Javad KANI – Independent analyst and researcher
The Syrian crisis has metastasized to Iraq. The part of the country which remains after the de facto separation of Iraqi Kurdistan is on the brink of civil war. Its result is completely predictable: division into Sunnite and Shiite areas, blood, chaos, instability and «wild lands» in which extremists will «frolic».
The statement made by Martin Dempsey in early July just added fuel to the fire. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff announced that the U.S. is prepared to increase the amount of military assistance (and the number of advisors) to Lebanon and Iraq. It is worth noting that this readiness is motivated by «the return of al-Qaeda». Baghdad, to the surprise and dismay of Tehran, was very well-disposed to this initiative; the media advisor to the prime minister, Ali al-Mussawi, stated practically the next day that Iraq «will welcome an increase in the amount of military assistance from the U.S».
Incidentally, either of the two possibilities, civil war or the expansion of American military presence in Iraq, will be unacceptable for Tehran. In either of these possibilities it loses its «corridor» to Syria, which in turn will give the anti-Syrian coalition, which is currently experiencing hard times that look more like death throes, its second wind.
The strategic partnership which arose between Baghdad and Tehran in 2008 was Ahmadinejad's accomplishment. That is why it is completely logical that it is he who flew to Baghdad at Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's critical moment; during Ahmadinejad's presidential term Iran spent a considerable amount of political and financial resources on supporting him.
Ahmadinejad's visit to Baghdad in 2008 was justly assessed by many experts as a serious diplomatic victory of the Islamic Republic. During the visit of the Iranian party they were able to convince Baghdad that collaboration with Tehran would give it a guarantee of security and stable development, which was completely fair considering the influence Iran had on a great number of Shiite organizations. Incidentally, not all Iraqi Shiites approved of the rapprochement with Iran, and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani even refused to meet with Ahmadinejad, as he was unable to forget the support the Iranian president gave his «competitor», Muktada al-Sadr. But such «trivial matters» didn't bother Iranian leadership too much when they placed their bets on al-Maliki and openly pressured pro-Iranian organizations (for example, the supporters of al-Sadr) when al-Maliki needed support.
The importance of the strategic partnership with Iraq required certain sacrifices, and not only financial ones. Iran's financial expenses paid off in spades; trade volume between the two countries showed astounding growth (according to various figures the trade volume was between 7 and 12 billion dollars). In conditions of a constant «sanctions war», , Iraq became a real «breathing hole» for Iran; the Iranian goods supplied to Iraq were then sold throughout the Middle East, providing Iran's economy with an influx of finances and Iraqi traders with stable profits from their intermediary services.
With the help of Iraqi business, Iran was even able to tap into the international financial system, which infuriated U.S. financial intelligence agents. For example, in October 2010 American experts established that the purpose of opening two private Iranian banks in Iraq was to service international financial transaction from Iran. And one of these financial institutions turned out to be connected with the state bank Melli, which was under the strictest of sanctions. In addition, various companies in Iraq and Turkey served as loopholes in the sanction regime through which Iran obtained technologies for the needs of its own economy.
From a financial and economic point of view, the partnership was more than profitable for both parties; in the political sphere, however, negative feelings started to build up. It is difficult to say whether Tehran understood that al-Maliki was not at all pro-Iranian. Most likely they recognized this circumstance perfectly well. There was no secret about it. U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad (the first Muslim to have a successful career in a U.S. diplomatic agency), who exerted himself greatly to support the political career of the current Iraqi leader, accurately described al-Maliki as a person who is «not dependent on Iran and positions himself as an Arab nationalist. His collaboration with Iran was always dictated first and foremost by the political interests of part of the Iraqi elite, and only then by some kind of «ideas».
But such a system suited Tehran perfectly, as al-Maliki professed the principle of «equidistance» with regard to the U.S. as well, stating during a visit to Washington: «I consider myself a friend of the U.S., but I am not America's man in Iraq». Furthermore, as the leader of the Dawa party, he was the image of the representative of a Shiite Islamic party, which fit in well with the concept of «Islamic awakening in the Shiite crescent proclaimed by Tehran. The only thing Iranian officials allowed themselves to do is restrain al-Maliki from responding with massive repressions to any protests against his party or him personally.
Thanks to his own political talent and astounding political self-preservation instinct, al-Maliki managed to be seen as «one of ours» both in Tehran and in Washington.
However, it proved impossible to maintain such a balance after the beginning of the Syrian conflict. Tehran's economic interest in the partnership with Baghdad was further increased by the fact that Iraq was a corridor for delivering Iranian equipment to Syria; it was an important channel via which Tehran shows support to Bashar al-Asad and the Syrian Arab Republic which was fending off the aggression of Salafi jihadists. Furthermore, since the end of last year Iraqi Shiite volunteers have begun to take fairly active part in military actions in Syria on the side of the government forces.
The situation was further complicated by the link between former members of the overthrown Ba'ath Party with Sunnite radicals in Iraq. And soon Saudi Arabia, which has been part of all violence in the Greater Middle East since the days of the USSR's Afghan campaign, got actively involved in stirring up internal conflict in Iraq.
It must be said that the Saudis' activities in Iraq had a quite understandable explanation. In the opinion of King Abdullah expressed in 2009, Maliki is an «Iranian agent» and his governance «opened the door for Iranian influence in Iraq». Considering Saudi «Iranophobia», this statement was tantamount to declaring al-Maliki persona non grata. And while no direct proof has been found, in expert circles there exists the belief that the Saudis, mediated by the representatives of the U.S. Republican Party, paid off a long-term contract with the company Barbour, Griffith and Rogers in August 2007 for conducting an informational war against al-Maliki and his party.
By this summer a situation had formed where the interests of the anti-Syrian and anti-Iranian coalitions (while outwardly similar, there are still differences in their configurations, so it makes sense to speak of them as different groups) interlock on Iraq. The Sunnite opposition in Iraq, besides having joined with the Ba'athists – , also received armed reinforcements from Islamists who were broken in in fighting in Syria and dream of settling accounts with the Shiites on Iraqi territory as well. Behind protests in the regions where Sunnite Arabs live stands “al-Qaeda in Iraq». Basically, a certain part of the Iraqi Sunnite opposition is already under the control of Islamist extremists, and the demands of this opposition are becoming tougher and more unachievable every day. The plan of this coalition, in which Salafis, Ba'athists and outright terrorists have come together like a nest of serpents, is also becoming clear – either to remove al-Maliki (and all Shiites) from power, which is not realistic, or civil war and the division of Iraq into Sunnite and Shiite parts in a state of permanent war among themselves.
In the face of such a powerful coalition, al-Maliki has seriously begun to think about the possibility of Iran giving him serious support. Naturally, neither the removal of the current government nor the division of Iraq could please Tehran; either of these cases would be a strategic defeat, and the outcome of the Syrian conflict would once again be hanging by a thread. But at the same time, Tehran, tied up with the conflict in Syria (and Ahmadinejad has been criticized many times in the Islamic Republic for getting too involved in this conflict )and, to put it mildly, limited in its capabilities due to the difficult economic situation, is unlikely to be able to hold the «Iraqi front» as well.
An indirect confirmation of this is the constant calls from Iranian officials for al-Maliki and other Iraqi Shiite leaders, to show restraint and try to resolve the crisis using political methods.
It is worth noting that during a visit to Iraq in early April of this year, the Iranian Minister of Intelligence, met with Nouri al-Maliki and other high-ranking state leaders and offered Baghdad complete and comprehensive collaboration in the field of security. Judging by the fact that this offer did not meet with much understanding from the Iraqi leadership and was clearly let drop, one can assume that al-Maliki's team is inclined to place its hope for maintaining security in Washington.
In connection with this, the exchange of statements during Ahmadinejad's recent visit to Baghdad is very much worth noting. «We are filled with determination to use all available methods to develop brotherly relations. The Islamic Republic of Iran does not see any limitations for the further expansion of our ties with Iraq,» stated the Iranian president, and received the following noncommittal answer: «Today Iraq has an open door policy, and we advocate the expansion of collaboration and relations with friendly countries with common historical and cultural traditions.»
Such restraint is very alarming for Tehran; it indicates the appearance of a real and very serious threat. And Ahmadinejad's visit to Baghdad two weeks before the end of his presidential term is a sign of the Iranian leadership's serious concern about the situation which has arisen literally over the past few months. And here individuals are not important, nor is division into «Rouhani's team» and «Ahmadinejad's team», the «former» and the «future». This is a challenge to the entire Islamic Republic of Iran, and in such situations the Iranian elite knows how to work around political differences.