The Real Outcome of the Iraq War: US and Iranian Strategic Competition in Iraq

Events in Iraq since the US withdrawal have made it all too clear that the US celebrated the end of the Iraq War without any realism as to the impact the war and US occupation had on Iraqi society.  Iraq remains a violent and unstable place, with Iranian influence on the rise.  The political, economic, and security situation in Iraq, as well as the US and Iranian competition in the country, are all examined in depth in a new report from the Burke Chair entitled “The Real Outcome of the Iraq War:  US and Iranian Strategic Competition in Iraq” which is available on the CSIS web site at:

Iraq has become a key focus of the strategic competition between the United States and Iran. 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 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.

America’s ability to achieve this goal remains highly uncertain. US and Iraqi forces scored impressive tactical victories against the insurgents in Iraq from 2005-2009, but the US invasion now seems to be a de facto grand strategic failure in terms of its cost 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 helped create, and the US failed to establish anything like the strategic partnership it sought.

This competition between the US and Iran has reached a critical stage as the US has withdrawn its combat troops and continues to 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.

Iran has very different goals from the US. 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.

Unless the US does act far more decisively, Iran seems likely to be the de facto winner of the US invasion of Iraq. It now enjoys deep ties in a neighboring country with which it once fought a fierce and bloody eight-year war. Iran has a great deal of cultural, military, and economic resources available to influence Iraq. Moreover, Prime Minister Maliki may have alienated enough Sunnis, and caused enough Kurdish fears to make him and other Shi’ite steadily more dependent on Iran.

Iran 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.

Yet Iran’s role in Iraq is complex and Iran does have serious disadvantages. Iran is anything but popular with Iraqis, including many – if not most – Shi’ites. Iraqi Shi’ite religious leaders are largely “quietists” who show little or no support for Iran’s concept of a Supreme (Iranian) military leader, or for Iranian efforts to increase its religious presence in Iraqi Shi’ite shrines like Najaf.

Iran must deal with Iraqi memories of the bloody course of the Iran-Iraq War that lasted from 1980 to 1988. Another is public resentment over Iran’s current political and economic influence. Iran’s incursion in the Fakka oil fields sparked widespread protests across Iraq and continued attacks in the Kurdish north are creating growing resentment. Most of the Shi’ite Iraqi clergy is quietist. It will be no simple task to mold Iraq into the ally Iran wishes it to be.

Iraq is diplomatically and militarily weak, and must now constantly try to find a balance between conflicting pressures from the US and Iran. Iraq has tried to walk the line between the two competitors, preventing a major rift with either nation. Iraq needs trade and cross-border support from Iran, just as it needs aid, diplomatic, and military support from the US. Iraq’s much-reduced military capabilities make it dependent on aid, military sales, and training from the United States, and Iraq still lacks the resources and cohesion to resist against Iranian coercion and to defend against Iranian aggression.

Iran’s problems give the US the potential ability to compete for influence in Iraq, especially in aid, political development, military sales, and security training. If the US does not compete skillfully and consistently, however, Iraq’s insecurity and ties of some Shi’ite leaders to Iran may tether Iraq closer and closer to Tehran and further from the US. Iran’s relative influence in Iraq may rise even if Iraqi nationalism chafes against Iranian interference. The US unleashed forces in 2003 that it must now deal with or risk seeing Iran as the real winner of the war in Iraq.

The US must also act upon the understanding that this US-Iranian 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.

It is the US ability to work with Iraq’s leaders, however, that is likely to be the key. Iraq’s future alignments will depend on whether its leaders can become unified enough to move the nation forward, or continue to drag it down into new ethnic and sectarian tensions and the status of a failed state. Iraq’s leaders face critical choices regarding internal violence, deficiencies in government oversight and corruption, regional and international politics, and how to reshape and modernize their governance, economy, and security forces. They have so far consistently acted to seek or preserve power, rather than to serve their nation.

Adam Mausner, Sam Khazai, Peter Alsis and Charles Loi