Iranian pressure on Iraq
Iran appears to be pushing Iraq closer to the rejectionist camp in a new contest for regional power, writes Salah Nasrawi
When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, many American supporters of the war argued that moving against former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein earlier rather than later would create the conditions for a new and more realistic Middle East peace process.
That grandiose hypothesis never came to pass, and now there is compelling evidence that Tehran, which has been increasing its influence in Iraq following the US withdrawal last year, is pushing its allies in Baghdad’s Shia-led government against Israel, Iran’s arch-enemy.
Iran’s new strategy in Iraq seems to be designed to push Iraq into the rejectionist front that urges permanent hostilities against Israel, in order to replace the tottering regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Other members of the camp are the Lebanese Shia Hizbullah group and radical Palestinian factions such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Last week, the visiting Iranian speaker of parliament, Ali Larijani, broke significant new ground in Iran’s ambitions in Iraq. During talks with senior Iraqi officials and top Shia clerics, Larijani emphasised the need for Iraq to back Iran’s bid for regional power.
“Iran and Iraq are among the key influential countries in the region, and they should have unified visions and positions vis-à-vis events in the region,” said Larijani while in Baghdad.
Upon his return to Tehran, Larijani said that all the Shia clerics whom he had met in Iraq “are aware of Tehran’s key role in regional developments, especially in Gaza,” adding that they considered “Iran to be the main cause of the Gazans’ victory over the Zionist regime” during last month’s eight-day Israeli assault on Gaza.
Iraq and Iran fought a war in 1980-1988 that cost the two nations some one million casualties, but Iran tightened its grip on its strife-torn neighbour following the US-led invasion of the country in 2003 by backing Iraq’s Shia political parties, which were sheltered in Iran under Saddam’s regime.
Since the downfall of Saddam’s regime in 2003, Iran and Iraq have enjoyed a good economic relationship. Iran’s exports and investment in Iraq are estimated at $10 billion, second only to Turkey, and reports suggest that the country plans to double its investment in Iraq to $25 billion next year.
Iran’s influence in Iraq also covers political, military, religious and social ties.
Since the American departure last December, Iran has managed to protect its core alliance and increase its standing with Iraq’s Shia political groups, which dominate the government in Baghdad.
In October, Iranian Defence Minister Brigadier-General Ahmed Vahidi said the countries had signed a bilateral defence cooperation agreement.
During his visit to Baghdad, Larijani appeared to be using Iran’s massive influence in Iraq to shape the country’s policies on several key issues, including Israel’s recent war on Gaza, which has been ruled by Hamas since 2007.
Iran is Hamas’s strongest regional ally and the main supplier of weapons to the Palestinian factions.
More than 1,200 rockets believed to be manufactured or shipped by Iran were fired from Gaza during Israel’s war on the Strip last month. The weapons included Fajr-5 rockets believed to have been used by the Palestinians factions to hit Israeli cities during the eight-day war.
Iran prides itself on this missile, described by its media as a two-stage weapon system appropriate for asymmetric wars, such as the one Hamas and Israel fought last month.
Iraqi officials have not publicly commented on the new Iranian resolve to nudge Iraq closer to the rejectionist front in anticipation of the collapse of the Al-Assad regime, but Tehran has received sympathetic hearings from Iraqis in Shia theological institutions and in parliament.
Mohamed Bahr Al-Ulloum, a top cleric in the Najaf theological seminary, last week thanked Iran for what he called its military assistance to the Palestinian resistance groups during the recent Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip.
Shia lawmaker Jawad Al-Bazouni said “Iran’s Fajr-5 missiles restored the Arabs’ and Muslims’ dignity.”
These statements echoed those of Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who urged the Arab states during the war to use all political means possible, including raising oil prices, to end the Israeli attacks on Gaza and suggested that these could be as effective as military action against Israel.
Beyond the rhetoric, however, Iran seems to be making headway.
At a press conference with Larijani, Iraq’s parliamentary speaker Osama Al-Nujaifi said he was planning a meeting of the heads of parliaments in neighbouring countries in Baghdad soon to address regional issues.
Larijani praised Iraq’s proposal and suggested that regional governments “should take this initiative as an opportunity to solve the Gaza crisis.”
Meanwhile, Al-Nujaifi traveled to Gaza last week taking with him $2 million in cash donated by the Baghdad government to the Palestinians.
His trip came hard on the heels of a visit by Iraq’s foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, who headed an Arab delegation to Gaza to show solidarity with the territory.
The head of the pro-government Iraqi Journalists Syndicate, Moaed Al-Lami, also travelled to Gaza, while an Iraqi football team plans to hold a friendly match in the Palestinian territories soon.
Such visits are considered to be landmarks because Iraqi Shia officials have previously shied away from the Palestinians, whom they had previously accused of supporting Saddam and hailing him as a hero.
Of even greater significance is the fact that Iraq has called for the holding of a meeting of the Arab states’ chiefs of staff over the ongoing Gaza violence.
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Al-Arabi said Iraq had suggested the meeting to “discuss the risks the region is exposed to amid the Israeli aggression on Gaza”.
Ahead of an Arab foreign ministers meeting on the Israeli onslaught on Gaza last month, Iraq’s envoy to the Arab League, Kais Al-Azzawi, announced that Baghdad would invite the Arab states to use oil as a weapon to press for a halt to the Israeli attacks on Gaza.
He later withdrew the remarks, apparently after other Arab governments objected.
Iran has also used its growing influence in Iraq to shape the country’s policies on Syria, including efforts to breathe new life into the struggling Al-Assad regime.
Tehran is Al-Assad’s strongest regional ally, and it stands to lose considerable influence in the region if the regime falls.
Iraq is believed to have allowed Iran to transport arms to Syrian government forces through Iraqi airspace, despite US demands to stem the shipments.
American officials told the New York Timeson Saturday that Iraq continued to allow Iranian aircraft carrying weapons through its airspace to Syria in defiance of the American concerns.
For his part, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki said that his country was unable to search all Syria-bound Iranian planes that fly through Iraqi airspace. Iraqi minister of transportation Hadi Al-Amiri, whose ministry is responsible for the inspections, warned that the goal of the US efforts was “to weaken the armies of Iraq and Syria in line with Israel’s interests”.
Al-Amiri, also secretary-general of the Badr Organisation, a pro-Iran Shia militia, cautioned that “a serious and clandestine plot is underway to weaken and target the two armies of Syria and Iraq.”
One reason for Iran to step up its pressure on Iraq to join its crumbling rejectionist club appears to be the rapid and drastic changes in Middle East geopolitics triggered by the Arab Spring.
In the latest conflict in Gaza, Iran watched warily as the new Islamist president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, reaped the returns of long-term investments in Hamas.
Iran believes that while Morsi is taking advantage of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to improve his Islamist movement’s standing with the United States and become a major Middle East player, it is losing influence among the militant Palestinian factions and probably its long-standing alliances with them.
In the absence of the Al-Assad regime in Syria, Iran hopes that Iraq’s predominantly Shia government will be a new key Arab ally in the region.
Unfortunately for Iran, its endeavour to push beleaguered Iraq into the Israel-Palestine conflict doesn’t make sense. Furthermore, in a new Middle East shaped by the Arab Spring old-style political gambits are becoming increasingly irrelevant.