Iran’s Widening Tool Box in Iraq
2012-08-03 By Richard Weitz
Iran had several motives for assisting the Iraqi insurgents during the 2005-2008 period.
A first goal was to create a security buffer zone. Many Iranians saw Iraq as their first line of defense against a foreign invasion, considering that many past attacks had come from the west. Iran sought to keep the government in Baghdad friendly but weak by preventing a Saddam-like strongman from consolidating and centralizing power.
Second, many Iranians wanted to strengthen relations with Iraq due to their longstanding ethnic, religious, and political ties with that country.
Third, Iran aimed to curtail U.S. influence in the Middle East. Iranians do not want liberal democratic governments to spread across the Middle East, or a U.S.-backed client state to emerge on their western border, or the Pentagon to have military bases in Iraq without armed resistance.
Encouraging armed resistance against Western occupation forces and their local allies keeps Western attention focused on instability in Iraq rather than preparing for possible military action against Iran.
Yet, Iranians do not want Iraq to become a failed state due to the potential for the country’s dissolution to adversely affect Iran, such as by encouraging a wider sectarian war that would align Iraqi and Iranian Kurds.
The U.S. military did push back against Iranian support for Iraqi insurgent attacks against the U.S. occupation troops and their Iraqi allies. The Pentagon has held Iran responsible for contributing to the violence in Iraq by funding, training, and arming various militias. In November 2006, with sectarian fighting in Iraq increasing, U.S. General John Abizaid accused the Quds Force of supporting Shiite death squads, even while the Iranian government pledged to support efforts to quell the violence. Similarly, in July 2007, Major General Kevin Bergner of the U.S. Army alleged that members of the Quds Force aided a January 2007 attack on U.S. forces in Karbala.
President Bush responded by formally authorizing U.S. troops to kill Iranian Quds members operating in Iraq. U.S. troops raided an Iranian consulate in northern Iraq, detained a number of Iranian operatives, and seized several key documents. The U.S. Air Force also intensified its patrols of the Iran-Iraq border. Bush warned the United States would “respond firmly” if Iran continued to endanger U.S. personnel in Iraq, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged renewed efforts at diplomacy. Acting on such hopes for peaceful resolution, the U.S. military in November 2007 released nine detainees originally thought to be Quds Force members. The move followed a pledge by Tehran that it would not arm, fund, and train extremists in Iraq.
The United States was less willing to yield to Iranian demands to suppress Iranian dissident groups in exile in Iraq.
In 2004, Iranian pressure induced Iraqi military forces to close the camp of a major Iranian exile group, the Mujahideen-e-Kalq (MEK), apparently at Tehran’s request. The MEK, an Iranian opposition group also known as People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, has revealed important intelligence regarding Iran’s nuclear activities. It also fought against the Iranian government in the 1980-88 War and has since conducted terrorist attacks inside Iran. The MEK remains a security concern for Iran, but without its sponsor and protector, Saddam Hussein, it now has little operational capacity. The MEK camps in Iraq were bombed by U.S. forces in April 2003 and eventually surrounded. UN and U.S. pressure delayed the dismantlement of its main facility, Camp Ashraf near the Iraqi-Iranian border, but the group has been disarmed and is being relocated away from the frontier.
Iran’s political influence began to transform when insurgent violence waned in late 2008 and Iraqi’s civilian politicians became the dominant force in the country, a process amplified by the ongoing U.S. military withdrawal.
Instead of providing insurgent support, Iran has focused on establishing closer diplomatic and economic ties with Iraq.
Trade between both countries has increased exponentially and the two governments have signed cooperation agreements in the areas of insurance, customs treatment, immigration, intelligence sharing, industry, education, environmental protection, tourism, and transportation.
An increased emphasis on bilateral diplomacy has resulted in a sizable number of summits and diplomatic exchanges.
Prime Minister al-Maliki has made several state visits to Iran since 2006. In March 2008, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the first Iranian president to visit Iraq since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution. Iran now has an embassy in Baghdad and three consulate generals in Sulaimaniya, Arbil and Karbala, while Iraq has an embassy in Tehran and three consulate generals in Kermanshah, Ahvaz and Mashhad. Meetings between senior Iraqi and Iranian officials also regularly occur. For example, on May 2, 2011, Iraqi Army Chief Lieutenant General Babakir Zebari held a meeting with Iran’s ambassador in Baghdad, Hassan Danaifar, where Zebari proposed to Danaifar that Iraq and Iran form the core of a new regional security organization.
Diplomacy has also reduced tensions over war reparations and border disputes.
For instance, Iran and Iraq have resolved to end disputes over the Fakka oil field in Maysan province through talks rather than a repeat of the December 2009 incident when Iranian troops occupied the contested field. Valuable oil deposits crisscross the Iranian-Iraqi boundary, so future border negotiations are likely. The Iraqi government has adopted the mainstream Arab position regarding Iran’s nuclear program. While calling on Iran to comply with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which deny it the right to have nuclear weapons, Iraq has joined other Arab states in expressing support for Iran’s right to a peaceful nuclear energy and research program.
Iraqi-Iranian economic ties have significantly strengthened in recent years, with Iran becoming Iraq’s largest trading partner along with Turkey.
The largest Iranian imports into Iraq are fresh produce, processed foodstuffs, cheap consumer goods, cars, and construction materials such as cement, glass, and bricks to Iraq. Iraqi exports to Iran consist largely of crude and refined oil products. In addition, Iraqis and Iranians have colluded to circumvent UN sanctions against Tehran.
Furthermore, Iranians have invested some $8 billion in Iraq, helping promote that country’s reconstruction.
The two countries had signed more than 100 economic and cooperation agreements. Iranian investment concentrates most heavily in southern and central Iraq, especially in the energy and infrastructure sectors.
Despite international sanctions, Iranian banks have assumed a prominent position in Iraq. Iranian banks in Iraq now include a Bank Melli branch in Baghdad, an agricultural bank, and three retail banks with branches in Baghdad, Najaf, and Karbala. This development has allowed Iraqi banks to open letters of credit with Iranian banks, thereby facilitating trade. The Iranian government has also offered Iraq a number of billion-dollar soft loans to undertake projects in Iraq that use Iranian contractors and equipment.
Energy sharing and other economic projects are major staples of this bilateral relationship.
Iran has made up for Iraq’s electricity shortages by supplying about 10 percent of Iraq’s needs (the percentage is actually much higher for several provinces that border Iran). In May 2011, Iraq and Iran signed a pioneering natural gas agreement. Under this arrangement, Iraq’s Electricity Ministry will import Iranian natural gas and construct a pipeline running from Iran’s natural gas fields to Iraq and Syria. The contract is important for the Iranian economy due to the sanctions currently imposed on Iran because of the international standoff over its nuclear activities. Even so, many Iraqis believe that Iran manipulates these energy supplies for political ends.
Even when the United States had a strong presence and considerable influence in Iraq, the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations unenthusiastically accepted that Iran would invariably be an important player in post-occupation Iraq. American officials therefore intermittently engaged in talks with Iranians to discuss Iraqi affairs.
One factor working in Iran’s favor was that it enjoyed more popular backing than the United States.
A graphic symbol of the two countries’ relative public support in Iraq came in March 2008, when President Ahmadinejad received an enthusiastic, red carpet reception in Baghdad. In stark contrast, when President Bush visited Iraq in September 2007, he had to do so by entering the country at a U.S. military base in Anbar province with no advance public announcement and with little popular enthusiasm among Iraqis.
The extent of cordial ties between Baghdad and Tehran were also apparent in the summer of 2009.
In this period, Iraqi officials were noticeably quiet about the political turmoil in their eastern neighbor, manifested by mass street protests calling for greater democracy, following Iran’s controversial presidential election.
U.S. officials who thought that Iraqi democrats might back Iranian reformers against Ahmadinejad and the Islamic hardliners were disappointed.
This same pattern subsequently occurred in Syria, where the Iraqi government has joined with Iran in supporting the Bashar Assad regime against a mass popular uprising.
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