Iran Is Playing a Risky Game in Iraq

November 12, 2019 | Amir Taheri
About the author: Amir Taheri, formerly the executive editor (1972-79) of Iran’s main daily newspaper, is the author of twelve books and a columnist for the Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat.

The anti-government protests that began in Iraq last month—in which Iraqi Shiites have been heard chanting “Iran out” and similar slogans to express their anger at Tehran’s growing influence in their country—have not abated, even as the numbers of casualties mount. Foremost in using violence on the demonstrators have been the Iran-backed militias that wield much power in the country. While the Islamic Republic has succeeded in repressing dissent in Lebanon, and seems close to defeating the uprising against Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Amir Taheri argues that Iraq will prove a tougher case:

To start with, Iraq shares Iran’s longest border—nearly 1,000 miles—a fact that poses major national-security concerns. Iraq is also home to the third-largest community of Shiite Muslims after Iran and India. Iranian-Arab tribes have kith and kin on the other side of the border belonging to virtually all the major tribes of southern Iraq. Kurds living on both sides of the border provide an additional human bond between the countries. The two neighbors also share huge reserves of oil, rivers, and the Shatt al-Arab, a major estuary for both.

Qassem Soleimani, [the general who manages most of Iran’s Middle Eastern adventures], cannot treat Iraq the way he has treated Lebanon and Syria. In Lebanon, he could appeal to sectarian sentiments by claiming that it is thanks to Tehran that Hizballah now controls virtually all aspects of government on behalf of the country’s largest religious sect. In Syria, he could ally himself with a determined minority ready to fight the majority to the end, convinced that defeat could mean total elimination. In Iraq, however, the majority sees itself as Iran’s rival for regional leadership. Even for Iraqi Shiites, it is [the Iraqi holy city of] Najaf, not Qom or Tehran [in Iran], that ought to be the beating heart of the faith.

To judge by noises made by Soleimani’s entourage and his apologists in the official media, the general may be contemplating a Syrian solution for Iraq. If he does take that path, he would be doomed to failure. Worse still, he might create a major threat to Iran’s national security, as setting a neighbor’s house on fire is never a risk-free enterprise.

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