As America Withdraws From Iraq, Iran's Power Rises

Iran’s new ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Danaifar. Mohammed Ameen / Reuters-Landov

Nearly all talk about Iraq of late has focused on the U.S. military's drawdown deadline, set for the end of August, when the number of troops will drop to 50,000, the lowest since the invasion in 2003. However, there's another big change underway in Baghdad, this one diplomatic, and it could have a profound effect on the relationship between the U.S. and its perhaps foremost adversary: Iran.

This week in Baghdad, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill is handing off his post to James Jeffrey, a career diplomat and currently the ambassador to Turkey, who will officially take the top U.S. civilian job in Iraq next week. And at the same time, Iran is in the process of installing a new ambassador: Hassan Danaifar. At first glance, his past might suggest a showdown is in the making. According to Press TV, the Iranian government's English-language news service, Danaifar is a ranking member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. And according to Iranian opposition Web sites, Danaifar narrowly escaped capture by U.S. Special Forces soldiers in an early 2007 raid on an Iranian trade office in the northern Iraqi town of Erbil.

Danaifar assumed his new post earlier this month and had his first official meet-and-greet with the press this week at the Iranian Embassy in central Baghdad. The front of the embassy is now lined with large, concrete T-walls after a series of bomb attacks in recent years. Visitors must go through a series of body searches and security checks before entering the lush, green embassy garden, which stands in stark contrast to the gritty streets outside. Rather than unleashing some triumphant screed against the Americans, Danaifar instead struck a measured, constructive tone. He tactfully steered clear of his background. He repeatedly stressed that Iran supports a quick resolution to the ongoing political crisis that has deadlocked the Iraqi government. He denied any Iranian support for militia groups in the country. And perhaps most important, when asked about the U.S. withdrawal deadline at the end of the month, Danaifar said, "Iraqi soldiers and officers have the ability to ensure internal security. There's no need for anyone's help. There's no need for anyone's interference."

That's a significant statement, because it was actually accusations of interference in Iraq's affairs that derailed talks between the Iranians and Americans just three years ago. In 2007 the outgoing Iranian ambassador, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, held a series of meetings with his American counterpart, Ryan Crocker. They were some of the highest-level diplomatic talks between Iranian and American officials in nearly three decades. But those talks fizzled when bitter accusations of meddling in Iraqi affairs continued between the two sides: the U.S. claimed that Iran was arming and training Shia militias, and the Iranians claimed that American officials were strong-arming Iraqi politicians.

This all comes in the face of what's now an inevitable fact. America's diplomatic leverage will surely decrease as the troops draw down. And with an old hand like Danaifar, who has a decades-long relationship with many Iraqi politicians—such as President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who opposed Saddam in the 1980s and 1990s—Iran stands to gain.