Within the United States, conventional wisdom relates that Iraq is now a puppet of Iran. There is real reason for concern, and I won’t be one that will downplay Iranian attempts to influence, if not dominate, Iraq. That said, Iraqi Shi’ites are traditionally not pro-Iranian; they are pro-Iraqi. After all, during the Iran-Iraq War, the bulk of Iraqi conscripts on the front line hailed not from Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit and its Sunni environs, but rather from Baghdad and the largely Shi’ite towns and villages of Iraq’s south. They fought against the Shi’ite brethren because they saw themselves as Iraqis and Arabs first, not Persians.
That said, Iranian influence is on the increase. Iran’s true Achilles’ heel is Shi’ism. Because the supreme leader claims to be the deputy of the Messiah on earth, with ultimate political and religious authority, the theologically independent ayatollahs in Najaf, Iraq, undercut his authority whenever they contradict him. Iran will never tolerate the rise of an ayatollah to the political leadership in Iraq because that would pose a threat to the supreme leader. However, the Iranians will try to dominate Iraq to ensure that Iranian strategic interests remain paramount. Certainly, it need not have been this way: Had the United States retained a presence in Iraq, even if a limited number of forces simply kicked their heels in isolated bases, their presence would have enabled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to better resist Iranian demands. For many Middle Eastern countries, diplomacy is about balance. Iran will ratchet up its pressure and perhaps its presence in Iraq as its grasp on Syria falters. Iraqis worry openly that they will become Iran’s new frontline.
While Washington should certainly do what it can to constrain Iranian influence in Iraq, it would be a mistake to focus only on Iran. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s whirlwind trip to Russia and the announcement of a multibillion-dollar arms purchase should underline this point. True, Maliki can say that he sought first to purchase weapons from the United States, but Kurdish opposition (the Kurds believe Maliki might use the weapons against them) slow-rolled the deal and convinced Maliki to look elsewhere. That said, the Iraqi government is not simply reaching out to Iran as a last resort. Throughout the Baathist period, Iraq cultivated close relations with the Soviet Union. Many Iraqis studied in the Soviet Union and the East Bloc. Many have residual ties to Russians and feel comfortable doing business the Russian way. Russians tend not to worry about niceties such as transparency or human rights, and that works just fine for some Iraqis.
It’s not just Russia and Iran which are making plays for the Iraqi market. China is a growing presence. In 2010, the United States was Iraq’s fifth largest source of imports, but was still Iraq’s No. 1 trade partner. While I do not have access to the most recent statistics, Iraqi politicians have said that the United States might now be number four or five, after Iran, Russia, Turkey, and China. The Chinese have been quite aggressive. In the scandal/power play which led to the resignation of the minister of trade, Muhammad Allawi, one factor was a Maliki ally in the ministry whom some government officials say is on the payroll of the Chinese telecommunication firm Huawei. According to their accusations, the woman in question—who clashed repeatedly with Muhammad Allawi—would repeatedly undercut efforts by American businesses to work more in Iraq in order to privilege Huawei. The problem is not just in central Iraq. In the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaymani, Huawei sports a fancy new store. While the Kurdish ruling families’ notorious corruption has stymied some American investment, again, the Chinese are not so particular.
American officials are right to worry about Iranian influence. Focusing exclusively on the Iranian threat to the neglect of others, however, will be counterproductive. Saddam’s ouster was about resolving a threat to U.S. national security, and the efforts to offer Iraqis a future beyond dictatorship was the right move. Let us hope, however, that White House neglect will not mean that Iraq slides further into an Iranian-Russian-Chinese economic axis, not even a year after the departure of the last American troops.