In the U.S.-Led Iraq War, Iran Was the Big Winner


If guests to Baghdad knew nothing of Iraqi politics, they could possibly be forgiven for considering that the trim-bearded, green-uniformed man whose larger-than-life photograph is in every single place within the Iraqi capital was Iraq’s president.

Alongside the boulevard that tracks the Tigris River and contained in the Inexperienced Zone, the seat of Iraq’s authorities, the likeness of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani towers above roundabouts and stands astride medians. The final particular person to be so glorified was Saddam Hussein, the dictator deposed and killed within the American-led invasion of Iraq that began almost exactly 20 years ago.

However Mr. Suleimani was Iranian, not Iraqi.

The commander of the Quds Drive, the exterior arm of Iran’s highly effective Revolutionary Guards Corps, he achieved near-mythic standing in Iraq as an influential force who helped bind Iraq and Iran collectively after the invasion. It was thanks largely to Mr. Suleimani, whom the US assassinated in Iraq in 2020, that Iran got here to extend its influence into nearly each side of Iraqi safety and politics.

That, in flip, gave Iran outsize affect over the area and past. Tehran’s rise uncovered the unintended penalties of Washington’s technique in Iraq, analysts and former U.S. officers say, and broken the US’ relationship with its regional allies.

The invasion “was the unique sin,” mentioned Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow for Center East safety on the Worldwide Institute for Strategic Research, a British assume tank. “It helped Iran bolster its place by being a predator in Iraq. It’s the place Iran perfected the usage of violence and militias to acquire its targets. It eroded the U.S.’s picture. It led to fragmentation within the area.”

The U.S. State Division declined to touch upon the affect of the warfare in Iraq.

“On Iraq particularly, our focus is on the 20 years forward; much less about trying backward,” the division mentioned in an electronic mail response to questions. “Our partnership right now has advanced far past safety, to a 360-degree relationship that delivers outcomes for the Iraqi individuals.”

All of that was enabled by the political modifications that the American invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003, set in movement. Afterward, the 2014 takeover of a big swathe of northern Iraq by the Islamic State terrorist group prompted Iraq to show to Iran in addition to the US for assist, cementing Iran’s grip.

As destabilizing because the Iranian involvement has been for a lot of Iraqis, it has been at the very least as unsettling for a lot of the remainder of the area.

Iraq and Iran are the 2 largest Center Jap international locations with a Shiite Muslim majority, and Shiites emerged from the Iraq warfare empowered throughout the area — usually unnerving their historical sectarian rivals, the Sunni Muslims, who dominate most different Arab international locations.

Beneath the Iraqi dictatorship, the Sunni minority had fashioned the bottom of Mr. Hussein’s energy; as soon as he was killed, Iran arrange loyal militias inside Iraq. It additionally went on to dismay Saudi Arabia and the opposite Gulf monarchies and Israel by supporting proxies and companions, such because the Houthi militia in Yemen, that introduced violence proper to their doorsteps.

Earlier than 2003, it might have been onerous to think about Saudi Arabia, a pillar of the US’ Center East coverage for many years and a number one Sunni energy, exhibiting open anger towards American leaders over their conduct within the area. However the Saudi king on the time did simply that in a January 2006 assembly with the American ambassador to Iraq, telling him that the best way Washington noticed issues stepping into Baghdad mirrored “wishful considering,” in accordance with a State Division cable launched by WikiLeaks in 2010.

By the point of that assembly, Iraqis had permitted a brand new Structure and held parliamentary elections that swept Shiite events to energy, and Sunni-Shiite sectarian tensions had escalated.

Saudi King Abdullah advised the ambassador that earlier than Mr. Hussein’s ouster, his kingdom — Iran’s longtime rival for affect within the Center East — may depend on Iraq as one other Sunni energy preserving Iran in examine.

Now, he mentioned, Iraq had been handed to Iran like “a present on a golden platter.”

The US, whose army muscle guided its insurance policies, usually with little sensitivity for Iraq’s non secular and political dynamics, in accordance with analysts, was not the nation greatest positioned to make lasting inroads in Iraq.

Iran, against this, may construct the bonds created by the Shiite religion it shared with many in Iraq’s inhabitants.

Iranian and Iraqi clerics, together with tens of millions of pilgrims, frequented Shiite shrines in each international locations annually and loved a mutual understanding of one another’s tradition. Tribes and households span their almost 1,000-mile-long border. And the daddy of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, spent 13 years in Iraq’s Shiite pilgrimage metropolis of Najaf, whereas Iraq’s high Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, was born in a single Iranian holy metropolis and educated in one other.

Nonetheless, that proximity hardly bred friendship, at the very least earlier than 2003.

In 1980, when Iraq invaded Iran, the US and different Western international locations quietly supported Iraq within the ensuing warfare.

The eight-year battle was so devastating that some analysts say it formed the mentality of a complete era of Iranian leaders, making them decided to by no means once more permit Iraq to develop robust sufficient to assault them. That might clarify why, beneath Mr. Hussein’s repressive rule, which empowered Iraq’s Sunni minority over its Shiite majority, Iran gave shelter and help to each Shiites and Kurds within the Iraqi opposition.

When the US toppled Mr. Hussein, it neutralized Iran’s foremost enemy with out Tehran having to carry a finger. Afterward, the Individuals diminished Sunni energy in Iraq by dismantling the nation’s military and purging the Sunni-dominated governing elite.

Iran noticed alternative.

“What they had been searching for and have been searching for isn’t Iranian management,” Ryan Crocker, a former United States ambassador to Iraq, mentioned of Iran. “It’s Iraqi instability.”

After the 2003 invasion, Iranians streamed into Baghdad and Iraq’s Shiite-dominated south: development engineers to rebuild Iraqi cities, political consultants to coach Shiite activists earlier than the Iraqi elections, media professionals to determine Shiite-owned tv channels.

Iranian pilgrims who had been barred within the Saddam Hussein period from visiting Iraq’s Shiite shrines now hurried throughout the border to the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, the place Iranian corporations invested in acres of accommodations and eating places for the tens of millions of worshipers, lots of them Iranian, who go to the shrines annually.

A very good variety of the Iraqi leaders who emerged after 2003 additionally had ties to Iran. The Shiite and Kurdish opposition politicians who had taken refuge there years earlier than returned to Iraq after the invasion. A few of Iraq’s largest Shiite events had backing and technical help from Iran, placing politicians from these events in Iran’s debt once they received seats.

The Individuals “in some way didn’t make the reference to Iran explicitly and perceive that it’s not the Shiites you’re giving the higher hand to, it’s the Shiites backed by Iran,” Marwan Muasher, who was then Jordan’s overseas minister, mentioned final week.

Throughout Iraq’s southern border, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies watched with rising frustration.

Gulf wariness of Iran dated again centuries. Lower than 150 miles of Persian Gulf waters separate Iran from the Arabian Peninsula, a dynamic that has lengthy fueled commerce rivalries and territorial disputes. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Sunni Gulf monarchies feared that Iran would export its model of Shiite theocracy throughout a area historically dominated by Sunnis.

Earlier than 2003, the Gulf apprehensive concerning the Iraqi dictator, too. However Western-led sanctions had weakened Iraq, and the Gulf States and the Iraqis shared a standard enemy in Iran.

The toppling of Mr. Hussein unleashed what the Gulf noticed as Iran’s damaging energy: Now, Iran was rising its affect over a serious Arab nation with monumental oil reserves on Saudi Arabia’s northern border, simply as proof was rising that Iran was creating a nuclear program.

Today, no Iraqi prime minister can take workplace with out at the very least the tacit approval of each the US and Iran, an association that usually produces prime ministers torn between Washington and Tehran. Iraqis with connections to Iran maintain posts all through the federal government.

The price of Iranian affect to Iraqi improvement and stability has been excessive.

Minimize off from the world financial system by sanctions, Iran has discovered an financial lifeline in Iraq, which buys about at the very least $7 billion in Iranian exports a yr whereas promoting solely about $250 million of products in return. The superb print on many medicines exhibits that they’re Iranian made, and huge portions of Iranian development supplies come stacked on truck convoys throughout the border day-after-day.

Many Iraqi farmers and businesspeople complain that Iran has suffocated Iraqi manufacturing and farming by dumping giant portions of produce and low cost items in Iraq.

Though Shiites in Iraq’s political elite tolerated Iran’s actions and revered Common Suleimani, resentment of Iran amongst different Iraqis helped set off mass antigovernment demonstrations in 2019 through which protesters demanded an end to Iran’s interference in Iraqi affairs.

Past Iraq, Iran has used each battle within the area to increase its attain.

It inserted fighters into Syria after the 2011 Arab Spring revolt, aiming to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It supported the Houthis in Yemen’s civil warfare towards a Saudi-led coalition, establishing Iranian affect on the southern Saudi border. And it additional cemented its place in Iraq and Syria by recruiting and coaching Shiite fighters towards the Islamic State.

“Each alternative that there was within the area, the dominoes fell in Iran’s favor,” mentioned Vali Nasr, a professor of worldwide affairs and Center East research at Johns Hopkins College. Exploiting Iraq’s weak point, he added, step by step changed into “a robust overseas coverage software for Iran on the regional stage.”

Notably worrisome to its Sunni Arab neighbors was Tehran’s consolidation of affect throughout a so-called Shiite Crescent stretching from Iran by way of Iraq and into Syria and Lebanon. Some Sunni governments, chief amongst them Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, blamed the US — the nation that they had lengthy relied on to have their backs — for failing to cease Iran from transferring items, weapons and personnel freely throughout the area, analysts say.

Later quarrels within the relationship arose over what the Gulf noticed because the U.S. failure to intervene in Syria or to guard the Gulf from Iranian-linked assaults on Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.

The State Division mentioned the US values its relationship with the Gulf and is dedicated to “to strengthen cooperation, coordination, and session with our Gulf companions in all fields, together with safety, counterterrorism, and financial partnership.”

The Gulf stays deeply related to the US, however because the 2003 invasion it has seemed to broaden and deepen its ties to China and Russia as alternative partners. When Saudi Arabia agreed to revive diplomatic relations with Iran final week, for instance, it did so in Beijing.

That settlement was the newest signal that Saudi Arabia has determined to attempt participating with its adversaries quite than holding them at arm’s size because the Gulf monarchies did for years in Iraq.

Regardless of Iraq and its Gulf neighbors’ shared Arab id, all of them however forfeited the competitors for affect to Iran: Whereas Iran was the primary to determine an embassy in Baghdad after the US invasion, a Saudi ambassador to Iraq arrived in Baghdad solely final week.

Likewise, the Saudis didn’t open their deep pockets to Iraq till a number of years in the past, once they started a tentative effort to put money into infrastructure.

“The one factor we will do is to provide the Iraqis one other selection that isn’t solely Iran,” mentioned Hesham Alghannam, a Saudi political scientist. “We are able to’t nook them after which blame them for going with the Iranians.”

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