Earlier this month, a ceremony took place in Baghdad that was unthinkable under Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein: Ashura, the annual Shiite ritual marking the slaying of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Mohammad and one of the most revered figures in Shiite Islam.
As the trumpets sounded in Baghdad’s notorious Shiite slum of Sadr City, boys and men wearing white shrouds brought swords down onto their shaven heads. Thick red blood gushed onto their faces. Hussein sacrificed for us, the belief goes, and devoted followers are ready to sacrifice for him.
Now that Saddam is gone, Iraq’s majority Shiites are firmly in power. This has led many observers to assume that Iraq will now fall into lockstep with its powerful Shiite neighbor to the east, Iran.
But just because American troops are leaving Iraq, that doesn’t mean Iran will become the new boss. That was the message from President Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who met in Washington this week. The question of Iranian influence in Iraq has long been a concern. But, at least in the short term, Iraq’s other neighbors are expected to help keep Iran in check.
Shiites’ Political Influence
To be sure, Iran wields a considerable amount of what is known in foreign policy circles as “soft power ” in Iraq. Iran sends millions of Shiite pilgrims to Iraq each year to visit the shrines of Hussein and others. Iran builds hospitals and provides water and electricity.
Iran also arms militias that in the past attacked American interests and continue to stir up trouble in Iraq’s divided political establishment.
Maysoun al-Damalouji is the spokesperson for the predominantly Sunni Iraqiya party. That party technically won the national elections last year. But then Iran stepped in to help form a larger Shiite coalition that managed to keep Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in power.
Damalougi says this means Maliki owes Iran a few favors — whether it’s support for the leader of Iran’s other major Arab ally, Syria, or opposing the return of American military trainers to Iraq.
“Everyone knows how dangerous the Iranian influence is. My advice … to Maliki [is] … ‘Look into your people and bring them together. Don’t look at outsiders to support you. You should get support from within,’” Damalougi says.
Balancing Effect Of Turkey, Others
Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations says it’s too easy to point the finger at Iran and blame it for all that’s wrong with Iraq.
He says Iraq’s other Sunni-dominated Arab neighbors — such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait — should stop isolating Iraq’s Shiite government and embrace it instead. If they don’t, he says, then Iraq will only be pushed closer to Iran.
“That’s been the core mistake that the Sunni regimes have made — the inability and unwillingness to embrace this regime or accept it for that matter as a legitimate expression of the Iraqi population,” Takeyh says.
Takeyh and other analysts say it’s not just Iraq’s Arab neighbors that could play a role in counterbalancing Iran’s influence in Iraq.
For all the talk that Iran exercises a great deal of soft power in Iraq, Turkish companies are taking an active role in Iraq — in the form of new construction, investing in the energy sector and winning a contract to build a housing project in Sadr City.
“The Turks are very clever — they are using soft diplomacy and economic power to extend their influence against the Iranians — even though they wouldn’t put it that way,” says Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq analyst with the International Crisis Group.
“The Iranians don’t have anything comparable to offer to Iraq. It doesn’t have the same quality of goods, the same kinds of investments. And so Turkey can beat Iran at that game. As long as it’s a peaceful rivalry, a peaceful competition, the Iraqis can balance one against the other and meanwhile can develop themselves. They are not under anyone’s direct control,” he says.
Analysts agree that in the short term, Iraq’s neighbors are likely to keep each other in check.
But on the ground in Iraq, the perception of Iranian dominance is still a factor. And that, analysts say, could deepen the sectarian divisions inside Iraq.