Iran Favors a Modest Nationalism in Iraq

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Dr. Kayhan Barzegar
12 May 2009

The success of the party of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki in Iraq's provincial elections has been largely perceived as a challenge to Iran. During his campaign, Maliki focused on Iraqi independence, establishing a powerful central government, and taking nationalistic positions with respect to Iraq's domestic and foreign policies. Implementation of these policies, should they lead to the emergence of a modest nationalism, would favor Iran's national security and interests, especially in the advent of U.S. troop withdrawals.

Those analyses which interpret the result of the provincial elections as a blow to Iran believe that the nature of Iranian policy in Iraq is ideological, based on supporting the friendly clergy-based Shiite parties such as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) or the hard-line Sadrist movement. From this perspective, therefore, their relative defeat in the elections should diminish Iran's role in Iraq.

But, since the outset of the crisis in March 2003, Iran's policies in Iraq have been pragmatic and based on working with various political factions, aiming at achieving strategic and national security objectives, i.e. tackling the U.S. immediate security threat, especially during the Bush era, preempting the future political-security challenges stemming from the recent geopolitical changes in Iraq's structure of power and politics, such as the possibility of Iraq's disintegration or spreading ethnic strife and civil war, and finally creating economic, political, and cultural opportunities in Iran-Iraq relations.

Iran's policies in Iraq have been shaped above all by two considerations: the first consideration stresses "Iraq's territorial unity" and understands that keeping Iraq's unity must be the main objective of Iran's Iraq policy. As such, Iran's policy of supporting the Shiite factions will imbalance the power equations in Iraq and therefore will not serve Iran's interests in the long run. From an Iranian perspective, any tendency to empower federalism in Iraq will be a prelude to Iraq's disintegration. Such a situation, given Iran's ethnic geopolitics, would be devastating for Iran's national security. The second consideration, which was at the center of Iran's policy, especially during the Bush administration, focuses on supporting "ideological and religious" elements, stressing that Iran's support for the friendly Shiite factions has been crucial in empowering these groups' role in Iraq's power distribution. This policy furthermore, can also benefit Iran's interests through tackling future political-security challenges, especially those stemming from the U.S. presence in Iraq and the region.

From a strategic point of view, however, a combination of the above-mentioned perspectives will better serve Iran's national and security interests. In other words, a unified, independent, Shiite-dominated, and friendly Iraq, at different levels of national and regional politics, will favor Iran's interests. At the national level, a unified Iraq, given its specific ethnic-religious features, i.e. the presence of the Kurds, the Sunni, and the Shiites in separate geographical regions, will diminish any possibility of Iraq's disintegration, a matter of great national security concern for Iran. Meanwhile, perception of Iraq as consisting of smaller and weaker parts would provide a basis for the increased influence of Iran's regional rivals like Israel in Iran's security backyard, i.e. in Iraq's Kurdistan region.

At the regional level, an independent Iraq would redefine the traditional power equations in the region, especially in the Persian Gulf, in favor of Iran. In past decades, Iraq had acted as the counterweight of Iran's regional role—a policy that wasted the political-security stamina of both countries in favor of other regional or trans-regional actors. To balance its internal, regional, and international relations, an independent Shiite-dominated Iraq, which would no longer be considered an inseparable part of the Arab world community, would inevitably seek a close relationship with Iran. Such an Iraq would also enhance Iran's regional role and its bargaining power with the United States.

Although it will be hard for the United States and the Arab world to live with such an Iran-friendly Iraq, under the new political-security realities, their preference would likely be to empower an "independent" Iraq that initially acts to secure the interests and concerns of all involved actors, regional and trans-regional. The great satisfaction in the United States and Arab world at Maliki's success was because of the sense that a resurgent nationalism within Iraqi society will lead to stability and improved security that could help justify the withdrawal of U.S. troops by end of 2010. This would also be a source of legitimacy for Obama's Iraq policy. Unlike the prevailing view in the United States and the Arab world, such circumstances would favor Iran's interests. Because of a balanced and modest role in post-Baathist Iraq, Iran will avoid new rounds of rivalry with its Arab neighbors and simultaneously prevent creating a new "security dilemma" in its relations with the United States.

Of course Iran's Iraq policy has been focused on achieving the abovementioned aims. On the one hand, by supporting the friendly Shiite factions, Iran attempted to tackle the U.S. military threat in times of insecurity immediately after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. On the other, by stressing the unity of Iraq, Iran has tried to foil the damaging impact of Iraq's ideological, ethnic, and sectarian divisions on Iran's national security. In this regard, even the factor of ideology, a dynamic element of national power, has acted to serve Iran's national interests.

With the Obama administration in office—and also that U.S. military adventures against Iran have to a large extent diminished—Iran must employ a long-term strategy in order to secure its national security and interests in post-Baathist Iraq.

Among the Shiite factions close to Iran, Maliki's party simultaneously possesses all the characteristics of achieving a unified, friendly, and independent Shiite-dominated Iraq that could secure Iran's interests. ISCI seeks regionalism and a Shiite-federated region in the south. Although the Sadrist movement seeks a unified Iraq, its relations with Iran are more tactical and sustainable only during particular times of insecurity, i.e. the one-time threat posed by the United States in its desire to eliminate this faction from Iraqi politics. Meanwhile the Sadrist radical sense of Arab nationalism will prevent Iran from establishing any long-term relationship with it. Other Shiite parties like Al-Jafari's party focus more on Iraq’s internal economic and political matters than on regional and strategic issues that are now at the center of Iran's attention. Other secular movements like those of Iyyad Allavi or Ahmad Chalabi, as a result of their heavy dependence on the United States, do not essentially believe in accepting any political role for Iran in Iraq.

Based on the rule of majority, the presence of a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq is inevitable in any future circumstances. Yet, to strengthen its relations with the new Iraq, Iran must redefine the role and function of the friendly Shiite factions like Al-Maliki's party. Iran’s new policy should be based on "strategizing the Shiite factor" at the national level. Accordingly, instead of considering the temporary or ideological interests of the Shiite factions, Iran will seek to establish long-term strategic relations with an independent Shiite-dominated government in Iraq, based on a modest and balanced nationalism.

Despite the current strengthening relations, Iran must be aware that all Iraqi Shiite parties have their own factional interests to institutionalize their role and share of power in Iraq's post-Saddam era. Their interest in establishing close relations with Iran is unlikely to be sustainable in the course of Iraq's changing domestic politics and in the relations with outside powers like the United States. Every Iraqi government, whether it is dominated by Shiites, Kurds, or Sunnis, will perceive the existing Iran-Iraq issues such as the 1975 Algiers Agreement as a "national" agenda.

With active diplomacy, Iran must redefine the role of various Shiite factions in Iran's Iraq policy, focusing on achieving Iran’s strategic and national interests. An independent and friendly Shiite-dominated government, combined with a modest nationalism will better serve Iran's interests in the long-term.