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Gap Widens in Unequal Relationship between Iran, Iraq
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (left) and Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi shake hands during a joint news conference in Baghdad on March 11. (Iranian Presidency - handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Gap Widens in Unequal Relationship between Iran, Iraq

Experts say Islamic Republic’s increasing dominance of neighbor is cause for concern to US and entire region

Iran and Iraq’s relationship is growing closer, as Baghdad becomes very much dependent on the Islamic Republic.

In Tehran this week, Gen. Tariq Abbas Ibrahim Abdulhussein, deputy commander of the Iraqi Army, met with the commander of Iran’s ground forces, Brig.-Gen. Kioomars Heidari, to discuss joint military exercises. Shi’ite militias, whose leaders have ties to Iran, have already been co-opted into Iraq’s security forces.

Earlier this month, the US granted Baghdad another sanctions waiver to continue importing oil from the Islamic Republic. In March, President Hassan Rouhani visited Iraq, the first such visit by an Iranian leader in six years.

Iran and Iraq both benefit from their relationship and the countries have common interests. They neighbor each other and have populations that are majority Shi’ite Muslims.

“Their livelihood in both the short run and the long run depends on a peaceful and civil relationship,” Dr. Hamid Zangeneh, a former economics professor at Pennsylvania’s Widener University and a member of the American Iranian Council’s publication review committee, told The Media Line. “Also, their economies are deeply intertwined and cannot be easily disentangled.”

Dr. Yoel Guzansky, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line that “Iraq is becoming more and more of a client state of Iran,” using a term to describe a relationship between two countries in which “one is more powerful than the other, be it in wealth, governmentally or its ability to exert force.”

Guzansky explained that Iraq receives electricity from Iran and also needs Tehran’s cooperation regarding water, as the sources of many of its rivers are in Iran. According to Zangeneh, Iraq depends on the Islamic Republic for food but does benefit from “billions of dollars” spent by Iranian pilgrims visiting religious sites.

Their relationship, Guzansky says, allows Iran to increase its influence in the international arena, particularly in Iraq and the broader Middle East. It also lessens the impact of US sanctions.

“Iran needs Iraq to smuggle oil. It uses actors in Iraq to try to get the oil to other places,” he said.

Iranian influence, says Kanishkan Sathasivam, professor of political science at Salem State University in Massachusetts, has the potential to exacerbate tensions between the different population groups in Iraq.

“Domestically, it could reinflame sectarian conflict if its Sunni and Kurdish populations begin to feel antagonized,” Sathasivam told The Media Line.

According to Guzansky, Iraq could acquire leverage over Iran by turning to other countries in the Middle East.

“In order for Iraq to balance the relationship, it needs to forge ties with neighbors,” he said. “It signals to Iran that Iraq has options.”

He added that Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi was trying to deepen ties with the Saudis, Jordanians and Kuwaitis, although Iran’s dominance has impeded this ability.

“It’s not good for the region and the international community to think [that] Iraq is in Iran’s pocket,” Guzansky said. “Being [seen as being] in the image of Iran has prevented Arab Sunni [states] from forming ties with Iraq.”

This is now changing. Saudi Arabia announced in April that it would invest $1 billion in Iraq.

Iran’s role in Iraq is of increasing concern to the leaders of other Middle Eastern countries. As Guzansky puts it, “Iran is like an octopus extending its arms to many, many places,” including backing Houthi rebels in Yemen and President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war.

Sathasivam believes that Iraq is a crucial country in the region based on its location.

“Iraq is essentially a crossroads of sorts within the Middle East, with the key states of Iran, Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia in each of the four directions around it,” he told The Media Line.

Iraq provides Iran a geographical connection to its allies in Syria and Lebanon, he said, adding that, on the other hand, the country could be an essential player in the region’s efforts to keep the Islamic Republic in check.

Iranian dominance of Iraq “complicates Saudi Arabia’s efforts to create an anti-Iran bloc from among the Arab states because Iraq would be a necessary piece of any such bloc given that it shares a long border with Iran,” Sathasivam explained.

Iraq is indeed a crucial player in the dynamics of the Middle East, especially regarding oil.

“[In Iraq], Iran gains a valuable and powerful ally within OPEC against Saudi Arabia,” Sathasivam said.

Iran’s reach into Iraq also has serious foreign policy implications for the United States. It undermines US trade and Washington’s sanctions on Iran, and threatens to destroy any gains from the 2003 Iraq War.

Robert Jervis, a professor of international affairs at Columbia University, told The Media Line that Iranian influence in Iraq “can undercut the effort to isolate Iran, menace US forces in the area and render the entire enterprise in Iraq valueless.”

Sathasivam agreed.

“Without Iraq, it is very difficult to isolate Iran within the region and to cut it off from its friends in Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories,” he said.

INSS’s Guzansky contends that the US is not addressing Iran’s influence in Iraq with sufficient urgency.

“I don’t see any coherent strategy trying to push back on Iran. The entire US strategy is focused on the [Iraqi] prime minister and less on the economy and on society,” Guzansky said. “It’s not as broad as it should be.”

Some experts believe that Iran will continue its efforts to deepen ties with Iraq, thus creating an even greater power imbalance between the two.

“The big question,” says Sathasivam, “is how close will be too close for the Iraqis.”

(Tara Kavaler is an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Studies)

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