In October 2008, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point issued a report on Iran’s policy towards Iraq since the 1980s. Their main argument was that Tehran follows a multi-faceted policy towards Iraq not aimed at taking over the country, but rather to garner influence so that they can play a role in the country no matter what the situation. That has led Iran to back various political parties, armed groups, and building up economic and cultural ties, even if they contradict each other. For example, Iran supports both the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, while undermining it by backing Special Groups. Recent events over the last two months highlight this strategy of building up economic and cultural relations, while supporting violence, and undermining the political system.
Economic Influence Increases
Today Iran stands as one of the closest economic partners Iraq has. During the Saddam years Iran’s economic connections with Iraq were negligible because of the rivalry between the two countries. In the mid-1990s there was a slight thawing of relations that allowed a limited amount of trade, consisting mostly of Iranian plastics and appliances being imported. Since the U.S. invasion however, Iran has moved into the Iraqi market with a vengeance. Iraq has few to no tariffs, and Iraqi businesses have been crippled because of the violence, closings, and electricity and fuel shortages, all of which have allowed a flood of Iranian goods to enter. Iran now exports food, consumer goods, building materials, clothing, medicine, and medical equipment to name a few, becoming one of Iraq’s largest trading partners. The flow is completely one sided as Iraq hardly sends anything to Iran.
The Kurds receive the majority of Iranian goods. Since the beginning of this year, they have imported $1.2 billion in Iranian products. The Kurdish Regional Government and Tehran have signed a number of memorandums of understanding on trade, roads, energy, and other issues. A new border trading post is going to be opened in Kurdistan soon to add to the two existing ones as both sides want to increase commerce. As a sign of these growing ties, Iranian businesses dominated a trade fair in Dohuk, while Sulamaniyah had an expo of Iranian goods this November. The Kurds are also hoping for more Iranian companies to invest in the KRG. They currently have the most business in the region.
The rest of Iraq has also developed strong economic connections with Iran. In November, the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture signed a memorandum of understanding with its Iranian counterpart for training and investment in joint ventures in the field. Baghdad also hosted a trade fair of Iranian goods in November to coincide with the Kurdish one.
These close ties are exactly what Tehran has wanted since the toppling of Saddam. Iran now has a large stake in the Iraqi economy, and provides everything from consumer goods, to food, to fuel. Iraqi leaders regularly call on Iran to invest in Iraq and increase trade. This can be a positive influence as the Iraqi economy is plagued by systemic problems. At the same time it increases Iran’s means of leverage over Baghdad.
The cultural and religious ties between the two countries have also increased since the invasion. Iran is the largest source of tourism for Iraq. In 2007, Iran signed an agreement with Iraq to allow 1,500 religious pilgrims into the country each day. To increase this flow the Najaf International Airport opened in November 2008. It plans on offering flights to five airports in Iran, with the first in mid-December. While the airport will offer service to a number of other countries in the region, Iranians will be far and away the largest customers. Local markets in Najaf are already full of Iranian imports, the garbage trucks in the city were donated by Iran, a local hospital was built by Iranian contractors, while the tourists provide up to $20 million a year in business. This is reciprocated by up to 1 million Iraqis going to Iran each year to visit holy sites, vacation, and get medical treatment. Like trade, these ties were severely restricted under Saddam’s regime, but now the doors are open. There is a huge exchange of money and people between the two countries because of their proximity and shared Shiite religion, concentrated in southern Iraq. Not all of this is positive, as there are various reports of Iran using this flow of people to infiltrate spies and agents into Iraq. At the same time, it does build up closer relations between the two countries, and has created a whole industry of Iraqi businesses to serve the Iranian travelers.
Political Manipulation and Security Threats
Much of this benign influence is overlooked in the West, with most reports focusing upon Tehran’s attempts to undermine Iraq. Iran has both supported and manipulated Iraq’s political system to prop up parties it supports, while backing militant Shiite groups that it can use to apply pressure on either the Americans or Baghdad. For example, on November 22 a fuel truck was stopped in Wasit that was transferring an Iranian agent across the border. The Iranian carried fake Iraqi IDs. An Iraqi source told Aswat al-Iraq that the identity cards were probably going to be used to falsify votes in the upcoming provincial elections. Iran stood by Iraq’s 2005 elections because they allowed Iran’s allies, the Dawa Party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), and the Sadrists to all gain seats on provincial councils and in parliament, as well as pass a constitution that set up a federal system that weakened the power of the central government. According to the Combating Terrorism Center’s report, this was Iran’s key goal, to place its friends in power and keep the Iraqi state weak so that it would not be a threat. Iran can be expected to support the upcoming provincial and parliamentary elections as well to make sure that their allies stay in office.
A small example of how these ties can benefit Iran was when an alleged Iranian Revolutionary Guards Qods Force officer named Nader Qorbani was arrested at the Baghdad airport on November 18, 2008. The U.S. claimed that he was involved in smuggling weapons to Special Groups through an Iranian construction company. A few days later Qorbani was released. An Iraqi official said that Qorbani was legitimately in the country, while an Iranian newspaper claimed Tehran had him freed. Reuters reported that the Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister intervened with the Americans to facilitate Qorbani’s release. The U.S. often warns about Iran’s nefarious role in Iraq and its support of violence, but in this case, Qorbani was in and out of the news in a flash. This was all the more surprising as Iraq had captured 10 other Iranian agents and killed one during the previous month trying to infiltrate the border. In this case it seemed, Iran’s allies in Baghdad wanted to get this incident over as quickly as possible to limit whatever negative press might result from it.
As reported earlier, Iran has largely achieved its goals in Iraq. It has close ties to the ruling coalition behind Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government. Iran provides many basic necessities, goods, and services to Iraq. Thousands of Iranians travel to Iraq each day to increase religious and cultural bonds. At the same time, it continues to arm and train Shiite militants who can be used to attack Americans or Baghdad when it serves Tehran’s purposes. As the Combating Terrorism Center report notes, Iran hopes to be able to influence Iraq no matter what the situation is through all of these connections. Much of this has largely gone unnoticed, as the Americans have focused almost solely upon Iran’s military policy. As the American role decreases with troop withdrawals planned, it’s hard to see them being able to counter Tehran’s reach. The one caveat is Maliki’s increasing nationalism that could prove to be a damper on Iran. Even the Prime Minister however, sees nothing wrong with Iran’s economic and religious ties, which means Teheran will probably be able to maintain its strong position in Iraq into the near future.
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