Dr. Mohammed Shummary*
Over the past two decades, the relationship between Iraq and Iran has been characterized as a complex and unequal relationship. The relationship is premised on geography, culture, politics, and religion, but there are also divided and conflicted attitudes toward the relationship. There are those that regard and champion the relationship as organic, while others see it as one of exploitation by Iran and governed by negative historical attitudes and inherited grudges.
This disparity in attitudes was reinforced by what is seen as an inequality between the two parties, specifically after 2003, when Iran, a pivotal country in the Middle East, exerted unprecedented influence over Iraqi affairs amid a dramatically diminished Iraqi state, one that could not manage the implications of such influence, as well as the influence and engagement of other regional actors. This policy note explains the fundamental dynamics that underscores Iraq’s relationship with Iran and provides analyses and recommendations that could pave the way for a mutually beneficial relationship, one that is underpinned by both political and popular perceptions toward Iran in a political and social climate that has undergone important changes in recent years.
COMPLEXITIES OF THE RELATIONSHIP
The complexities of the inequality in the Iraq-Iran relationship were reflected in the domestic and external perceptions of the Iraqi state, and with it, a wide spectrum of Iraqis saw the relationship as one of the factors behind the decline of state institutions, both because of Iran’s influence over political elites on the one hand and, on the other, because influential regional and international decision-makers believed Iraq fell almost completely under Iran’s influence. Regardless of whether this view was correct, exaggerated, or politically imposed, the impressions formed by decision making structures, elites, and societies added additional complexities and layers to the Iraq-Iran relationship, one that impeded the relationship from developing in a mutually beneficial manner.
The Iranian decision-maker views Iraq as a priority area of interest for Iranian national security interests. The largest proportion of threats that Iran has faced has emanated from Iraq, as a consequence of geopolitical tensions and conflicts, the role and engagement of international actors and domestic politics and conflicts. On the other hand, ideological motives play a major role in shaping Iran’s policy towards Iraq. The majority of Iran and Iraq’s population adhere to Twelver Shiism, and since the ideology that underpins Iran’s regime is based on the universality of the Iranian revolution, it is natural that Iraq represents a cornerstone of this ideological framework. Iraq also has the longest border with Iran, and, additionally, there are economic factors that drive the relationship between the two countries, which have become increasingly important amid the economic crisis in Iran.
The Iranian interest in Iraq is not the result of a phased realization, but rather the result of a long history of conflicts and influence in which Iran has been involved, including conflicts with and within Iraq.
Any ruling political system in Iran will consequently continue to seek the same goals, albeit with different tools, and this is reflected in the policies of both the Islamic Republic and the pre-revolution Shah era. Similarly, Iraq’s behavior towards Iran is governed by internal motives and ideologies, some of which are legacies of the former Baath regime in Iraq. After 2003, the motives and ideologies of the new ruling elite contradicted with those of the pre- 2003 regime, producing contradictions and pluralism that has come to characterize the political system in Iraq.
The Shiites have stuck to the idea that Iran is of vital importance to them, regardless of the nature of the regime in Iran. The historical concern of the Shiites centres on being a minority in a region with a Sunni majority, one that has motivated them to strengthen their power with Iranian support. Shiites in Iraq believe that such support and Iran itself provides them with strategic depth, and deeply governs the way they engage Iran.
OTHER ACTORS AND COMMUNITIES
On the other hand, the Kurds realize that Iran has historically influenced their security, whether that is because of geographic or because of the historical relationship between the Kurdish leadership and Iran, in addition to the presence of a significant Kurdish population in Iran. While the Kurds maintain strong ties to the West, they are also careful to avoid provoking Iran. This was obvious in several recent events, including the formation of successive governments in Baghdad, the possibility of an ISIS offensive into Erbil, and the events that followed the Kurdish independence referendum.
As for the Sunnis, the issue is more complicated. Both historical events and current regional attitudes in the Arab world influence Sunni perceptions toward and engagement with Iran. But Sunni political leaders also realize that maintaining cordial ties with Iran is an essential gateway to influencing and pressuring Shiite parties.
Similarly, after the war on ISIS, the direct presence of Shiite factions in the Sunni areas, led Sunni leaders to believe that the situation in Iraq is governed by regional and international dynamics, within which the margin for dealing with Iranian influence narrowed.
In light of this complexity, Iraqi political behavior towards Iranian influence was characterized by weakness and hesitation, due to the nature of that influence as well as the popular discontent toward the overall performance of ruling elites. Consequently, Iraqi state institutions were unable to adopt a clear position and vision for Iraq’s policy toward Iran.
The divisions were between those who are calling for joining the axis of resistance led by Iran in the region and who is calling for confronting Iranian influence through any available means, similar to the measures adopted by the former Baath regime. This lack of clarity was reinforced by the nature of Iranian behavior in Iraq, especially since Iran’s security interests constituted the essence of Iran’s engagement with Iraq.
The management of the Iraqi file in Iraq was securitized and prioritized building ties that protected and enhanced Iran’s security interests. This approach had significant benefits during the battle against ISIS, and at the time many Iraqis saw Iranian support as an essential element of the victory against the terrorist group. cuts to the public sector wage bill, strengthening the bank sector, legal reforms, advancing digitalization and improving government services and infrastructure.
In recent years, the transformations that Iraq has witnessed has led large groups of people to favor economics and services as immediate priorities over political, security and ideological issues. Furthermore, in light of the weak performance of the government, discontent with the political performance and conflicted elites is rising. Thus, the rejection of the Iranian role in Iraq was reinforced by some statements by Iranian officials that provoked the Iraqis and increased concern over Iranian ambitions in Iraq.
Any approach that seeks to correct the relationship between the two parties should take in consideration two basic facts: The first is that Iran will always view Iraq as a priority in its foreign policy – whatever the form of the ruling regime in Iran – where the geopolitical, ideological and security elements that govern that perception are characterized by high stability. The second is that the Iraqi environment is characterized as being highly inclined to change, which makes the Iraqi perception susceptible to change, which requires adaptation and dealing with that perception as it is, rather than trying to change the perception, which has not succeeded during the last period.
BUILDING ON THE POSITIVES
And there are positive elements of how Iraqis view Iran that can be built upon in developing an effective Iranian policy that deals with the Iraqi issue, including security support for Iraq during the period of the war against ISIS, as well as the belief within Iraq that Iran has succeeded in managing its economic crisis under international pressure, relying on its capabilities to achieve a level of self- sufficiency that Iraqis aspire to achieve.
There is deep admiration among Iraqis – including those that harbor anti-Iranian regime feelings – toward Iranian art, culture and education, including the progress that Iranian scientific institutions amid worsening standards in Iraq’s education system. These elements can collectively be capitalized on by Iran to form a policy that is an alternative to the security considerations that characterizes its behavior in Iraq. On the other hand, Iraq’s options seem limited under current circumstances. Unless political stability in Iraq is achieved through a balanced formula for governance, it is difficult to establish a clear and consensus driven foreign policy towards Iran.
However, at a minimum, there are principles that can be agreed upon and adhered to by Iraq’s government: that Iraq will not be an enemy of Iran, that Iraq wants as much as it can achieve from the relationship, that Iraq understands and takes into account Iran’s security concerns but that Iraq will not allow Iran to interfere in its internal affairs, and we seek, through frank dialogue, to resolve outstanding problems. This can be separated by a comprehensive agreement between the two countries that presents the values of complementarity, cooperation, and mutual respect.
Any efforts to correct the relationship between the two countries requires political will; while this may be achieved in Iran, Iraq is in a need to to achieve a minimum agreement among its ruling elites that gives the Iraqi government clarity and a decisive mandate to deal with the intricacies of the relationship, one that provides it with the ability to manage the complexities of the relationship, and gradually solving the inequality between the countries. Without these, the relationship will continue to be unstable and subject to flux – which is not in the interest neither Iran or Iraq.
*The English version was published on:
**Dr. Mohammed Shummary/ An Academic and Founder & CEO of Sumeria