TSG IntelBrief: Conflict Zone Series: The Strategic Challenge of an Iran-Iraq Axis

INTELBRIEF

TSG IntelBrief: Conflict Zone Series: The Strategic Challenge of an Iran-Iraq Axis

The Strategic Challenge of an Iran-Iraq Axis.

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Bottom Line Up Front:

• Iran has worked ceaselessly since 2003 to build ever stronger religious, political, and now military ties with Iraq in an attempt to blunt Western pressure against it. The formation of an Iran-Iraq axis would present Western nations with a policy dilemma where punishing Iran would also ? to a degree ? punish Iraq, the very country they spent so much to rebuild and promote.

• The Iranian choice of Baghdad as the host of the next round of nuclear talks is a predictable step at this time for Iran, as is the recent visit of Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki to Tehran, where he met with Ayatollah Khamenei, President Ahmadinejad, and Saeed Jalili, the chief Iranian negotiator in the ongoing nuclear talks.

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As of late April 2012, Iran’s 9-year effort to restore ties ? and influence ? with Iraq, its Shia-majority neighbor, has now lasted longer than the devastating war waged between the two countries in the 1980’s. This ostensible rapprochement has the potential to have a far greater, and longer lasting, impact than the war on both regional and international terms. Iran’s labors in forging closer and more cooperative ties with its erstwhile enemy are coming to fruition at a particularly beneficial moment as Tehran attempts to weather increasingly intense international sanctions and isolation.

Its success in enhancing ties ? both politically and religiously ? with Iraq leaves Tehran well positioned to not only effectively negotiate with the West, but also endure the diminishing status of its close ally, Syria. In creating a new ally in Baghdad, Iran stands to benefit from the intense American and Western interest in maintaining stability in Iraq after the substantial cost in lives and money. Specifically, Iran will seek to create a new regional order comprised of the two oil-rich Shia-majority countries bound by shared security, economic, and religious goals. In building deeper, multidimensional ties with Iraq, it will become increasingly difficult for the West to negatively pressure Iran without simultaneously impacting Iraq in a similar fashion, albeit possibly to a lesser degree. Clearly, this will not happen overnight; Tehran’s carefully choreographed reengagement with Baghdad has been ongoing since 2003, and the relationship between the two countries is a product of constant evolution.

A clear example of this was Tehran’s strategically clever request to hold the upcoming round of negotiations with the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) in Baghdad. There had been a great deal of pessimism during the lead-up to the last round of talks on Iran’s nuclear program, which were held earlier this month in Istanbul, the capital of one of Tehran’s major regional rivals, Turkey. As this round of talks ended ? with reports of progress emanating from all sides ? Iran asked that the next round be held in Baghdad, a request those on the other side of the negotiating table granted primarily in hopes of avoiding conflict while addressing the nuclear concerns, but also because such a meeting will help Iraq’s reemergence onto the regional/international scene (a process that began when it hosted the Arab League meeting earlier in April).

Having a friendly host (Baghdad) ? one the other parties want to help succeed to a degree ? will create a very different negotiating milieu for Iran, which is expected to demand an end to sanctions before it makes any meaningful moves toward compromise. Indeed, one of the reasons the P5+1 so readily agreed to another round of talks (much to the consternation of Israel) was that it would be held in Baghdad. Iran appears to have effectively leveraged Western interest in Iraq’s transformation from a war-torn country to a modern, self-sustaining nation, and positioned itself to ensure that not only would there be a second round of talks, but that they would be held in what could be considered its surrogate capital.

Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki recently visited Iran for the first time since 2009, and, of note, met with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili.  Afterwards, Jalili publicly stated that Iran will seek closer military ties with Iraq now that the West has drawn down its military forces. He also praised Baghdad for hosting the upcoming round of P5+1 talks to be held May 23rd.  Jalili is Iran’s point man for these talks, and his comments reflect Tehran’s game plan as it positions itself for what will likely be a “grand bargain” at the end of negotiations. Furthermore, Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said he was pleased at what he called Iraq’s growing power in the Arab world. Iran played the long game in backing Maliki’s rise to power and, as his visit to Tehran shows, Iran has tremendous influence with the Iraqi government.

There could likely be another opportunity ? this time in the religious vice political realm ? for Iran to come closer to its goal of orchestrating a regional power shift that centers around an Iran-Iraq axis. The leader of Iraqi Shia, the immensely influential Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is 82 years old and has been less involved in Iraqi politics over recent years. A possible successor is Iranian Grand Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, who has long and close ties with Khamenei, as well as having served as head of Iran’s judiciary. Sharoudi has been prominent in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf, the religious capital of the country. Iran will no doubt promote Shahroudi as al-Sistani’s successor, something that will further bring the two countries into a common orbit.

As noted above, every link formed between Iraq and Iran helps the latter blunt Western attempts to isolate it. It is difficult to overstate the lengths to which Iran will go as it promotes Iraq as a player in the region, from increased trade with the aim of helping Baghdad with its crushing financial problems to increased military cooperation. Not only does an Iran-Iraq axis confront the West with the awkward choice of negatively pressuring the very country it spent so many years rebuilding, but it also helps Iran counter Turkey’s aspirations of regional hegemony.

Iran’s preference for Baghdad over Istanbul as host for the next round of P5+1 talks should be seen as the logical, even predictable next step in Iran’s 9-year effort to repair the separation caused by the 1980-1988 war, a strategic effort that will play out over the long-term. Policy-makers will have to increasingly consider how their plans will effect Iraq and Iran in concert, adding another vexing complication to one of the world’s most complex and vital challenges.

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Forecast:

Near-Term:

• Iran will continue to promote Iraq as a new Arab regional power ? and highlight Baghdad’s status as the host for the May 23rd nuclear talks ? all in furtherance of Tehran’s goal of creating an Iran-Iraq axis to fend off Western pressure, effect a rebalance of power in the region, and counter Turkey’s growing influence.

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Long-Term:

• Iran will likely succeed in forming indivisible ties with Iraq, which will aid both countries in assuming greater influence in the region while presenting new and worrisome challenges for both the Sunni Gulf States and the West.

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