By Ranj Alaaldin
Published: February 11, 2009
The provincial elections in Iraq last week marked a turning point for the country. The results indicate that previously dominant parties were given a reality check or, arguably, were in some cases marginalised. Together with greater Sunni participation, fewer complaints of malpractice and a relatively peaceful election day, this should give Iraqis confidence that they can shape the country's future through the power of their votes.
One conclusion that some have drawn from the results (including McClatchy Newspapers in the US and William Shawcross writing here on Cif) is that Iran has been the ultimate loser. This stems from the sweeping, larger than expected gains by prime minister Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party and the failure by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) to win any provinces outright (though post-election alliances may salvage a few). Seismic as this might seem, though, the Iranian influence in Iraq extends far beyond ISCI and Iraqi partisan politics in general.
Iran has influence rooted in both ISCI and Dawa. The former was born in Iran, funded and trained by the Iranian government. The latter was born in Iraq in the late 1950s as an opposition movement, which became emboldened after the 1979 Iranian revolution, and which after a fierce crackdown by Iraqi security forces fled to Iran in the 1980s. Both parties still are said to be receiving funds from Iran.
Another erroneous idea is that Dawa, by virtue of its secular campaigning, centrist stance, and essentially technocratic composition, is independent of theocratic Iran. Although Dawa has used the secular card to great effect, it is still a Shia Islamist organisation that seeks an Islamic republic; like others, it regularly consults with Ayatollah Sistani. Ideologically the party is distinguishable from ISCI and Iran: it advocates Islamic governance by the ummah (Muslim community), rather than the Iranian form of governing by the ulema (Islamic scholars) which ISCI prefers.
Politically, Dawa seeks a centrist Iraq in contrast to the federalist stance of ISCI and many proclaimed the elections a victory for nationalism over federalism, and as a result a defeat for Iranian aspirations to create a Shia mini-state in the south. Contrary to popular belief, a centrist Iraq, with a Shia-led government, would not act against Iranian interests; it would cement Iraq's territorial integrity and avoid any loose federalism - bordering on independence - that might provide further inspiration for Iranian secessionists.
A centrist Iraq or not, it is important to keep things in perspective. If the argument is that ISCI has gone down and Iran too has gone down with it, then it is flawed at the outset. Despite emerging the strongest from the elections, with notable gains in Baghdad and Basra, Dawa's share of the votes is not enough to give the party a leading position, and save for Baghdad and Basra the party only narrowly beat ISCI in most of the provinces; the ISCI dream of an autonomous zone may still be a feasible one.
No particular party has come out of the elections as a dominant force. All parties will have to form coalitions to rule since none gained a majority (ISCI possibly with secular Iyad Allawi and Dawa with the Sadrists.
The Iranian strategy for Iraq is multi-faceted; Iran's influence in Iraq is complex and constitutes an elusive web of interpersonal and inter-organisational links. In addition to having close ties with both ISCI and Dawa, it also supports nationalist and firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr who is currently based in Iran; his militia force, Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) has been responsible for some of the fiercest and most audacious uprisings against US-led forces in the past. JAM, however, is now fractured and numerous offshoot militias known as "special groups" have emerged; reports continue to link these subordinate groups with Iran.
Beyond its strategic interests, and for all its often-mentioned hostile policies within the Iraqi borders, Iran makes a positive contribution to Iraq which is largely unrecognised.
The fragile Iraqi economy is helped by a massive flow of Iranian exports and contractors; both countries have a memorandum of understanding that utilises this to great effect, making Iran one of Iraq's closest economic partners. In the Kurdish north, Iraninan goods worth more than $1bn were imported in 2008 alone.
Culturally, Iranian Shia pilgrims provide the largest source of tourism for Iraq and the two countries have agreements in place that allow for thousands of religious pilgrims to enter the country each day and a recently opened airport in Najaf will increase this number substantially. Tourists in Najaf alone contribute $20m a year to the economy.
With the US presence set to continue alongside its borders for some time, Iran seems to have covered all the angles in Iraq. The first modern theocratic state was established in 1979, a year that saw the chief architect of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, returning from exile in a plane circling Tehran over a waiting crowd of millions. The year is now 2009, and instead we have Iranian passenger planes departing from Iran, and circling Iraq, over millions of Shia pilgrims visiting the holy shrines in the Shia south. The recent landing in Iraq of the first Iranian flight in three decades cemented and embodied in no unclear way Iran's unmatched influence in post-2003 Iraq. It tells us that the Iranian influence in Iraq can no longer be discounted; that it is difficult if not impossible to penetrate, and has to be respected if not embraced.