Pushing Iraq Into Iran's Orbit

As the west increasingly disengages in Iraq, the country beings to lean towards Iran.

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Protesters wave national flags as they chant slogans against the Iraqi parliament in Basra, 340 miles (550 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013.

Largely unnoticed amid the furor surrounding the convening of the U.N. General Assembly this week in New York is another, equally decisive set of consultations now taking place in Tehran. On Monday, Iraq's Defense Minister, Sadun Farhan Al-Dulaymi, began a multi-day visit to the Islamic Republic of Iran. On the agenda between the Iraqi minister and his Iranian counterparts, reports Iran's official FARS news agency, is the state of "bilateral ties" between the two countries, and "regional developments" affecting the security of both.

Al-Dulaymi's trek to Tehran is only the latest, very public example of Iraq's evolving political orientation. With the country's security continuing to deteriorate, Iraq is once again drifting into Iran's orbit.

This state of affairs is certainly not new. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, Iran has pursued a consistent strategy toward Iraq: to create a pro-Iranian satellite dependent on Tehran's guidance and largesse. It has done so through a massive campaign of overt and covert influence, one that has included the bankrolling of Shi'ite militias, support for assorted Iraqi politicians and the insertion of intelligence and paramilitary assets on the territory of its western neighbor. But in recent years, Tehran's efforts have been hindered – at least in part – by the presence of American and allied troops, the Sunni "awakening," and the Iraqi political system itself, which has tried to emphasize nationalism over religious identification.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Iran.]

All that has changed of late. In the wake of last year's withdrawal of troops by the Obama administration, growing corruption and factionalism in Baghdad, as well as militant Islam, have once again reared their heads. This summer, in a clear symptom of the disorder, al-Qaida's franchise in the country successfully sprang 500 inmates in a coordinated assault on two high-profile prisons in and outside the Iraqi capital.

Unlike half a decade ago, this time coalition forces are not around to lend a helping hand. Nor, soon, will western diplomats be; by the end of the year, for example, America's diplomatic presence in Iraq will be reduced by some two-thirds under current administration guidelines. Other coalition member-states are contemplating similar draw-downs. And as Iraq seeks to get a handle on its security situation, it will find itself inexorably drawn into the arms of Iran.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Iran's gains, moreover, aren't simply political. Tehran is working hard to strengthen its economic bonds to its western neighbor as well. Back in July, the Islamic Republic concluded a landmark energy deal with neighboring Iraq – one under which 25 million cubic meters of natural gas are set to be transferred from southern Iran to power plants throughout Iraq via a new pipeline. Once it is completed this fall, Tehran will earn an estimated $3.7 billion a year in revenues from the energy route – giving a major shot in the arm to its sanctions-ravaged economy. Iraq, meanwhile, will receive as much as 25 million cubic meters of natural gas from Iran to fuel power plants all over the country, making the Islamic Republic a major player in Iraq's energy future.

These developments are emblematic of the strategic reorientation now underway in Iraq. They are also a sign that in Iraq, where so much American blood and treasure has been expended over the past decade, western disengagement is rapidly translating into political and economic gains for Iran. 

Sarah Bertin is a researcher at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.

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