If guests to Baghdad knew nothing of Iraqi politics, they could possibly be forgiven for considering that the trim-bearded, green-uniformed man whose larger-than-life photograph is all over the place within the Iraqi capital was Iraq’s president.
Alongside the boulevard that tracks the Tigris River and contained in the Inexperienced Zone, the seat of Iraq’s authorities, the likeness of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani towers above roundabouts and stands astride medians. The final individual to be so glorified was Saddam Hussein, the dictator deposed and killed within the American-led invasion of Iraq that started nearly precisely 20 years in the past.
However Mr. Suleimani was Iranian, not Iraqi.
The commander of the Quds Pressure, the exterior arm of Iran’s highly effective Revolutionary Guards Corps, he achieved near-mythic standing in Iraq as an influential power who helped bind Iraq and Iran collectively after the invasion. It was thanks largely to Mr. Suleimani, whom the USA assassinated in Iraq in 2020, that Iran got here to prolong its affect into nearly each facet of Iraqi safety and politics.
That, in flip, gave Iran outsize affect over the area and past. Tehran’s rise uncovered the unintended penalties of Washington’s technique in Iraq, analysts and former U.S. officers say, and broken the USA’ relationship with its regional allies.
The invasion “was the unique sin,” mentioned Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow for Center East safety on the Worldwide Institute for Strategic Research, a British suppose tank. “It helped Iran bolster its place by being a predator in Iraq. It’s the place Iran perfected the usage of violence and militias to acquire its targets. It eroded the U.S.’s picture. It led to fragmentation within the area.”
The U.S. State Division declined to touch upon the impression of the warfare in Iraq.
“On Iraq particularly, our focus is on the 20 years forward; much less about trying backward,” the division mentioned in an electronic mail response to questions. “Our partnership at present has developed far past safety, to a 360-degree relationship that delivers outcomes for the Iraqi folks.”
All of that was enabled by the political modifications that the American invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003, set in movement. In a while, the 2014 takeover of a big swathe of northern Iraq by the Islamic State terrorist group prompted Iraq to show to Iran in addition to the USA for assist, cementing Iran’s grip.
As destabilizing because the Iranian involvement has been for a lot of Iraqis, it has been no less than as unsettling for a lot of the remainder of the area.
Iraq and Iran are the 2 largest Center Japanese nations with a Shiite Muslim majority, and Shiites emerged from the Iraq warfare empowered throughout the area — usually unnerving their historic sectarian rivals, the Sunni Muslims, who dominate most different Arab nations.
Underneath the Iraqi dictatorship, the Sunni minority had shaped the bottom of Mr. Hussein’s energy; as soon as he was killed, Iran arrange loyal militias inside Iraq. It additionally went on to dismay Saudi Arabia and the opposite Gulf monarchies and Israel by supporting proxies and companions, such because the Houthi militia in Yemen, that introduced violence proper to their doorsteps.
Earlier than 2003, it will have been onerous to think about Saudi Arabia, a pillar of the USA’ Center East coverage for many years and a number one Sunni energy, displaying open anger towards American leaders over their conduct within the area. However the Saudi king on the time did simply that in a January 2006 assembly with the American ambassador to Iraq, telling him that the best way Washington noticed issues getting into Baghdad mirrored “wishful considering,” in keeping with a State Division cable launched by WikiLeaks in 2010.
By the point of that assembly, Iraqis had authorized a brand new Structure and held parliamentary elections that swept Shiite events to energy, and Sunni-Shiite sectarian tensions had escalated.
Saudi King Abdullah instructed the ambassador that earlier than Mr. Hussein’s ouster, his kingdom — Iran’s longtime rival for affect within the Center East — may rely on Iraq as one other Sunni energy preserving Iran in verify.
Now, he mentioned, Iraq had been handed to Iran like “a present on a golden platter.”
The US, whose navy muscle guided its insurance policies, usually with little sensitivity for Iraq’s non secular and political dynamics, in keeping with analysts, was not the nation greatest positioned to make lasting inroads in Iraq.
Iran, in contrast, may construct the bonds created by the Shiite religion it shared with many in Iraq’s inhabitants.
Iranian and Iraqi clerics, together with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, frequented Shiite shrines in each nations every year and loved a mutual understanding of one another’s tradition. Tribes and households span their practically 1,000-mile-long border. And the daddy of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, spent 13 years in Iraq’s Shiite pilgrimage metropolis of Najaf, whereas Iraq’s high Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, was born in a single Iranian holy metropolis and educated in one other.
Nonetheless, that proximity hardly bred friendship, no less than earlier than 2003.
In 1980, when Iraq invaded Iran, the USA and different Western nations quietly supported Iraq within the ensuing warfare.
The eight-year battle was so devastating that some analysts say it formed the mentality of a whole technology of Iranian leaders, making them decided to by no means once more permit Iraq to develop sturdy sufficient to assault them. That might clarify why, underneath Mr. Hussein’s repressive rule, which empowered Iraq’s Sunni minority over its Shiite majority, Iran gave shelter and assist to each Shiites and Kurds within the Iraqi opposition.
When the USA toppled Mr. Hussein, it neutralized Iran’s foremost enemy with out Tehran having to raise a finger. Afterward, the People diminished Sunni energy in Iraq by dismantling the nation’s military and purging the Sunni-dominated governing elite.
Iran noticed alternative.
“What they had been on the lookout for and have been on the lookout for isn’t Iranian management,” Ryan Crocker, a former United States ambassador to Iraq, mentioned of Iran. “It’s Iraqi instability.”
After the 2003 invasion, Iranians streamed into Baghdad and Iraq’s Shiite-dominated south: development engineers to rebuild Iraqi cities, political consultants to coach Shiite activists earlier than the Iraqi elections, media professionals to determine Shiite-owned tv channels.
Iranian pilgrims who had been barred within the Saddam Hussein period from visiting Iraq’s Shiite shrines now hurried throughout the border to the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, the place Iranian corporations invested in acres of motels and eating places for the hundreds of thousands of worshipers, lots of them Iranian, who go to the shrines every year.
A great variety of the Iraqi leaders who emerged after 2003 additionally had ties to Iran. The Shiite and Kurdish opposition politicians who had taken refuge there years earlier than returned to Iraq after the invasion. A few of Iraq’s largest Shiite events had backing and technical assist from Iran, placing politicians from these events in Iran’s debt after they received seats.
The People “by some means didn’t make the reference to Iran explicitly and perceive that it’s not the Shiites you’re giving the higher hand to, it’s the Shiites backed by Iran,” Marwan Muasher, who was then Jordan’s overseas minister, mentioned final week.
Throughout Iraq’s southern border, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies watched with rising frustration.
Gulf wariness of Iran dated again centuries. Lower than 150 miles of Persian Gulf waters separate Iran from the Arabian Peninsula, a dynamic that has lengthy fueled commerce rivalries and territorial disputes. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Sunni Gulf monarchies feared that Iran would export its model of Shiite theocracy throughout a area historically dominated by Sunnis.
Earlier than 2003, the Gulf apprehensive concerning the Iraqi dictator, too. However Western-led sanctions had weakened Iraq, and the Gulf States and the Iraqis shared a standard enemy in Iran.
The toppling of Mr. Hussein unleashed what the Gulf noticed as Iran’s harmful energy: Now, Iran was growing its affect over a significant Arab nation with huge oil reserves on Saudi Arabia’s northern border, simply as proof was rising that Iran was growing a nuclear program.
Nowadays, no Iraqi prime minister can take workplace with out no less than the tacit approval of each the USA and Iran, an association that always produces prime ministers torn between Washington and Tehran. Iraqis with connections to Iran maintain posts all through the federal government.
The price of Iranian affect to Iraqi growth and stability has been excessive.
Reduce off from the world financial system by sanctions, Iran has discovered an financial lifeline in Iraq, which buys about no less than $7 billion in Iranian exports a yr whereas promoting solely about $250 million of products in return. The wonderful print on many medicines reveals that they’re Iranian made, and huge portions of Iranian development supplies come stacked on truck convoys throughout the border daily.
Many Iraqi farmers and businesspeople complain that Iran has suffocated Iraqi manufacturing and farming by dumping massive portions of produce and low cost items in Iraq.
Though Shiites in Iraq’s political elite tolerated Iran’s actions and revered Basic Suleimani, resentment of Iran amongst different Iraqis helped set off mass antigovernment demonstrations in 2019 during which protesters demanded an finish to Iran’s interference in Iraqi affairs.
Past Iraq, Iran has used each battle within the area to increase its attain.
It inserted fighters into Syria after the 2011 Arab Spring revolt, aiming to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It supported the Houthis in Yemen’s civil warfare towards a Saudi-led coalition, establishing Iranian affect on the southern Saudi border. And it additional cemented its place in Iraq and Syria by recruiting and coaching Shiite fighters towards the Islamic State.
“Each alternative that there was within the area, the dominoes fell in Iran’s favor,” mentioned Vali Nasr, a professor of worldwide affairs and Center East research at Johns Hopkins College. Exploiting Iraq’s weak point, he added, progressively become “a robust overseas coverage instrument for Iran on the regional stage.”
Notably worrisome to its Sunni Arab neighbors was Tehran’s consolidation of affect throughout a so-called Shiite Crescent stretching from Iran by way of Iraq and into Syria and Lebanon. Some Sunni governments, chief amongst them Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, blamed the USA — the nation they’d lengthy relied on to have their backs — for failing to cease Iran from transferring items, weapons and personnel freely throughout the area, analysts say.
Later quarrels within the relationship arose over what the Gulf noticed because the U.S. failure to intervene in Syria or to guard the Gulf from Iranian-linked assaults on Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.
The State Division mentioned the USA values its relationship with the Gulf and is dedicated to “to strengthen cooperation, coordination, and session with our Gulf companions in all fields, together with safety, counterterrorism, and financial partnership.”
The Gulf stays deeply related to the USA, however for the reason that 2003 invasion it has appeared to broaden and deepen its ties to China and Russia as various companions. When Saudi Arabia agreed to revive diplomatic relations with Iran final week, for instance, it did so in Beijing.
That settlement was the newest signal that Saudi Arabia has determined to strive partaking with its adversaries quite than holding them at arm’s size because the Gulf monarchies did for years in Iraq.
Regardless of Iraq and its Gulf neighbors’ shared Arab id, all of them however forfeited the competitors for affect to Iran: Whereas Iran was the primary to determine an embassy in Baghdad after the USA invasion, a Saudi ambassador to Iraq arrived in Baghdad solely final week.
Likewise, the Saudis didn’t open their deep pockets to Iraq till just a few years in the past, after they started a tentative effort to put money into infrastructure.
“The one factor we will do is to offer the Iraqis one other alternative that isn’t solely Iran,” mentioned Hesham Alghannam, a Saudi political scientist. “We will’t nook them after which blame them for going with the Iranians.”