How to Push Back on Iran: The Key Role Iraq Plays

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

Yesterday, I discussed how I think a policy of pushing back on Iran should be applied in Syria, where I believe the United States needs to go on the offensive against Iran.

Today, I want to look next door, at Iraq.

As in Syria, Iran has important vulnerabilities in Iraq, but it also has considerable strength there. An Iranian-dominated Iraq would serve as a dangerous conduit for Iranian influence into the rest of the Arab world.

Yet Iraq remains a fragile state, one still struggling to emerge from the nightmarish combination of Saddam’s tyranny, a dozen years of international sanctions, invasion, a botched occupation, civil war, neglect, and renewed civil war.

The United States has its own interests in Iraq that extend beyond denying it to Iran’s sphere of influence. Most Iraqis hope that both America and Iran will help them to rebuild and heal the wounds of its savage past. And Iraqis do not want their country to become the battlefield on which Iran and America fight.

All of this makes addressing the Iranian challenge in Iraq uniquely complex, very different from Syria, and so worthy of its own discussion.

Seeing Iraq from Iran

Like the river of song, Iran’s interests in Iraq are both deep and wide. Iraq is not just another Middle Eastern country to Iran. It is a critical neighbor. The two states share a 1,400-kilometer border. Their two societies are deeply intertwined.

Their annual trade exceeds $12 billion, and Iran sends nearly 15 percent of its non-oil exports to Iraq. Millions of Iranians travel to the Shi’a holy cities of Karbala and Najaf for religious pilgrimages each year. And in the 1980s, the two countries fought the longest conventional war of the 20th century, with 400–500,000 killed on both sides.

GettyImages-669659386 Iranian soldiers march at a parade marking the country's Army Day, on April 18, 2017, in Tehran. ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty

These connections are a double-edged sword for Tehran. They make the stability, security, and geopolitical alignment of Iraq a tremendous concern to Tehran because they make Iraq a potential vulnerability for Iran. The regime fears that a hostile regime in Iraq could do great damage to Iran, as Saddam’s did.

It also fears that chaos and strife in Iraq will spill over into its own borders. However, these same ties also enable Iran to wield considerable influence in Iraq, especially the broken Iraq that has been fumbling toward a new political equilibrium since the fall of Saddam in 2003. In that way, Iraq has also been an opportunity for Iran to expand its sway into the Arab world.

Because of the complexity of their ties, Iran’s policy toward Iraq is driven by a hierarchy of goals, from the most desirable to what Tehran probably regards as the minimum acceptable.

Like all states, Iran measures what it wants to see happen in Iraq against the costs and probability of achieving various objectives, and shifts among those objectives based on the extent to which it is willing to pay to try to achieve any one of them.

Just because Iraq is important to Iran does not mean that it is all-important to Iran. And just because Iran can manipulate the various ties between Iran and Iraq to its advantage, it does not mean that Iran can do whatever it wants — or can do anything without incurring costs.

Especially during the post-2003 era, Iran’s approach to Iraq has changed dramatically over time as its sense of threat and opportunity has waxed and waned, and as its willingness to invest time, energy, money, manpower and other resources into Iraq to try to secure its goals have fluctuated.

Some of Iran’s most basic aims are clear. Iran wants an Iraq that is not threatening to it, and preferably one that is even friendly to it. Tehran unquestionably seeks an Iraq that is not dominated by other foreign interests, especially those of foreign powers that Iran sees as threatening like the United States, Saudi Arabia and takfiri terrorist groups like ISIS.

Moreover, Iran wants Iraq to stay unified because secession would create a dangerous precedent for some of Iran’s own unhappy minorities.

At the aspirational end of the spectrum, it is likely that many Iranian policymakers would love to see Iraq reduced to an Iranian vassal — a satrapy either wholly owned by Iran or else reduced to a dependent satellite ready to do whatever the Islamic Republic desires.

Yet few, if any, Iranian leaders seem to see that as a likely scenario, one that they could achieve at an acceptable cost. The next step down for most in Tehran would be a unified Iraq that was a staunch ally of — and probably more than a little dependent on — Iran.

Different Iranian leaders then probably have varying gradations of lesser goals in Iraq, all the way down to what they probably consider the minimum acceptable. That appears to be an Iraq that is simply not a threat to Iran. But again, it is critical to understand that the Iranian leadership appears to have a pretty diverse and sophisticated sense of the threats Iran faces from Iraq. Their thinking is not simplistic and myopic as many Americans would posit.

In particular, there is a widespread assumption among Americans that what Iran wants is an unstable Iraq to make it easier to dominate. This is simply false. If Iran wanted Iraq in chaos, Iraq would look like Yemen.

But Iraq is far too important to the Iranians and instability in Iraq far too dangerous for them. Instead, Iran’s minimum acceptable goal (and therefore, its highest priority) for Iraq is that it is stable but dominated by the Shi’a, whom the Iranians expect will always want to remain on good terms with Iran. That is what Iran has consistently worked for in Iraq.

Again, Tehran has certainly wanted Iraq to be as subservient as possible, but it has always prioritized stability over docility. That’s why Iran told its Iraqi Shi’a allies to participate in the American reconstruction and democratization of Iraq in 2003–2005, why it only began attacking Americans in Iraq when it realized that US mistakes were driving Iraq into chaos and civil war, why Iran was the most important voice trying to restrain Nuri al-Maliki from alienating Iraq’s Sunnis in 2011–2013, and why Tehran readily acquiesced to a renewed American military mission in Iraq after 2014.

In fact, when the US finally agreed to begin assisting Iraq against ISIS in the summer of 2014, several of Iran’s most important Iraqi allies wanted to start killing returning US military personnel, but the Iranians shut them down because they recognized that Iraq needed American help to defeat ISIS and restore its peace and stability.

Iran in Iraq

Today, Iran is undoubtedly the foreign power with the greatest influence in Iraq. Its sway is not absolute, and the United States still retains a significant (but dwindling) amount of influence itself. Nevertheless, it is important to understand why Iran is as influential as it is.

First, Iran is willing to commit significant resources to Iraq and to sustain its commitment over time. Indeed, because of Iran’s proximity, every Iraqi knows that Iranian assistance or vengeance can last forever, and Tehran will never go away and leave Iraq behind.

Second, Iran tends to personalize its relationships. Sure, the Iranians will invest in some “institutions” like Hashd ash-Shaabi militias or selected Iraqi ministries, but only those that are run by people beholden to Tehran. And the money meted out, like the vengeance, is directed at those people, not the institution as an abstract entity, the way that Western donors and international organizations insist.

As a result, Iraqis are personally empowered, beholden, and scared of Iran — which is a far more powerful motivating force for them.

Finally, although Iran prefers a unified Iraq, it does not hesitate to play the Shi’a card. For roughly 15 centuries, the Shi’a have been a minority in the Muslim world, and while Sunni-Shi’a relations have never been anything like as bloody as the Catholic-Protestant split to which it is often compared, Shi’a have typically felt themselves denied their rightful share of political power and economic benefits, and at times have been repressed and physically abused.

In Iraq, the Shi’a have been denied political and economic shares commensurate with their demographic weight for so long that many have a permanent inferiority complex and fear the Sunnis will inevitably swoop in to take back their newfound predominance in Iraq.

Iran preys on that, reinforcing the message that someday the Sunnis (and their Western allies) will turn on them, and when that day comes, the only country that will be willing and able to save them is Iran.

These are formidable tools at Iran’s disposal, but they do not make Iran all powerful. There are also important countervailing forces that can limit Iranian influence — decisively in the right circumstances. First and foremost, the vast majority of Iraqis do not like Iran. Many downright loathe Iran.

Even among Iraq’s Shi’a, their Arab identity and ethnic rivalry with the hated Persians has often prevailed over religious solidarity. Iraqi Shi’a fiercely defend the pre-eminence of the Marja’iye (religious leadership) of Najaf, whereas Iran looks primarily to its own Hawza at Qom. It is an oft-cited but still noteworthy fact that the vast majority of Iraqi Shi’a fought staunchly against the Iranians during the brutal Iran-Iraq war. They did so despite Saddam’s (Sunni) tyranny and Khomeini’s (quasi-Shi’a) message of liberation. They did not fight for Saddam so much as they fought against Iran.

Iranian society holds little appeal for Iraq. As Emma Sky has observed, thousands, even millions, of Iraqis would gladly emigrate to the United States. It is hard to find any who would like to live in Iran, and that is true regardless of their sect or ethnicity.

The key limit to Iranian influence is therefore Iraqi strength and, at least among its Arabs, unity. Whenever Iraq is weak and divided, Iran can wield enormous influence. Its ability to target individuals and play on their fears allows Tehran to divide and conquer, co-opting various actors and then using their co-optation to ensnare still more.

However, when Iraqis feel strong and united, they do not need Iran because they do not fear one another. In those circumstances, Iraqis push out Iran from their lives and their politics, and they tend to do so far more effectively and easily than any outside power, including the United States.

Recent Iraqi history makes this clear. In 2005–2006, as Iraq splintered into civil war, Iran’s power expanded apace. Every Iraqi wanted Iranian assistance, although some wanted it more than others and got more than others. Then, the American Surge strategy began to turn things around, the political fissures healed, the violence ended, and Iraqis embraced a secular, non-sectarian government.

In particular, in the spring of 2008, Prime Minister Maliki launched Operation Charge of the Knights, a high-risk gamble to drive Muqtada as-Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) militia from the great Shi’a city of Basra. JAM was heavily backed by Iran at that point, arguably the last major Iraqi client of Tehran’s from the civil war.

Not only did the Iraqi security forces crush JAM and drive it out of Basra altogether (with considerable American military assistance), but of even greater importance, the Shi’a populace of Basra embraced the largely Sunni formations that Maliki brought down from Anbar to conduct the operation. Basrawis saw these troops as Iraqis , not Sunnis . Iraqis who had come to liberate their Arab city from the Persian proxies who had occupied it.

It was a remarkable moment, and Maliki went on to launch subsequent operations that drove JAM from Amara, Qurnah, Kut, and even Sadr City itself. He then went on to win Iraq’s 2009 provincial elections and come in second (to the secular Shi’a Ayad Allawi) in Iraq’s 2010 national elections, all because he was seen at the time as a non-sectarian, secular figure — and an Iraqi leader who was standing up to the Persians.

At that moment, in early 2010, Iran’s influence in Iraq was all-but gone and it was largely the doing of the Iraqis, not the Americans.

Strengthening Iraq

Thus the key for those seeking to diminish or eliminate Iranian influence in Iraq is to build a strong, cohesive Iraq that has the confidence to show the Iranians the door.

Of course, Iraq in 2017 is far from that happy state. It is still fragmented and weak, and that creates the opportunity for Iranian influence, and for Iran to resist the efforts of others to help strengthen Iraq and close its fissures. If the United States were willing to exert itself once again, as it did during the Surge of 2007–2008, there is every reason to believe that Iraq could again be strengthened quickly, and Iran forced out with corresponding speed. But that seems very unlikely for an America that has long tired of its commitment to Iraq.

The alternative is to play the long game, building up Iraq piece by piece, bringing Iraqis together, empowering their government to better their lives, and finding constructive ways to resolve differences.

This is not the place to lay out in detail how the United States can (and should) help build a strong, independent Iraq in the wake of the war against ISIS. Nevertheless, it is worth sketching out the broad contours of such a policy to give a sense of what pushing back on Iran in Iraq would entail.

Security assistance . Iraq is now recovering from two civil wars since 2005, and while there is no obvious security threat at present, American security assistance will be absolutely vital to buttress the fragile political process that now needs to knit the country back together to prevent yet another slide back into civil war.

First, Iraq will need continued American (and Western) weapons, supplies, advice, and training to build up its military into a force that can maintain the peace of Iraq. Of even greater importance, Iraq requires a residual American military presence, preferably on the order of about 10,000 troops for the next 5–10 years to ensure the Iraqi Security Forces remain apolitical guarantors of the Iraqi political system and not the next prime minister’s militia.

Until the ISF is playing that role, the American presence will also be needed to reassure all Iraqis that they do not have to fear their security forces, their government, or one another. Especially in current circumstances, with the Hashd ash-Shaabi militias out there and not always responsive to Baghdad’s control, such reassurance is critical to Iraq’s security and stability.

Indeed, this peacekeeping function of US troops is the most important ingredient that was removed from Iraq after 2011. It is a role that scholars have repeatedly identified as critical to preventing the recurrence of civil war.

Economic assistance. A plethora of bilateral and international financial assistance arranged for Iraq by the Obama administration have been very helpful in stabilizing Iraq’s finances in the short term, but they are not a long-term solution. Iraq’s financial needs are enormous, starting with reconstruction costs that Baghdad estimates at about $100 billion.

That does not include the cost of thoroughly reforming the malfunctioning, oil-addicted economy built by Saddam and then ravaged by sanctions and war.

Iraq needs help in virtually every aspect of its macro-economy as it tries to address an unemployment rate of 16 percent, a youth unemployment rate of nearly 33 percent, widespread underemployment, rampant corruption and currency manipulation, stagnant manufacturing and agricultural sectors, minimal foreign investment outside the oil sector, a debt-to-GDP ratio that more than doubled from 32 percent in 2014 to 67 percent in 2016, and a bloated public sector that accounts for 50 percent of the workforce — and whose payroll has skyrocketed to the point where it now consumes 40 percent of the annual budget, up from 7 percent in 2004. It goes without saying that Iraq can use all of the economic help it can get, and for a long while.

An American economic aid program of (ideally) $1–2 billion per year for five years would reinforce to Iraqis that the United States is making a long-term commitment to Iraq’s stability and development. (So far, the Trump administration has only been willing to commit to $150 million in reconstruction assistance for 2018).

Symbolically, that is worth far more than the practical impact of the dollars spent. Moreover, foreign economic assistance can have an outsized effect in Iraq because Baghdad is so inefficient, corrupt, and bottlenecked that external assistance provided directly to those who will spend it comes faster and is of greater utility than trying to squeeze dinars through the Iraqi bureaucracy.

Diplomatic assistance. Security and economics are not the only areas where Iraq needs help. Baghdad still needs to put to bed a variety of issues with its neighbors stemming from past problems — like reparations from Saddam’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Of greater importance still, the more the international community can contribute to Iraq’s security and economic problems, the better.

American diplomacy proved the key to securing major financial support from the IMF and World Bank after the ISIS invasion and the collapse of oil prices in 2014–2015. Foreign and international assistance thus complements and multiplies American aid.

Beyond the possibility of American economic assistance looms the tantalizing prospect of GCC aid. Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, and conceivably Saudi Arabia could provide even greater economic support to Iraq, and do so more easily than the United States. GCC economic aid guided by American know-how and secured by an American military presence would be an ideal way of providing Iraq with the resources it needs to succeed.

Political guidance. Ultimately, the key to Iraq’s success or failure will be its nascent political system. And that’s where Iraq needs the most help of all. Iraq will have national elections in May and these must be fair and free. More important still, the political process to form a government after the elections must abide by Iraq’s democratic rules, so that we do not make the same mistake we made in 2010 that started Iraq back down the road to autocracy and civil war.

Iraq’s Sunni populace needs to be reintegrated into its political system, its administrative apparatus, and its economy. That means fostering national reconciliation, formal or informal, that in turn produces a new power-sharing agreement to allow all of Iraq’s fearful communities, but particularly the Sunni and Shi’a Arabs, to begin cooperating again.

Iraq will have to develop a federal structure (as envisioned in the current Iraqi constitution) that delegates greater authority and autonomy to its various ethnic, sectarian and geographic components.

Finally, the relationship between Iraq and its Kurdish population will have to be sorted out, and this too is so thorny that it demands a third-party mediator. The United States should inaugurate Iraqi-Kurdish talks on two parallel, simultaneous tracks: One focusing on a process for determining Kurdistan’s long-term status, either as a part of Iraq or a separate state; and a second focusing on Baghdad-Erbil relations in the short term, to include sticky issues like security cooperation, administration of Kurdish occupied territory, oil revenues, and fiscal policy.

The problem is that the United States is no longer the occupying power in Iraq. Iraqis aren’t going to listen to the US, let alone do as we suggest if we don’t have skin in the game and we aren’t committing resources to empower Iraqi leaders who want to move Iraq in the direction we think best.

There are plenty of moderate, secular, nationalist Iraqis of all sects and ethnicities who would love to build exactly the kind of strong, independent, peaceful, and prosperous Iraq that we seek and that would be able (and willing) to stand up to Iran.

The problem is that if the United States and our allies do not commit resources these Iraqis can then use for those goals, they are going to fail. They are going to fail because Iraq does not have enough of those resources of its own for them to employ, and their adversaries — starting with the corrupt, sectarian, chauvinists backed by Iran — will have resources they will use to push Iraqi politics in the direction that they and the Iranians want to take Iraq.

Hard, but hardly impossible

America’s painful history with Iraq ought to make this approach a no-brainer. The United States has repeatedly tried to walk away from Iraq, only to have it fall quickly into war and chaos and force us to come back and clean up the mess at a much greater cost than it would have taken to prevent in the first place.

Candidate Trump was spot on when he criticized the Obama administration for abandoning Iraq, which led directly to the ISIS invasion and the long, costly war that followed. Unfortunately, President Trump now seems intent on repeating that mistake, planning to cut or discontinue American economic assistance to Iraq and minimize any residual troop presence.

Then there is the question of what Iran will do. Whenever I lay this out, I typically get asked, “Don’t the Iranians know this and won’t they try to stop us?” Yes and No. The problem with this question is that it assumes that Iran’s highest priority in Iraq is blocking the United States and that Iran can easily do so.

While Iran certainly dislikes the American presence in Iraq, it mostly has not opposed it since 2003. That is because Iran has higher priorities that have led it to take a non-confrontational approach toward the United States in Iraq, like maintaining Iraqi stability and avoiding a conventional war with the United States. Both are likely to remain powerful motives for Iran today and for the foreseeable future, especially as the clerical regime seeks to restore its own internal control over the 2017–2018 riots.

Thus, Iran may continue to tolerate a significant American role in Iraq because doing so will serve some of its most important interests there, it may not want to pay the costs and run the risks of trying to evict the United States, and it likely recognizes that the Americans will eventually leave.

Even if it takes 10 years, the Iranians can probably wait. Meantime, they will continue to maneuver behind the scenes to maintain their influence over Iraqi leaders.

On the other hand, Iranian leaders and their proxies have demanded that American troops leave and threatened to attack them if they don’t. This may be nothing more than a bluff or a negotiating position. Or it may be exactly what Iran intends.

If the Iranians decide they do want to try to force the United States out, and they try to do so by having their terrorist allies begin mounting attacks on American personnel, it will be important for the United States to respond forcefully to demonstrate that Iran will pay a high price for doing so.

I would argue for immediate cyber, covert, or direct military strikes against discreet Iranian military targets — sinking Iranian warships in the Persian Gulf, for instance — to convince Tehran the United States will not tolerate the killing of Americans and will not allow Iran to operate with impunity through Iraqi cut-outs.

The American military wanted to adopt this course of action in 2007-2008, but the George W. Bush administration chose not to for fear of starting a covert war with Iran in Iraq at a time when the US Surge was just beginning to show results.

Today, the circumstances are very different and US allies will be watching carefully to see if Washington is willing to allow Tehran to murder Americans without suffering any consequences. Doing so would entirely undermine a US strategy of pushing back on Iran.

There is no question that pushing back on Iran is a lot more complicated in Iraq than it is in Syria. The US has far greater interests in Iraq, there is real but fragile progress in Iraq that the United States does not want to see trashed, and Iran’s proximity and extensive ties make it more important to Tehran and give the Iranians more cards to play.

But the Iranians cannot afford to break Iraq either; they face important obstacles to their influence, and they are wary of provoking a direct American military response. That creates the space for the United States to make a determined, sustained effort to help Iraq build itself back up militarily, economically, and politically to the point where Iraqis feel strong enough and confident enough to push back on Iran themselves.

And what we have seen in the past is that when the Iraqis want to push Iran out of their country, they do it far more effectively than the United States can.

Meanwhile, the dangers of leaving Iraq vulnerable to falling increasingly under Iran’s sway are too great to tolerate. With Iraq under its control, Iran would have a firm grip on the “Shi’a crescent” stretching from Beirut to Chahbahar and the opportunity to begin competing for influence deeper in the Arab world. In contrast, the more independent Iraq is, the more Iran will be shut out of the wider Middle East.

That makes building a strong, stable, independent Iraq critical to an American strategy of pushing back on Iran, to go along with America’s intrinsic interests in a stable, peaceful Iraq. And the best thing is that the same strategy is required to secure both sets of interests.

A look ahead

So that is how I see a strategy of pushing back on Iran should be applied in Iraq. Tomorrow, I will address how such a strategy should address the Iranian nuclear threat and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Find Parts 1, 2, and 3 of this series here, here, and here.

Kenneth M. Pollack is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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