The U.S. officially marked the end of its war in Iraq today, but the move leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many on the U.S. right. Among the most common of their talking points: The outsized role played in Iraq by Iran, and the threats that influence poses to U.S. interests and allies. This fall, AEI scholar Fred Kagan, who’s been echoed by others, wrote that because the total U.S. withdrawal, Iran “defeated the United States in Iraq.” But, as CAP’s Matt Duss has noted, increased Iranian influence in Iraq results not from the end of the U.S. war there, but from launching a war against anti-Iranian former dictator Saddam Hussein and creating a democracy in a country where Shiites — Iran’s co-sectarians — dominate the polity.
Iranian influence, and even meddling through Iranian-backed militias, are indeed the reality in Iraq, inevitable with the fall of Hussein and advent of democracy. Two of Iraq’s powerful Shia political parties — including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s — were sheltered in Iran under Hussein. But a recent incident between the neighbors’ governments and religious institutions indicates that the scope of that influence may not be quite as severe as opponents of ending the war make it out to be. As the Washington Post reports, “although Iraqi Shiites broadly welcome the departure of the Americans, they seem in no mood to substitute one form of foreign domination for another — and least of all, they say, from Iran.” Indeed, tensions between clerics representing Iran’s theocratic structure and Iraq’s own Shia establishment show that the Iraqi side is pushing back against Iran.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, based in the Shia holy city of Najaf, Iraq, and one of the sect’s most revered clerics, was “reported to be furious” when the announcement came last month that Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, a close ally of Iran’s theocratic Supreme Leader, intended to open an office in Najaf. The Post outlined the differences of view that caused the tension:
Najaf’s religious authorities, or marjaya, have become a beacon of moderation for the newly established Shiite order. The authorities have moved firmly to assert their quietist school of Shiite religious thought, under which the clerics are expected to merely advise rather than participate in politics, as they do in Iran.
The move by Shahroudi represents a threat to both this “quiet” modus operandi of clerical political involvement in Iraq, and to the supremacy of Sistani as the undisputed religious authority — Shahroudi would represent a rival school of thought on religious grounds alone. (There are other political issues as well.) For Iraqis, this appears to already be fostering resentment and opening up ethnic tensions. The Post reports:
“Do you know who in Iraq hates Iran more than anyone? It is Najaf,” said Neama al-Ebadi, director of the Najaf-based Iraq Center for Research and Studies, echoing a view widely expressed on the streets of the city.
“The Shiites of Iran are Iranian first. They think they’re superior to Arabs. But Najafis believe they are the original Shiites and the Iranians are just copies.”
The flare up, which follows on other tensions, fits a context described by none other than former Bush administration Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who recently said, “I think it’s easy to overstate the degree to which the Iraqis have any attraction to Iran — that’s a pretty lousy relationship, really.”