When Khalaf Abdul Samad, until last week the governor of Basra, announced that he would inaugurate a new bridge spanning the Shatt al-Arab on June 4, the Iranian government was worried. On June 4, the Iranians planned to mark the 24th anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s revolutionary leader. Iranian government representatives reportedly warned Abdul Samad to move the celebration, since June 4 should be a solemn day. Abdul Samad responded by ordering an even larger fireworks display, one that could be seen from across the Iranian border. The symbolism was clear: When the Iranian regime wanted people to mourn, Iraqis Shi’ites chose to celebrate. Abdul Samad, by the way, belongs to the same political party as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
On a weekend when I had no meetings planned, I took a ride down to Fao, site of a key Iran-Iraq War battle, and near where Iran, Iraq, and Kuwait converge on the Persian Gulf. Fao’s main industry is fishing, and the fishermen are well acquainted with Iran, literally a stone’s throw away across the narrow channel. Mention Iran and the fishermen go apoplectic: Not only will Iranian patrol boats intercept fisherman who cross the invisible border under the Shatt al-Arabs, but often the Iranian patrols will target fisherman on the Iraqi side of the border. The Iranian modus operandi? Shoot first, ask questions later. Most fishermen know colleagues or family members killed by the Iranians.
Trucks ply the roads in and around Basra as they head to the Iranian border. Curiously, during almost a week in Basra, I saw no Iranian-tagged vehicles. That stood in sharp contrast to Iraqi Kurdistan—recently lauded in this piece by Fouad Ajami—where it sometimes seems as if every third truck has Iranian license plates and, indeed, the Kurdistan Regional Government makes tens of millions of dollars smuggling material, including sanctioned fuel, to and from Iran. Indeed, it is easier for Iraqis to transit the Iran-Iraq border in Iraqi Kurdistan than it is in southern Iraq, where the Iranian government remains hypersensitive to the religious independence of the Iraqi Shi’ites. Add into the mix that the legacy of the Iran-Iraq War remains fresh in Basra, and the notion that Iraqis willingly welcome Iranian dominance is laughable.
That said, the Iranians do try: Basra—like Kirkuk—is booming. A new Iranian hotel is slowly rising up alongside the corniche. Iran dominates the consumer goods market: An informal survey of some local supermarkets indicates most food stuff is Iranian, maybe a third is Turkish, the bottled water and some soft drinks are Iraqi, and the Louisiana Hot Sauce is America’s only contribution. The Iranians pressure the Iraqi government to award Iran larger projects but the Iraqi government has resisted: Iranian prices are simply too high, and its workmanship poor. American and European businesses would be very welcome, but are more often absent when the bidding begins. The Iranians—and some of their Iraqi political allies—like to keep it that way by throwing extra-legal obstacles in the face of American businessmen flying into Basra, but such obstacles can be overcome. Iranians do provide Basra with supplemental electricity (an irony, since Tehran justifies its nuclear program in a lack of domestic energy generation) but because its consistency remains poor, the locals blame Iran for frequent outages.
Muqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand cleric who often appears to take his marching orders from Iran, remains unpopular, but that does not stop his followers from plastering his image in every town center and on billboards aside traffic circles. Basrawis seem to mock Sadr. That said, his followers—while a minority—do leverage their status, joining with Ammar al-Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq recently to unseat Basra’s popular, Iraqi nationalist governor.
So what does this mean for the future? Iran will certainly continue to try to impose its will on Iraq. Iranian political influence is heavy. Across the board, Iraqis acknowledge that the recent summit in Erbil held between Prime Minister Maliki and Kurdish regional leader Masud Barzani was held at the behest not of the American ambassador, but rather Qods Force leader Qasim Suleimani, whom Iraqis only half jokingly refer to as Iran’s real president. Still, Iraqis will continue to resist Iran’s unwanted influence. The fact that the United States—despite promises of a continuing relationship—remains so unwilling to engage in Iraq, however, could unfortunately become the deciding factor in the battle for influence.