Iraq's Shias shouldn't be seen as Tehran's pawns

Iraq's Shias shouldn't be seen as Tehran's pawns
Comment: Those, including President Trump, who think of the Shia community in Iraq as a monolith in the pocket of Iran are making an over-simplistic, ahistorical mistake, writes Paul Iddon.
5 min read
08 Mar, 2017
Shia schools of thought in Iraq and Iran have distinctly divergent philosophies [AFP]

When Saddam Hussein was deposed by the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Baathist and Sunni Arab-minority rule were simultaneously ended. For the first time in Iraq's modern history, the country's Shia Arab-majority were elevated to a position of power.

This was welcomed in Tehran - an Iraq unlikely to threaten them again. They were correct in that assessment.

However, in the carnage of the post-Iraq War era an all-too common narrative has surfaced. That Shia-governed Iraq has become more-or-less a vassal of Tehran, that the Americans blundered into that ancient country and essentially, inadvertently, ended up handing it to Shia Iran on a silver platter when they withdrew.

This is overly simplistic for numerous reasons. It is true that relations between Iraq and Iran are the best they have been in a long time. It's also true that Iran has significant influence in today's Iraq compared with when their enemy, the Baath, ruled the country with a brutal iron fist.

It's not true, however, that Baghdad has become a proxy of Tehran, happy to do its bidding in the region.

It's not true, however, that Baghdad has become a proxy of Tehran, happy to do its bidding in the region

Nevertheless, this narrative has gained a lot of traction. US President Donald Trump seemed to enunciate this simplistic point of view recently when he dismissed Baghdad, scoffing: "There is no government in Iraq. The so-called government in Iraq went to Iran to meet with Iran. Iran is going to take over Iraq. That's as simple as that."

The president has also tweeted: "Iran is rapidly taking over more and more of Iraq, even after the US has squandered three trillion dollars there. Obvious long ago!"

A curious comment - considering that Iran's favoured Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, stepped down, partially under US pressure, back in September 2014.

Iraq also explicitly said it would not take sides in the current dispute between Tehran and Washington - surely not the behaviour of a country in Iran's pocket.

The dangers of this myth is that it bears uncanny resemblance to the flawed theory espoused during the Vietnam War. That Vietnam was at risk of falling into the Communist bloc if South Vietnam fell to the Communist north.

The so-called Domino Theory promoted by the American hawks back then insisted that should the Vietnamese communists win, they would fall in line with the Communist Chinese and expand across the region swallowing up America's regional allies.

Robert McNamara, secretary of defence under both Presidents John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson, recalled, in the 2003 documentary film Fog of War, learning about how the age-old rivalry between Vietnam and China essentially guaranteed that the Vietnamese would never sacrifice their independence to the Chinese, even if they were both communist nations.

Indeed, one of the first major conflicts Vietnam fought after the American withdrawal was a bloody border war against China, which protested Vietnam's intervention against the Khmer Rouge, its ally in neighbouring Cambodia. Today, US relations with Vietnam are cordial and Washington even lifted its arms embargo on Vietnam last year to help it defend itself against potential Chinese aggression.

Iraq remains a distinct and independent nation and its Shia majority is not a harmonious monolith who will naturally fall in step with the whims of the theocracy in Tehran

This is not to say that Iraq is likely to reach a point whereby it will fight another war with Iran. It is to say that Iraq remains a distinct and independent nation and its Shia majority is not a harmonious monolith who will naturally fall in step with the whims of the theocracy in Tehran.

This is self-evidently true if one looks at the stances of Muqtada Sadr. His Mehdi Army - now known by the rather Orwellian name 'Peace Brigades' - made a name for itself during the Iraq War as a staunchly nationalist opponent of the Americans.

Not at all close to Tehran, like some of the other Shia parties and militias such as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, during the Iraq War they only accepted weapons from Tehran when it was essential - since they were at times fighting the Americans and the Iraqi government simultaneously.

As with the Vietnamese against China four decades ago, Sadr's militia would likely have fought Tehran as strenuously if Iran tried to forcibly impose its will on Iraq - Shia or not. And, like the Vietnamese, they accepted arms from an outside power only in order to fight another country's forces on their territory.

It's worth noting that in Sadr's proposed "Initial Solutions" for post-Islamic State Iraq he calls for the withdrawal of all foreign military forces from the country. While he is characteristically bellicose when describing the presence of American forces, who he has branded as an occupying force since 2003, he also calls for the withdrawal of Iranian forces, General Qasem Soleimani's extraterritorial paramilitary Quds Brigade, and Turkish troops based near Mosul - where they have reportedly been training a Sunni paramilitary group to fight IS.

The broad backdrop to this is a divergence of views between the two Shia-majority countries. Iraq analyst Ali Mamouri recently evaluated how political differences between the Iraqi city of Najaf and the Iranian city of Qom - two major holy Shia cities and schools of learning - are increasing.

Najaf never sought to fuse politics with religion - the model promoted by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani - while Qom, especially since the Iranian Revolution, has, under the model imposed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and continued under his successor, Iran's incumbent Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Mamouri concludes that these schisms are only likely to widen when the 88-year-old Sistani passes away.

Given these very important distinctions between the powerful Shia parties which govern today's Iraq it would be an ahistorical mistake to paint them all with the same brush and write them all off as willing pawns of Tehran.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.