqih system and Maliki is keen for Iraq to do business with just about any nation be they the US or China and despite the growing rift, even Turkey. Could there be a better option for Iran, or is Maliki their ideal: a man who presides over an Iraq weak enough not to cause a threat to Iran, but not so weak as to be a failing state?

RV: There are several indications Iran always wanted to have someone weaker than Maliki. Ibrahim al-Jaafari emerged as the Sadrist PM favourite in 2010, possibly with Iranian backing. His name appeared again during the latest move to unseat Maliki, and it is only during the last month or so Iran came down decisively on Maliki’s side.

Iran’s aim is probably to push Maliki into a sectarian corner, in which case they think he will be easy to manipulate. It is however noteworthy that during the latest crisis, Maliki actually managed to win the support of several deputies from the secular and Sunni-backed Iraqiyya who are unhappy with the way their own leaders are aligning themselves with the Kurds against Maliki.

The support Maliki wins from Sunnis and secularists by taking an assertive stance on territories disputed with the Kurds is probably the kind of backing that Iran fears the most. In other words, support won by Maliki on Kirkuk is probably the kind of support that is most likely to make him independent from Iran in the long run. 

RT: At the beginning of this year, I interviewed Hayder al-Khoei. We discussed some of the political and theological differences between Iraq and Iran, as well as the rivalry between Najaf and Qom. Also discussed was how Karbala and Najaf seem pretty happy without Iranian interference. On the contrary, they have complained about cheap Iranian goods and Iranian meddling, and the two cities are enjoying something of an economic renaissance.

The governments of Iran and Iraq are on the surface natural allies: the same devout sect, cultural similarities and a shared heritage of resistance to secular dictatorship. Dig deeper and we see division in both Shia led governments. We see the linguistic as well as theological difference.

 It reminds me of the alliance of China and the Communists in Vietnam during America’s Indo- China war. Both Communist and culturally similar with shared ideological goals, China and North Vietnam were natural allies but ultimately became bitter enemies: Vietnamese nationalism was too strong. While I don’t think Iran and Iraq will be rivals again as they were during the Iran- Iraq war, do you think that their alliance is inevitable, as some people fear?

RV: I see nothing inevitable about the scenario of an Iran-Iraq union. Historically, the Arab identity of Iraqi Shiites has been very strong, and the Iran-Iraq War served to galvanize Iraqi nationalism even among many Iraqi Shiites who served in the army. The big problem in the widespread Washington narrative of Iraqi Shiites being immune to Iranian influences is that since 2003, Washington primarily cooperated with a minority of Iraqi Shiites that fought with the Kurds on the Iranian side during the Iran-Iraq War. Greater independence from Iran also hinges on greater empowerment of Shiites who lived in Iraq during the Baath and fought against Iran during the war.

Categories: Sunni - Shi'a - sanctions - Kurdistan - Kurd - Iraq - Iran - Ba'ath

About the Author(s)

Reidar Visser is a leading expert on modern Iraqi history, a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and member of the Gulf Research Unit at the University of Oslo. He holds a doctorate in Middle Eastern studies (University of Oxford). Follow his commentary at

Robert Tollast is an occasional contributor to The Small Wars Journal. He writes Mesopotamia Monthly, a monthly Iraq update for the Global Politics journal, as well as having written for the Defence Management Journal. He lives and works in London.



Tue, 06/12/2012 - 7:07am

Hi Mike
The demographics are always going to be vital for the long range studies of the fate of nation states.
In Iraq, a lot of young people can't remember the Iran Iraq war. According to a Colonel, one of the last to leave Iraq who also served in previous tours, when he arrived in Iraq families would thank him for ridding them of Saddam. When he left, there were Shia teenagers who felt the country was better under Saddam- but of course, they were too young to remember.

In terms of Iraq being "in the middle" that is only supposed to denote a tug of war from outside and within Iraq to determine its fate: an outward looking nation that does business with North America, Europe and Asia or an inward looking nation constantly worried about Saudi or Iranian plots, or even worried about neighbours. I think it is right to expect Iraq to be very friendly to Iran. But I think we also have to understand that even pro Iranian Iraqis are going to draw the line somewhere.

The next few years are going to be interesting...

Mike Few

Mon, 06/11/2012 - 2:45pm

To add to Mark, as well as preface that I always enjoy Reidar, if we examine the median age of the Iraqi people, how relevant is the war with Iran? In trying to to determine the strengths/weaknesses of Sunni v Shia as compared to Arab v Persian given Western interdiction, occupation, and involvement over the last two centuries, what today is the norm sentiment?

Mark Pyruz

Mon, 06/11/2012 - 3:57pm

Iraq isn't quite "in the middle." In its current incarnation, it's only natural and expected to possess levels of influence with what is now its "sister" country, the Islamic Republic of Iran. The variable, really, is only in degree.

I would disagree, that "greater independence" could be achieved by empowering Shiite elements that fought against Iran in the war. At least on the Iranian side, the war with Iraq is over, and those elements responsible within the Baath party have been, from the standpoint of Iran and anti-Baath elements in Iraq, conveniently removed by OIF. Is Visser identifying IrA veterans as potential leaders? If so, I can't think of any potential Shiite political party leaders that are Iran-Iraq war veterans and anti-Iran. On the contrary, key positions of authority are held by IrA veterans of the war that were either POWs and/or refugees from the Baath regime, that some time ago switched allegiance over to the Islamic Republic and its pursuits of "resistance."