Iranian Strategy in Iraq: Politics and "Other Means"
Iran has a robust program to exert influence in Iraq in order to limit American power‐projection capability in the Middle East, ensure the Iraqi government does not pose a threat to Iran, and build a reliable platform for projecting influence further abroad. Iran has two primary modes of influence. First, and most importantly, it projects political influence by leveraging close historical relationships with several Shi'a organizations in Iraq: the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), the Badr organization, and the Dawah political party. Second, Iran uses the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Qods Force (QF) to provide aid in the form of paramilitary training, weapons, and equipment to various Iraqi militant groups, including Moqtada al‐Sadr's Jaysh al‐Mahdi (JAM) and the Special Group Criminals (SGCs). Iran also projects influence through economic initiatives and various religious programs. Iranian influence in Iraq is inevitable, and some of it is legal and constructive. Nonetheless, Iranian policy in Iraq is also duplicitous. Iran publicly calls for stability while subverting Iraq's government and illegally sponsoring anti‐government militias.
Although Iran publicly protested the U.S.‐led invasion of Iraq in 2003, its agents and allies initially cooperated with U.S. forces. Iraqi refugee groups with deep ties to Iran participated in U.S.‐sponsored pre‐invasion conferences, and Iran urged its surrogates to assist U.S. forces and position themselves to seize power through the electoral process. Yet even as its political allies came to power in Baghdad with U.S. backing, Iran began supporting anti‐government, anti‐coalition militia movements typified by JAM and, later, the SGCs. The two‐tracked strategy offered Iran unique levers to increase violence in Iraq and then to benefit when violence subsided. Another advantage has been that, intentionally or not, Iran's two‐pronged approach obscured the importance of Iran's political influence in Iraq by focusing the international media and U.S. policymakers on Iran's lethal aid to militia groups.
Iran has achieved three major accomplishments in Iraq. First, the unstable security situation and political opposition means the U.S. is not in a position to use Iraq as a platform for targeting Iran. Second, Iran's political allies have secured high‐ranking positions in the Iraqi government. Third, the Iraqi constitution calls for a highly federalized state. Iran values a decentralized Iraq because it will be less capable of projecting power, and because Iran is primarily concerned with Iraq's southern, oil‐rich, Shi'a‐dominated provinces. Iran believes that increased southern autonomy will leave those provinces more open to Iranian influence. Iran's successes in Iraq are not all a function of its own efforts. For example, a democratic Iraq will almost certainly be highly federalized because of the power of Iraqi Kurds to distance themselves from the Iraqi government, and because of increasingly heated sectarian divisions that can be mitigated by devolving power to regional governments.
Iran's effort to manipulate Iraqi surrogates predates the 2003 U.S. military operations. During the 1980s and 1990s, Iran helped organize and finance ISCI's predecessor, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and its Badr Corps Militia. It also worked closely with elements of the Islamic Dawah Party and helped train and fund its militant wing. Before 2003, the Badr Corps served as Iran's most important action arm inside Iraq, and was considered an official component of the IRGC‐QF. Badr received training and weapons from the IRGC‐QF and Lebanese Hizballah to attack both the Iraqi regime and the Mujahidin‐e Khalq Organization (MKO), an Iranian terrorist group. Numerous senior individuals in the Badr Corps during the 1990s play critical logistical roles funneling weapons to militants in Iraq today, including Abu Mustafa al‐Sheibani-the first major Explosively Formed Penetrator (EFP) smuggler-and Abu Mahdi al‐Muhandis, the terrorist and former Badr Corps commander who was elected to the Iraqi parliament before fleeing to Iran. In some cases, these people had direct ties to current Iraqi politicians, including Hadi al‐Ameri, who was al‐Muhandis' Chief of Staff.
Iran's support for Iraqi refugee groups in the 1980s and 1990s has important consequences today. The refugee groups often disagreed over how closely to associate with the Iranian regime. SCIRI was most closely linked to Iran's clerical regime, going so far as to recognize Ayatollah Khomeini's doctrine of guardianship of the jurist-velayat‐e faqih-which implied Ayatollah Khomeini was their Supreme Leader. The Dawah party, however, was bitterly split over velayat‐e faqih. Meanwhile, many Shi'a that remained in Iraq grew resentful of the Iraqi refugees that pontificated about Saddam's regime without facing its brutality firsthand. Most supported Iran's religious government but rejected velayat‐e faqih. The political and doctrinal disagreements were often reflected in debates about which religious figures to follow. SCIRI was led by Ayatollah Baqir al‐Hakim, while many Dawah supporters and Iraqis still in Iraq supported Ayatollahs from the al‐Sadr family. These divisions laid the groundwork for contemporary divisions between the establishment ISCI and Dawah parties in Baghdad and the anti‐establishment Sadrist movement.
Despite its successes, Iran faces numerous hurdles projecting influence in Iraq. Many Iraqis-including Shi'a-despise ISCI, Iran's primary political ally, precisely because of its close relationship with Iran. In 2007, ISCI took its current name and abandoned the title Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which had implied a closer relationship with Tehran. ISCI also publicly stated that Grand Ayatollah Ali al‐Sistani is its most important religious influence-thereby distancing the organization from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, whom it had previously considered supreme. Meanwhile, Iran's militia allies in Iraq tend to oppose Iranian political influence there. Moqtada al‐Sadr and others are willing to accept Iranian training and weapons to pursue their political, religious, and criminal aims, but they remain hostile to Iranian political influence and thus are unreliable allies.