The Outcome of Invasion: US and Iranian Strategic Competition in Iraq

Iraq has become a key focus of the strategic competition between the United States and Iran. The history of this competition has been shaped by the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), the 1991 Gulf War, and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Since the 2003 war, both the US and Iran have competed to shape the structure of Post-Saddam Iraq’s politics, governance, economics, and security. 

The Burke Chair at the CSIS has prepared a detailed report on this competition entitled The Outcome of Invasion: US and Iranian Strategic Competition in Iraq. It is available on the CSIS web site at:

It traces the nature of US and Iranian competition in Iraq since the fall of the Shah, how this competition has changed since 2003, and why the US invasion has been a military success that may end in strategic failure once US forces with draw at the end of 2011.

The report is supplemented by another report that shows the trends in the war in chart, graphic, and map form through the end of October 2011. This report is entitled Iraq in Transition and is available on the CSIS web site at:

The new Burke Chair report shows that the US has gone to great lengths to counter Iranian influence in Iraq, including using its status as an occupying power and Iraq’s main source of aid, as well as through information operations and more traditional press statements highlighting Iranian meddling. However, containing Iranian influence, while important, is not America’s main goal in Iraq. It is rather to create a stable democratic Iraq that can defeat the remaining extremist and insurgent elements, defend against foreign threats, sustain an able civil society, and emerge as a stable power friendly to the US and its Gulf allies.

Iran has very different goals. It seeks to ensure that Iraq does not serve as a base for the US, serve US interests, or reemerge as a threat to Iran. Iran shares a long and porous border with Iraq, and seeks to create a stable and malleable ally, not a peer competitor. It seeks to rid the country of American influence – particularly of American military personnel – to the greatest extent possible. Iran has aggressively used its networks, patronage, economic ties, religious ties, aid money, and military support to various factions in Iraq to achieve these goals. 

Iran, however, has overplayed its hand at times and created anti-Iranian popular backlash. Resentment over Iran’s political and economic influence, as well as Iranian incursions into Iraqi territory, fuels a deeply seeded Iraqi mistrust of Iran with roots in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988.  Politically, Iraq’s Shi’ites are far from united and in the most recent elections lost ground to Iraqiya, which loudly attacked Iranian influence. The ISCI, Iran’s closest ally, badly lost ground, though the Sadrist continue to be critical to the Maliki coalition. 

This competition between the US and Iran has reached a critical stage as the US prepares to withdraw its military forces and drastically scale down its aid program. The advancement of Iranian ambitions following the US withdrawal depends on how successful US efforts are in building an enduring strategic partnership with Iraq.  Much will depend on the level of continued US diplomatic, advisory, military, and police training presence in Iraq, and on Iran’s ability to exploit the diminished US presence. 

So far, the US has had limited success. It was not able to keep troops or bases after 2011, and it is has steadily cut back its goals for security and civil aid, and a military and police advisory presence. Responsibility for US competition with Iran in Iraq has also shifted from the Department of Defense to the State Department without any clear agreement on either the US or Iraqi side as to how the Strategic Framework Agreement will gain real meaning after all US combat troops leave in December 2011.

The US and Iraqi forces scored impressive tactical victories against the insurgents in Iraq during 2005-2009, but the US invasion now seems to be a de facto grand strategic failure in terms of its costs in dollars and blood, its post-conflict strategic outcome, and the value the US could have obtained from different uses of its political, military, and economic resources. The US went to war for the wrong reasons – focusing on threats from weapons of mass destruction and Iraqi-government sponsored terrorism that did not exist. It had no meaningful plan for either stability operations or nation building. It let Iraq slide into a half decade of civil war, and failed to build an effective democracy and base for Iraq’s economic development. Its tactical victories – if they last – did little more than put an end to a conflict it help create, and the US failed to establish anything like the strategic partnership it sought.
The US invasion did bring down a remarkably unpleasant dictatorship, but at cost of some eight years of turmoil and conflict, some 5,000 US and allied lives and 35,000 wounded, and over 100,000 Iraqi lives. The Congressional Research Service estimates that the dollar cost of the war to the US alone is over $823 billion through FY2012, and SIGIR estimates that the US and its allies will have spent some $75 billion on aid – much of it with little lasting benefit to Iraq.

The State Department must now take the lead at a time when the Iraqi government is too fractured to agree on a strategic relationship, and when US congressional and public support for funding such a relationship is both uncertain and declining. The State Department assumed full responsibility of the US mission in Iraq in October 2011, and broadened diplomatic, advisory, training, and other development goals characterized under the Strategic Framework Agreement. Its original request for $6.83 billion for FY2012 was of unprecedented scope for State and its program is being steadily down-sized by budgetary restraints, security concerns, the withdrawal of US troops, and inconsistent political will in both Iraq and the US.

Now that there is no prospect of a continued US troop presence past the December 2011 deadline, State will find it difficult to support a major military, police, and civil advisory effort or play an active role in helping Iraq heal its ethnic and sectarian divisions and end what is still a high level of internal violence. While plans remain in flux, the State Department will also have to depend on private security contractors to make up a majority of the 9,600-16,000 personnel that are planned to be part of the post-2011 State mission for security, road movement, helicopter support, police training and other functions. The presence of contract security forces is particularly sensitive to Iraqis. Security contractors remain targets and certain groups will continue to fuel sectarian tensions, and it is unclear that Iraqi forces can take up the burden of either internal security or protecting the kind of US presence that is currently planned after 2011.

Threats from both Sunni and Shi’ite hard-line extremists make it clear that US troop withdrawal will not put an end to violent retaliations against the US and GOI. Yet, the US must depend on State Department-led political, economic, and security training efforts to bolster Iraq’s capacities and to counter Iranian influence. The US ability to help Iraq create the broader economic and political reforms, legal incentives necessary for economic development, and Iraqi government’s capacity in these areas, remains as important as military and police assistance and training. Measures that reduce ethnic and sectarian tensions, stem corruption and enforce rule-of-law are necessary to give the Iraqi government legitimacy while building the foundation for security.

In contract, Iran still has a long history of tension and conflict. Most of the Shi’ite Iraqi clergy is quietist and does not support Iran’s concepts of an Islamic revolution or a Religious Supreme Leader. Sunnis and Kurds do not support Iranian influence in Iraq, and polls show that both Sunni and Shi’ite Iraqi Arabs see themselves as having a very different cultural and national identity from Iranian Persians. Many of Iran’s actions and economic activities since 2003 have led to tensions with various factions in Iraq.

At the same time, Iraq has lost virtually all of its military capabilities to defend against Iran as a result of the 2003 invasion. It now enjoys deep ties to the ruling Shi’ite parties and factions in a country with which it once fought a fierce and bloody eight-year war. It plays an active role in mediating between Iraqi political leaders, it has ties to the Sadrists that are now the largest party in Iraq’s ruling collation, and the IRGC has significant influence over elements within the Iraqi security forces. During the past seven years, Iran has also deployed a large mix of cultural, military, and economic resources available to influence Iraq. Iran will leverage its resources to ensure Iraq prevails as an ally. Yet Iran’s role in Iraq is complex, and it will be no simple task to mold Iraq into the ally Iran wishes it to be. 

The end result is that the US and Iran will continue to compete for influence in Iraq, especially in aid, political development, military sales, and security training. This competition will not only have a major impact on Iraq, but the far broader range of US and Iranian competition in the Arab world – especially the Southern Gulf, in Turkey, and in dealing with Iran’s efforts to create an area of influence that includes Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon and which poses a major challenge to Israel.

This report concludes a comprehensive survey of US strategic competition with Iran carried out as part of a project for the Smith Richardson Foundation. The other draft reports in this series – all of which are available on the CSIS web site -- include:

U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition in the Gulf States and Yemen

Peripheral Competition Involving Latin America and Africa
The Gulf Military Balance

The Proxy Cold War in the Levant, Egypt and Jordan  
The Sanctions Game: Energy, Arms Control, and Regime Change
Competition in Iraq                 
Competition in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Pakistan
Competition in EU, EU3, and non-EU European States            
Competition Involving Turkey and the South Caucasus
Competition Involving China and Russia
Energy, Economics, Sanctions, and the Nuclear Issues    

These reports are being edited into an electronic book that will be available on the CSIS web site in the near future. Comments and suggested additions and revisions will be very helpful at the book will be updated and revised over time. Please send any comments and suggestions to Anthony H. Cordesman at, or to Adam Mausner at

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy

Adam Mausner, Peter Alsis and Charles Loi