Iran is losing its grip on Iraq
Despite the consternation permeating Washington, Iran today is losing Iraq. Since the American invasion in 2003, Iran seemed to be the most consequential external actor in Iraq. Tehran has influenced the choice of prime ministers and parliamentarians, trained militias that it used as an auxiliary force across the region, and was responsible for the deaths of numerous American soldiers. It did all this with impunity. Paradoxically, the latest military clash between the United States and this client of the Islamist regime may hasten the end of its domination of Iraqi politics.
The approach that the Islamic Republic has taken toward Iraq has long been conditioned by its experiences in Lebanon during the early 1980s. Back then, Iran had amalgamated a variety of Shia parties into the lethal Hezbollah terrorist organization. The “Party of God” gained a measure of popularity by dispensing money it received from Iran. More importantly, Hezbollah served as a reliable terrorist organization that could strike at Iranian enemies while providing Tehran with a measure of deniability.
This was a template that the Iranian theocratic state had successfully imposed on Iraq. The Shia politicians in Iraq were beholden to Tehran for both political and financial support. Iran often brokered agreements that ended various Iraqi political stalemates. It had in its command a variety of militias that the Iraqi government did not have control over. Moreover, as a result of the economic sanctions reimposed by the Trump administration, the mullahs have also used Iraqi territory for the illicit export of their oil.
Iraq is also critical to Iran successfully using terrorism as a deterrence doctrine. Today, America maintains approximately 5,000 troops in Iraq, and those forces have often been seen as hostages to the whims of Iran. Many American politicians and strategists have routinely lamented that should we become too aggressive toward Iran, then the theocratic regime can take revenge on American forces. In essence, Tehran has successfully argued that if it is held accountable for terrorism then it will respond with terrorism. This logic has indeed deterred many American political leaders from pressing for strong actions against Iran for fear that it may unleash violence against American bases and personnel through all its proxies.
The first sign that Iran was losing steam in Iraq came with the massive Shia protests against the Iraqi government and its Iranian patron. The corruption and incompetence of a government handpicked by Iran was not lost on the Iraqi demonstrators. They demanded representation and a clean government, which they understood could only come about if the Iranian influence receded. America has too often viewed Iraq through a narrow sectarian lens and has assumed most Shias support Iran and Iraqi nationalism was a relic of the past. After decades of sectarian misrule, however, Iraqis are seeking unity at home and emancipation from Iran.
The second consequential dint in the armor of Iran came when the Trump administration targeted its clients. Iran had assumed that it was business as usual and could use its proxy Kataib Hezbollah to carry out an attack with impunity. Instead, America launched airstrikes that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo correctly called a “decisive response” while stressing that the United States “would not stand for the Islamic Republic of Iran to take actions that put American men and women in jeopardy.” For the first time, American leaders seemed to be undaunted by Iranian threats of terrorism.
To be sure, the staged protests around the American embassy in Baghdad have gotten their share of attention. Iran has long been adept at staging such demonstrations, which are small in comparison to those who have revolted against Islamic Republic. The Iraqis do not wish their country to be the battleground between the United States and Iran, and all this may press them to further cut their ties with a theocracy that has divided their nation and corrupted its politics. In the end, the recent American strike may yet embolden the voices calling for the eviction of Iran from Iraq.
It is difficult for detractors of the Trump administration to acknowledge its successes. But at every step during the past three years, it has challenged the conventional wisdom on Tehran and prevailed. America has managed to cripple the Iranian economy and gain multilateral compliance with its sanctions, something that was once thought inconceivable given qualms by European leaders. Despite claims to the contrary, the Iranian people protesting their government are not blaming America for their economic misfortune but their own leaders. The Trump administration has taken an important step in shrinking the imperial imprint of Iran in the Middle East. Once more, its critics may find themselves confounded and crestfallen.
Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow in Middle East studies with the Council on Foreign Relations and a former senior adviser for the State Department.