By Jill Ricotta
Since 2003, Iran and the US have engaged in a regional tug-of-war, with Iraq as the main battlefield. Iran’s natural role as a hegemon in the Persian Gulf region has only increased since the US invasion of Iraq removed the tripolar system previously in place (Iran-Iraq-Saudi Arabia), allowing the Islamic Republic to emerge as the main opposing power to longtime US ally, Saudi Arabia. Most American analysis has viewed Iran’s growing power in Iraq as a negative for US interests in the region. However, there are strategic benefits to a US-Iran partnership in Iraq, particularly in fighting ISIS and any other forms of Sunni insurgency. Both the US and Iran also need Iraq to emerge as a stable, unified country. For Iran this means maintaining control over its neighbor and benefiting from a prosperous Iraq politically, economically, and security-wise, while keeping it from reemerging as a regional powerhouse. For the United States, a successful Iraq would reverse the popular notion that the 2003 invasion has only brought less democracy and more instability into the region. A stable Iraq would also cease to be a breeding ground for terrorism and protect Iraqi oil exports. Since the United States and Iran have little to no open diplomacy, a public moment of collaboration is necessary in order to lay the groundwork for further cooperation in Iraq.
A successful P5+1 agreement on Iran’s nuclear program in June would allow the United States to explore different options in regional policy. A potential partnership with Iran has been ignored in the past, to the detriment of both parties. The public diplomatic victory of P5+1 talks could allow the Obama administration to work more openly with Iran on common security goals in Iraq. This paper will give an overview of how Iran is pushing for a more stable Iraq, free of ISIS, and the potential opportunities and issues for the US, the Islamic Republic’s involvement presents.
Since the devolution of Iraq into civil war in the mid-2000s, Iran has shifted some of its funding away from Shi’i political parties and towards militias. The main conduit for the funds was the Al-Quds Brigade commander Qassem Soleimani, whose ties to Iraqi militias include Moqtada al-Sadr. Soleimani has traveled extensively to Iraq since IS’s advances in the North during the summer of 2014, making him the most visible symbol of Iran’s presence on the Iraqi battlefield. His presence and frequent meetings with Shi’i militias, compounded by the inflow of arms, signify Iran’s willingness to commit to a long-term security strategy in Iraq.
Even before the incursion of the Islamic State into large swaths of Iraq, supporting Shi’i militias has been beneficial for Iran. Firstly, Iran uses transnational Shi’i identity to expand its authority amongst the Arab Shi’a community. Secondly, the militias provide protection for the Shi’i holy sites in Karbala and the traditional seat of Shi’i learning in Najaf. As Iranians stream into Iraq year after year for pilgrimage and study, Iraq’s ability to secure these cities takes on a more pressing nature. More than one million Iranians performed pilgrimage to Iraq during the mourning period of Shi’i Imam Hussein in 2014, and the Islamic Republic needs Iraqi militias to keep IS from attacking these sites and their access roads. Preventing a security breakdown in Iraq allows Iran to foster the dependent relationship without Iraq devolving into a chaotic state that would jeopardize its interests. It also allows the Iranian government to achieve the security “it was not able to win in the Iran-Iraq war” by influencing these militias, particularly since the Iranian public generally sees a stable Shi’a controlled Iraq as an ally, not a threat. Shi’i militias that align with Iran receive tangible and immediate rewards, including more sophisticated arms, training, and advisors in Tehran to help plan attacks against the IS. This mutually beneficial partnership has led to strong relationships between the Iran and most of the Shi’i militias patrolling Southern Iraq. Iran’s support for the Shi’a militias has provided the largest amount of boots on the ground in fighting the IS, boots that the United States can no longer deliver. With the collapse of the US organized Iraqi Army, the Iran backed Shi’a militias, in combination with the Peshmerga, are the best opportunity to keep the IS from advancing further in Iraq. The infrastructure Iran has provided in parts of Iraq also provides for an easier control and surveillance of the country, essential for the Iraqi state to secure its territory.
Iran has also provided support for Iraqi Kurdistan and its forces, the Peshmerga. Masoud Barzani, the current president of the semi-autonomous region, publically acknowledged that Iran provided the Kurdish militias with arms to fight against the IS from the beginning of the campaign. Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran have continued to strengthen military ties throughout the campaign against the IS, especially as the professional nature of the Peshmerga has been celebrated both in Iraq and abroad. The Islamic Republic has used the connection between the Iranian and Iraqi sections of Kurdistan to strengthen these ties and keep the border relatively porous. Iran’s military alliance with Iraqi Kurdistan shows that the Islamic Republic is willing to use transnational identities to back any formidable force that can provide stability to Iraq, not just Shi’i groups.
These two groups, Arab Shi’a and the Kurds, are the same armed groups that benefited from the US’s patronage in fighting the Sunni insurgency in the mid-2000s. Now they can be utilized to prevent the spread of the IS, which the US sees as one of its most pressing concerns in the region. US Secretary of State John Kerry has already indicated that Iran-US cooperation is a possibility, a statement that would not likely have been made if Iran was refusing to engage in the P5+1 negotiations. Rouhani also indicated an openness to engage to with the U.S. on fixing the worsening situation in Iraq. This possible alliance, limited to the Iraqi case, could quickly transform the situation on the ground, and perhaps undermine the IS’s strongholds on Syria as well. If the US and Iran work together to support the Kurds and Shi’as in fighting for a stable Iraq, both countries would make regional security gains, while keeping their favored Iraqi groups in power. If this cooperation were to happen it would be the first time the US and Iran openly worked together on regional security since 1979, and would signal a shift in the US’s regional policies. However, there is danger in arming the Arab Shi’i militias since they have been accused of committing sectarian based crimes against Sunni civilian communities. The Kurdish military has also been accused of treating the Arabs in its territories poorly. Any support of these militias must be undertaken with the awareness that abuse of power by either group would reignite hostilities and entrench the sectarian divides already present in Iraq. Therefore, any providing support to militias in Iraq must be embarked on with caution by both Iran and the United States. If the IS is defeated, one of the major issues that would emerge is the role of these militias in the future of Iraq. Existing outside of the state control is an unsustainable option, as it could destabilize the country further. US-Iran cooperation with the Iraqi government could find a way to absorb the militias into the government, while still allowing the Iraqi Shi’a and Kurdish populations to feel safe and adequately protected. This incorporation, if done properly and with involvement from Sunni tribes, could ease sectarian tensions and provide a long-term security solution.
Post-2003 Iraq has strengthened its economic ties with Iran in addition to its military dependency. Iran-Iraq trade has been one of the most stable relationships in the region, with a volume of $12 billion in 2013 alone, and only half of that figure is due to oil trade. Iraq is one of the main markets for Iranian exports, which has become even more crucial for the Islamic Republic since the increase in Western sanctions. The Iranian auto company “Iran Khodro” also produces cars in Iraq, and has worked in collaboration with Iraqi companies on manufacturing and building factories. Iraq has emerged post-2003 as one of Iran’s top five trade partners, further strengthened by Iranian foreign direct investment in infrastructure and sectors related to pilgrimages to Shi’i holy cities. In Iraqi Kurdistan, Iran has used its trade relationships to influence the region, and remains one of its strongest trading partners. Although corruption in Iraq remains widespread, Iranian investment has helped guide the country into a stronger economic position. If the sanctions against Iran are lifted, it will only allow the Iranian economy to recover, particularly in opening up international markets to its oil exports. This change would allow Iran to reemerge as an economic powerhouse in the region, which would lead to it strengthening the deep ties that already exist with its neighbor. The United States has already punished some Iraqi institutions for aiding Iran in avoiding the sanctions. An Iran suffering from fewer sanctions could engage with the international financial system directly, thus allowing Iraq to benefit from trade and exchange without fear of retribution. A drawback to a more financially viable Iran for Iraq is the possibility of Iranian oil reentering the market. However, the amount of trade between the countries overpowers the threat of competition as a driving force in Iraq-Iran relations. At present, Iran is one of the few countries willing to invest in Iraq economically, particularly outside of the oil industry. If the United States develops its economic interests alongside the Islamic Republic, both countries can ensure that Iraq has the financial ability to function and prosper in the coming decades. Without a viable economy, Iraq runs the risk of not being able to provide enough jobs and opportunities to its population. This issue would eventually lead to instability and allow non-state organizations to fill the voids of the state, as Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood have done in Gaza, South Lebanon, and Egypt, respectively. Since Iraq has numerous ethnic and religious groups, non-state actors providing economic and social services would lead to fragmentation and a fundamental weakening of the central government. If P5+1 allows the US and Iran to work together on Iraq, economic support should be at the forefront of their efforts.
In conclusion, the success of the P5+1 negotiations would allow Iran and Iraq to reshape the regional status quo in ways that could be beneficial for both parties on multiple fronts. If a deal can be reached, the possibility of US-Iran collaboration on the issue of Iraqi security, particularly against the threat of the Islamic State, could provide a stable state that benefits all three countries. As it stands, Iranian funding of Shi’i and Kurdish militias provides the best offense against further IS incursions, which would only be strengthened by any US cooperation and support. The US aiding with airstrikes in Tikrit offered an important first step. The Islamic State cannot be removed by domestic Iraqi campaigns alone. Both the United States and Iran have the most invested in defeating the IS, outside of local actors in Iraq and Syria. A successful campaign against the group requires both American and Iranian support to succeed. Agreements on the nuclear issue would allow Iran and the US to pursue limited opportunities to openly advance shared interests in Iraq. Discussion of Iran and the US’s shared interests in the region has not been considered since the Islamic Revolution. The P5+1 talks provide a landmark opportunity to give the Obama administration and the American public to reconsider its relationship with the Islamic Republic, particularly as it relates to pressing regional concerns. The lifting of economic sanctions against Iran would encourage Iraq to continue to build its economic ties with its neighbor via both Erbil and Baghdad. A stronger Iranian economy would lead to more trade and investment with Iraq, something the country needs after the economic setbacks it has experienced post-2003. A possible nuclear deal would overall be a positive for Iraq, accelerating the country’s slow process of reconstruction and allowing it to build a relationship with Iran that would have been impossible under Saddam Hussein’s rule. Meanwhile, Iran can stabilize the Persian Gulf region while achieving both its security and economic goals. Iran’s success in these endeavors would also allow the United States to benefit from a more stable Middle East with less direct involvement. This paper is not arguing that the United States and Iran are on the verge of a great reconciliation, or that the US will abandon its relationship with Saudi Arabia in favor of Iran. Rather, the goal of this overview of the possibilities of a post-P5+1 Iraq is to demonstrate that the United States and Iran’s interests in the region are not always naturally in direct opposition. Iraq is the most dramatic and pressing case in which both countries can work together to serve both the local population and their long-term strategic goals in the region. A US foreign policy that treats Iran in a pragmatic fashion could be more beneficial for the US and the region overall.
Jill Ricotta is currently a candidate for a master's in Arab Studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. Her research is focused on Arab Shi'i communities, the roots of sectarianism in modern Iraq and Lebanon, as well as Iran's political, cultural, and economic influence in the Arab world. Her thesis at Georgetown will analyze the role of the 1991 uprising in Iraq as a source of sectarian tension and Shi'i political identity. She graduated summa cum laude from the University at Buffalo in 2012 with a bachelor's degree in Political Science and French. She has worked and studied in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Lebanon, Israel-Palestine and France.