AFTER 9/11 the US and Iran started talking. For the first time in decades the two adversaries shared common interests. In a hotel room in Geneva, Iranian officials offered their US counterparts information about Taliban deployments in Afghanistan so as to facilitate the forthcoming US military campaign there. And, the Iranians later added, should you want to get rid of Saddam Hussein too, we’d have no objection whatsoever.
This unlikely, fledgling rapprochement came to a grinding halt with the most consequential speech of president George W. Bush’s eight-year presidency. When in 2002 he described Iran as being part of an axis of evil, Tehran reverted to its established positions — declaring that the US was indeed the Great Satan, as they had thought all along.
This wasn’t just a question of the clerics being upset by Bush’s state of the union speech. Hardliners in Tehran could easily make the case that if the US military succeeded in Iraq, then Iran would be next on the list. After all, the champions of projecting US power around the world, the neocons, were reported to be saying: ‘Boys go to Baghdad. Real men go to Tehran’.
Given the extent to which Iran has been demonised in the US in recent years, it’s hard to even remember those Geneva meetings occurred. But what happened subsequently is even more intriguing: despite the US spending trillions of dollars and sacrificing thousands of their own soldiers’ lives in Iraq, it is Iran that has ended up more powerful there. How could that be?
How did Iran end up more powerful than the US in Iraq?
Iran pursued a consistent long-term policy that enabled it to get the better of the US in Iraq. It’s a remarkable achievement for a regime frequently described in the West as unpredictable and irrational.
At first Iran simply allowed the US to make mistakes in Iraq. The US decision to disband the Iraqi army and the overzealous de-Baathification campaign both weakened the Iraqi state and enabled opposition to the US occupation to cut through. The Iraqi state was not only unguarded but also unable to deliver basic commodities such as electricity to its people. And through those turbulent times, Iran had the benefit of having close contacts with former Iraqi opposition politicians from the Iraq National Congress who had been installed in power. These were the men who helped persuade the US to go to war in Iraq but who were in fact emotionally closer to Tehran than Washington.
As popular opposition to the US presence in Iraq grew, Iran stepped up its disruptive activities, supplying Iraqi Shia militias with weapons. Tehran was so determined to undermine the US occupation, it even empowered Sunni jihadists. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 many Al Qaeda leaders had fled Afghanistan and, considering Pakistan to be unsafe, had ended up in Tehran. The Iranians responded by putting the Al Qaeda leaders in a sort of semi-detention in which they were well looked after but restricted from moving. But there were exceptions and the Iranians decided that the anti-US forces in Iraq could benefit from the activities of the Jordanian petty criminal and Al Qaeda Sunni violent jihadist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Iran released him and facilitated his travel to Iraq where he became a significant thorn in the Americans’ side by stirring up sectarian conflict.
By 2014, when the Islamic State group started advancing on Baghdad, the US and Iran again had a shared interest — this time in defeating the caliphate. It was a delicate dance: American air power helped Iran-backed ground forces defeat IS but officials from both countries denied they were cooperating.
The Iranian policy of steadily increasing its influence in Iraq has been echoed in other parts of the Middle East. Tehran, under the guidance of its leading military strategist, General Qassem Soleimani, also managed to become stronger in Syria and Yemen. And then, at one point last year, it looked as if Tehran might have overreached. When Iraqi protesters took to the streets they not only complained about the Iraqi government but also burnt down the Iranian consulate in Najaf. Now Iran was learning just how difficult it was for a foreign power to be dominant in Iraq — just as the US had found out before it.
But at that moment of vulnerability the Iranians were helped by the US assassination of Gen Soleimani. At a stroke, many of those who were starting to resent Iranian influence in Iraq turned their anger back towards the US as they protested against such a brazen display of power.
Today, the US has just 5,000 troops in Iraq. Iran meanwhile has not only the militias but also many of the Shia politicians. And it is dominant in many other spheres including trade and the media. It’s an outcome few in either the US or Iran would have predicted back in 2003.
The writer is a British journalist. His book The Bhutto Dynasty will be published later this year.
Published in Dawn, May 5th, 2020