Iraq Invasion - Iran And Its Goals

Since ancient times, Iraq and Iran have been the seats of rival states and empires. Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq, was home to the Assyrian, Babylonian and medieval Abbasid empires. The Achaemenid, medieval Safavid and early-modern Qajar dynasties ruled in Persia.
Iraq has also held special significance for Iran ever since the Safavid dynasty made Shiism the state religion in the 16th century. Shiite Islam was born in Iraq. The holy Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala are traditional Shiite centers of learning and destinations for religious pilgrims. For centuries, the holy cities have had a strong Persian presence. As a result, Iran views southern Iraq as part of its historic sphere of influence.

This ancient rivalry has continued into modern times. The newly established Islamic Republic tried to export its Islamic ideology to Iraq, providing Saddam Hussein a pretext for his 1980 invasion. The Iraqi leader in turn tried to strike a fatal blow against his foremost regional rival and to seize its oil wealth. Instead, the invasion produced a long, bloody and inconclusive eight-year war that killed and wounded well over 1 million people. The toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 by U.S. and coalition forces thus constituted an historic opportunity for Iran to expand its influence in Iraq, and to transform it from an enemy into a partner or ally.

Iran’s goal is to unite Iraq’s Shiite parties so that they can translate their demographic weight into political influence, thereby consolidating Shiite primacy for the first time. Tehran has encouraged its closest allies—the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), Dawa and the Sadrists to participate in politics and help shape Iraq’s nascent institutions. It has backed a range of disparate parties and movements to maximize its options and ensure its interests are advanced, no matter which Iraqi party came out on top.

Iran has strengthened trade and economic ties with Iraq for financial gain, and to obtain leverage over its neighbor. Iran is Iraq’s largest trade partner. Trade between the two countries reportedly reached $7 billion in 2009. Iranian exports to Iraq—the lion’s share of the total—is mainly fresh produce and processed foodstuffs, cheap consumer goods and cars. Iraqi exports to Iran include crude and refined oil products, sulfur and iron. Iranian investors and construction firms are also active in Baghdad, predominantly Shiite southern Iraq and Kurdistan.
Iranian dumping of cheap, subsidized food products and consumer goods into Iraq, however, has undercut Iraq’s agricultural and light industrial sectors, and generated resentment among Iraqis. Iran’s damming and diversion of rivers feeding the Shatt al-Arab waterway has also undermined Iraqi agriculture in the south and hindered efforts to revive Iraq’s marshlands. And while Iran has made up for Iraq’s electricity shortages by supplying about 5 percent of its needs (the proportion is actually much higher for several provinces that border Iran), many Iraqis believe that Iran manipulates these supplies for political ends.

    Despite significant investments to expand its influence in Iraq, Iran’s efforts have yielded only mixed results. The goal of Shiite unity in Iraq has proven elusive. Relations among its Iraqi clients have frequently been fraught with tensions and violence, and it has spent much time and effort mediating among them. Tehran’s meddling in Iraqi politics has also been a liability for its local allies, contributing to the Supreme Council’s extremely poor showing in 2009 provincial elections and 2010 parliamentary elections.
Tehran also failed to block two key pacts—the Security Agreement and the Strategic Framework Agreement—between Iraq and the United States. It did succeed in obtaining a provision in the Security Agreement ensuring that Iraq would not be used as springboard for an attack on Iran. But these agreements mean that Iran faces the possibility of Iraq having a long-term strategic partnership with the United States.
Finally, various Iranian policies have stoked anti-Iranian sentiment in Iraq. They include the dumping of subsidized products on the Iraqi market; the diversion of rivers feeding the Shatt al-Arab; occasional artillery strikes on northern Kurdish villages; and provocations, such as the temporary occupation of an oil well in the Fakka oil field in Maysan province in December 2009.

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