Is Iraq Shifting to Iran?

In removing the Taliban and Saddam, the Bush administration effectively elevated Iran to regional superpower—and left Sunnis worried that Iraq would become an Iranian colony. But Gary Sick sees a different shift in the region.


Are we witnessing a historic shift in the balance of power in the Persian Gulf, with Iran assuming dominance over Iraq? A recent fact-finding trip to Baghdad and Najaf suggests that such fears are exaggerated.

In 2003, the United States overturned the secular but predominantly Sunni Arab regime of Saddam Hussein and then presided over the installation of a more representative Shiite government in Baghdad. This was a huge gift to Iran—itself a Shiite state—and represented a historic shift. Although Iraq is a majority Shiite state, never in more than a thousand years had a predominantly Shiite government ruled there.

The Iraqi political experiment, messy as it may be, is showing signs of genuine representative government at a time when Iran seems to be sliding into a corporatist military dictatorship with an Islamic veneer.

The U.S. invasion removed an implacably hostile enemy of Iran that had invaded it in 1980, fought a brutal eight-year war against it in the southern marshes, and created a Sunni Arab coalition with the intent of overturning the Iranian revolution. In an apparent fit of absentmindedness, the G.W. Bush administration succeeded in removing both of Iran’s key rivals—the Taliban was similarly routed in Afghanistan—effectively elevating Iran to the position of a regional superpower.

This, in turn, gave rise to cries of alarm that Iran would parlay this double-barreled and unparalleled act of strategic generosity into a “Shiite crescent” that would threaten the entire Middle East from the Levant to Afghanistan. Many of these voices of apprehension and disdain belong to the tier of old Sunni states in the Middle East—Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia—that regard themselves as the legitimate arbiters of regional power and policies but which are finding themselves rendered increasingly impotent by the rise of Israel and Iran as the two leading “regional influentials.”

Perhaps the shrillest voices are the Sunnis in Iraq who recognize that they will no longer be able to dominate the policy-making process in the post-Saddam era. A disgruntled former Iraqi (Sunni) official, when pressed by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius about what his country would look like in five years in the absence of American help, answered bluntly: “Iraq will be a colony of Iran.”

Much of this pointing with alarm can be written off as status envy or political sour grapes or even uneasiness that Iraq, unlike nearly all its neighbors in the Middle East, holds elections that are not rigged in favor of the current rulers. But underlying the grumbling is a deep and abiding opposition to the emergence of the Shiites as a political force in the region. Traditionally, except in Iran, the Shiites have been relegated to the status of second-class citizens, and their new prominence in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon (through Hezbollah) is regarded by many Sunni Arabs as intolerable.

There are also whispered concerns that the United States, in granting Iran such political influence in the region, had ulterior motives. Memories are long in the Middle East, and no one has forgotten the special relationship between the United States and the Iran of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. If the United States endowed Iran with its new political clout, the conspiracy theory goes, can a special deal between the Americans and Iranians, at the expense of America’s traditional Sunni—or Israeli—allies, be far behind?

Finally, there is an underlying fear of the Iranian revolution and its establishment of a Shiite Islamist clerical state. Is that to be the future of the new Middle East?

I recently had an opportunity to test out some of these suspicions during a trip to Iraq and the Iraqi holy city of Najaf. As a member of a small group of visiting scholars, I participated in discussions with three grand ayatollahs (not including Grand Ayatollah Sistani) over several days.

Our group of four non-Muslim American scholars with diverse academic interests was a bit unusual, but these ayatollahs meet daily with pilgrims from every corner of the world, and they are neither surprised nor offended by tough questions. Religious education in the Shiite seminaries uses the Socratic method—challenge and response—and nothing is off limits. As it happened, I was the eldest of our group, so in accordance with Iraqi protocol I posed the first question. In each case, I asked the religious scholars what the proper role of religion would be in the new, post-Saddam Iraq. In various words, they all replied that religion can only persuade, it has no power to control or force. These religious leaders saw their function as providing guidance or suggestions to the political leaders, but they had no desire or inclination to run the government.

These were not political discussions, but of course everything has a political dimension. We did not ask them directly to compare their understanding of the role of Islam with that of the theocratic system in Iran. Nevertheless, the subject came up in various ways.

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The two most telling moments for me were during our lengthy discussion with a group of perhaps 15 senior religious scholars that extended from morning through lunch and well into the afternoon. These men are all teachers in the hawza, the religious establishment of Najaf.

One scholar responded to a question about whether scholars moved freely back and forth between Najaf and Qom, the counterpart seminary town in Iran. At first he said yes, that the three levels of traditional instruction were largely in common. Then he changed his mind. We would not recommend that our students go to Qom for the first (basic) level of instruction, he said; in Iran the first level courses have become a training program for future officials in an Islamic government.

Clearly the Najaf hawza had no intention of playing such a role. (An ayatollah had told us the previous day that the relationship between Najaf and Qom was one of “friendly competition.” No progress, he said, is possible without competition.)

The point was driven home by another scholar, from a famous Iraqi family of clerics, some of whose members had sheltered in Iran during the oppression and persecution of Shiite clerics and institutions under Saddam Hussein’s rule. A number of his relatives were killed by Saddam. He said quite matter-of-factly that after the collapse of Saddam’s rule, the hawza had considered whether it would follow the Iranian model of a theocratic state, and had decided that it would not.

Khomeini’s concept of the velayat-e faqih has always been controversial in Shiite Islam, and the spectacular failure of Iran’s theocracy to bring competence, justice, prosperity or tranquility to Iran does not appear to have been lost on their co-religionists in Iraq. But that does not prevent the hawza from playing an important role in Iraqi politics. Grand Ayatollah Sistani has offered his advice at several critical junctures, promoting non-violence and more transparent democratic procedures. Transparency generally favors a majority Shiite populace, but Sistani’s interventions have also found favor with non-sectarian proponents of Iraqi democracy.

One other issue that arose naturally in the course of our conversations in Najaf was the subject of terrorism, particularly suicide bombings and the killing of civilians in the name of Islam. The passion of our interlocutors’ responses on this subject were exceeded only by their denunciations of Saddam Hussein. The extremist takfiri ideology of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, which permits such excesses as suicide bombings, attacks on civilians, abductions, mutilations, and beheadings, was denounced unequivocally and disdainfully as contrary to Islam itself.

It is perhaps no coincidence that of the hundreds of suicide bombings that have plagued Iraq in the past six years, most if not all appear to have been carried out by Sunni extremists (often imported from neighboring Arab countries), not Shiites. Today, Sunni clerics, recognizing the immense harm that such behavior is visiting on Islam itself, are increasingly joining their Shiite brethren in denouncing these atrocities.

There is no doubt that the present Iraqi government is more friendly to Iran than any Sunni government would likely be, and the risk of high-level conflict between these neighbors is greatly reduced from the days of Saddam Hussein. Iran can expect to have a respectful hearing in Baghdad, and the level of economic and security cooperation is going to give Iran more influence over the policies of the Iraqi government than could have been imagined only six years ago.

But any talk of Iraq becoming a colony (or even a major dependency) of Iran seems to me utterly misplaced. On the contrary, the Iraqi political experiment, messy as it may be, is showing signs of genuine representative government at a time when Iran seems to be sliding into a corporatist military dictatorship with an Islamic veneer.

Iran is presently stronger than Iraq in military organization, industrial development, and policy reach. But as Iraq recovers from the multiple disasters of Saddam Hussein’s rule, a sectarian civil war, and the calamitous mismanagement of a U.S. occupation, the existing balance is going to shift.

Iraq is now beginning to see an inflow of investment capital that is likely to grow. Recent contracts for the development of Iraq’s enormous oil fields have the promise of increasing Iraq’s oil production to more than double Iran’s waning production within less than a decade. And Iraq, given the less intrusive presence of the Najaf hawza, has the prospect of presenting a more attractive model of governance than the failed theocratic experiment next door. Continued “friendly competition” seems a more plausible model than Iranian domination, and that competition is likely to favor Iraq.

Gary Sick served on the National Security Council staff under Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan. He was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis and is the author of two books on U.S.-Iranian relations. Mr. Sick is a captain (ret.) in the U.S. Navy, with service in the Persian Gulf, North Africa and the Mediterranean.