The recent story in the New York Times on leaked Iranian intelligence reports about Iranian influence operations in Iraq elicits a couple of possible reactions. If one works for the United States government, particularly in any department or bureau that deals with Iraq, one would be reasonable to feel some gratitude not only that the leak did not come from the US government, but also some satisfaction that it did come from the Iranians. As Nelson Munz might say, “HA ha.”
Another reasonable reaction, especially for those who have spent years confronting, avoiding, or just living with Iranian influence in Iraq, the activities mentioned in the report seem accurate. Since 2003, Iran has leveraged geography and social connections to sway not just high-level officials, as the report suggests, but also the public to its side. Moreover, these efforts are not confined to clandestine meetings and the exchange of money, which the report recounts. The Iranians and their proxies widely engage the Iraqi public through exchanges and the provision of services in a deliberate attempt to ingratiate themselves to – and failing that intimidate – the Iraqi public. Moreover, it should also be no surprise that many Iraqis respond positively to these efforts. However, as the report points out, responding positively might mean an Iraqi has a “special relationship” with Iran, but that does not make that person a stooge.
Iran’s efforts towards Iraq are understandable. Iran fought a long, bloody war with Iraq and has a reasonable, if misplaced, interest in ensuring Iraq will not confront it in a similar manner again. While the United States also has no interest in seeing such a conflict again, it has not done much to assuage the Iranians of their concerns.
Claims made on the leaked intelligence
Some concerns in the Times article may be overstated, though it is difficult to tell. The concern, for example, that the Iraqis gave Iran access to “secret” targeting software may have been a violation of the terms under which it was provided; however, if the United States ever gave anything to the Iraqis it does not want the Iranians to see, it should probably have known better. My guess is the US officials engaged with Iraq know this. The concern that the CIA’s reported “tossing” intelligence sources “out on the street,” is also likely overstated. There is little doubt that Iraqi sources for the US agreed to work for the Iranians when the support they got from the United States dried up. The source the report referred to at the US Embassy who was motivated by “financial” interests was hardly alone. My guess is that local sources are given the information they need to complete the tasks they are assigned and, in the event that they are indeed “tossed,” the CIA is not naïve enough to think they won’t sell what they have learned to others.
Where the reporting on this leaked intelligence also goes a little off the mark is how it weaves the information found in these reports with Iraq’s larger narrative. First, it is probably an overstatement, especially in light of the current protests, to claim that Iran has “outmaneuvered the United States in the contest for influence.” This claim has long been a canard in the Iraq-US relationship. Certainly, Iraqis have acquiesced to Iranian interests at the expense of the United States. As the Times article notes, the Iraqi government does little to check Iran’s anti-American activities in Iraq, even when it discourages US private sector investment, as just one example. Just as certainly, however, Iraq has also acquiesced to US interests at the expense of Iranians. Iraq’s continued security cooperation is one obvious example. Iraqis may prefer not to be caught in the middle between the US-Iran rivalry; however, it should be no surprise that they will exploit that rivalry to their advantage. What the Iranians do better than the United States is understand how to shape those advantages.
On that point, it is often said that when it comes to Iraq, the Iranians are playing chess while the United States is playing checkers. That’s not exactly true. The United States is playing chess and often in a big way. Like the Iranians, the United States engages a range of diplomatic, security, economic, and social actors and institutions. Unlike the Iranians, it does so to encourage them to set aside sectarian differences and corrupt practices to build an inclusive, prosperous Iraq that is a contributing member to global society. More to the point, and again unlike the Iranians, it provides billions of dollars in reconstruction and security assistance and connects the Iraqi government to regional and international partners to further assist development of critical institutions.
Perhaps some of those Iraqis whom the Iranians have managed to buy off are satisfied with the status quo, but many other people clearly are not.
Still, while the United States may be playing chess, it is more apt to say the Iranians are playing “Settlers of Catan.” By playing chess, the United States seems to think that this game ends when it captures the King, or in the context of Iraq, when the Iraqi government behaves consistently according to US interests. Settlers of Catan, however, ends when one has amassed more access, influence, and resources that give one the flexibility to respond to whatever one’s adversary does. In the Iraqi context, this game never ends. But more to the point, losing one source of power or influence does not end the game, it just requires one have others to rely upon. Unlike the United States, Iran gains this influence by exploiting the sectarian differences and corrupt practices that the United States seeks to discourage.
These means conform well to Iran’s goal in Iraq, which the Times article characterizes as keeping “Iraq from falling apart.” That may be true, however, keeping Iraq from falling apart (massive fail, by the way) does not entail, as the protests have indicated, putting it back together in a way the Iraqis would accept. That is why it is premature to say that the Iranians have outmaneuvered the United States for influence, though one should be agnostic regarding how much maneuvering the United States has actually done. Before the protests, an Iraqi opinion poll showed a favorability rating for the United States at 22 percent, which, though low, was higher than Iran, which was at 16 percent. An informal 2018 survey indicated that Iraqis in general accepted a US and Iranian role in government formation.
That the protests are largely directed at Iran and not the United States is telling. It seems whatever tolerance Iraqis do have for external influence is extremely limited. This point does not mean that the United States can turn Iraqi ire at the Iranians to its advantage, but it does suggest that it is too soon to say who outmaneuvered whom. Indeed, the protests suggest that “maneuvering” might just be the problem. Whether intentional or not, the United States’ relatively hands-off approach (at least compared Iran’s) to Iraqi governance, at least since the 2011 withdrawal, may now be creating opportunities to increase its influence, or at least displace some of the Iranians’.
Another point in the Times article worth addressing: Iran’s rise in Iraq was not due to poor post-war planning. Rather it was due to two things. First, the United States refused to find a constructive role for Iran in the reconstruction of Iraq. That may have been the right answer, but then there should have been consequences when Iran chose to play a negative role. That is the real lesson of the Army Iraq report referenced in the Times article. And this point might suggest a way ahead.
Next steps for US policy towards Iraq
Douglas Ollivant aptly characterizes the problem: The United States has much to give Iraq, but little to give Iraqis. It is in the best position to help Iraq join the global community as a constructive, contributing member. Iran has much to give Iraqis, but little to give Iraq. Iranian actions amplify the sectarianism and corruption that has been standing in the way of Iraq’s reconstruction. As the protests have shown, the Iraqi people see this. Perhaps some of those Iraqis whom the Iranians have managed to buy off are satisfied with the status quo, but many other people clearly are not.
Now is the time for the United States to underscore that message to the Iraqi public, but in a way that does not exacerbate their concerns about getting caught in the middle of the US-Iran rivalry. Thus, the United States needs to commit publicly to preserving Iraq’s neutrality relative to its differences with Iran while at the same invigorating efforts to help with its recovery and institutional reform.
Doing so will not cause the Iranians to abandon all of their malign activities. But if the Times article is correct that there are differences among Iranian decision-makers regarding how much meddling to do in Iraq, such a public commitment by the United States would give the Iranians who want to do less in Iraq one more reason to argue for their point.
Dr. C. Anthony Pfaff is an Atlantic Council Nonresident Senior Fellow and a researcher at the Strategic Studies Institute at the US Army War College. He recently served as Director for Iraq on the National Security Council Staff. The views expressed represent the author’s and not necessarily those of the United States Government.
MENASource Nov 18, 2019
Explainer: Iraq’s autumn of discontent
By Christiana Haynes
Waves of protests have hit Iraq this past October and November, calling for the resignation of the post-war government and sweeping changes. Last month alone, there have been reports of hundreds of protesters killed and thousands wounded by security forces in clashes across the country, from Tahrir Square in Baghdad to cities like Diwaniyah, Najaf, […]
MENASource Oct 31, 2019
Will protests herald a new era in Iraqi politics?
By Dara Salam
The defining feature of the protests in Baghdad which started on October 1 and spread to other cities in southern Iraq is that they were neither led nor called for by a religious authority (also known as the marja’iya) or another leader. When the first wave of protests began in multiple cities, the protesters’ message […]