The 2003 invasion of Iraq by the American-led coalition was a turning point in Iran-Iraq relations, altering not only the balance of power in the region but also giving Tehran unprecedented freedom to exercise power in Iraq. For the last two decades, Iraq has been seen as the ‘client state’ of the Islamic Republic, but this situation is starting to change.
Following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Iran did not support the American-led coalition but continued to host many Shia political organizations opposed to the Iraqi regime. Support for such organizations later became an indispensable political asset for Tehran. Following the over-throw of Saddam in 2003, the Tehran-backed parties reached the corridors of power and the emerging political reality in Iraq led to the normalization of the ties between the two countries.
As well as strengthening its political influence, Iran expanded its economic role in Iraq, with which it shares a 1,458km border. By 2016, Iran was Iraq’s third-largest trading partner. Iraq is also Iran’s second-biggest non-oil export destination after China. On average, Iran has exported $6-6.5 billion worth of commodities to Iraq per annum in the past three years. Conversely, Iraq’s exports to Iran have amounted to only $50-60 million.
After 2003, the rise of extremist Sunni organizations and the fall of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, to the Islamic State (IS) was another important turning point in Iran-Iraq relations. In contrast to the United States, Tehran was quick to respond to the looming threat and provided much-needed support both to the Iraqi central government and the Iraqi Kurdish region.
One of the key actors in the anti-IS campaign was the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). PMF is a loose coalition of groups whose fighters are either loyal to Iraq’s religious or political leaders, or Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. In 2014, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shiite religious scholar, issued a religious decree to fight IS. Many of the fighters were empowered by Iran who already had a well-established connection to various Shiite militias that had existed in Iraq for many years.
Although Iran has deep connections to many Shiite militias such as the Badr Brigade, not all Shiite factions are supportive of Iran’s role in Iraq. In fact, some very influential Shiite clerics have openly criticized Iran and its religio-political system. On 6 March 2018, Iranian security forces arrested Hussein Shirazi in the city of Qom. He was beaten and insulted in front of his father, Grand Ayatollah Sayed Sadeq Shirazi. Hussein’s arrest was the result of a lecture he delivered to Qom seminary students on jurisprudence, in which he compared the practices of Iran’s supreme leader to those of tyrannical Egyptian pharaohs who were not accountable to anyone. The Shirazi family are originally Iranian but have roots in Iraq that date back 150 years. Shirazi theologians have a broad following across Shiite communities in Iraq and the wider Middle East.
The most recent blow to Iranian influence was the victory of Muqtada al-Sadr’s political coalition in the Iraqi parliamentary elections in May 2018. The nationalist Shiite cleric has been an outspoken critic of Iran and the US for years, making him popular with millions of Shiites who feel they have not benefitted from their government’s close connection to either Tehran or Washington.
For years, al-Sadr was sidelined by Iranian-backed rivals, but he was able to capitalize politically on widespread corruption – although his own followers have also been tainted with corruption – and economic mismanagement to revitalize his position. He reached out to poor Shiites, marginalized Sunnis and even secular parties who wanted a change in Baghdad. Although his former militia, the Mahdi Army, played a role in the bloody Shia-Sunni war in 2005-2006, he managed to restore links with powerful Sunni neighbours such as Saudi Arabia. Unlike Iranian-backed rivals, he crossed sectarian lines to broaden his support and unite a wide base over tangible issues such as the economy and quality of life. Although he cannot form a government on his own or become prime minister, he will play an important role in shaping a new political climate that is likely to be more resilient to Iranian influence.