ANALYSIS: Is Iran’s time in Iraq coming to an end?

Michael Flanagan
Michael Flanagan - Special to Al Arabiya English
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Iraq is no stranger to foreign influence in its politics, economy and way of life. It has been the crossroads for trade between Asia, Europe and Africa from time immemorial.

Having had only an occasional stint of total independence and local dominance (the Mesopotamian Empire and a few other occasions in the last couple of thousand years), the people of the fertile crescent have had their very DNA imprinted with becoming chummy with the current dominant neighbor and thriving at the same time.

The polyglot nature of Iraq welcoming many ethnicities and religions to permanently be an “Iraqi” is a testament to the resilience that they have learned and have used to their best advantage.

In the last hundred years alone, the British governed by Mandate in Iraq, the Hashemite Kingdom in Iraq was not of entirely Iraqi origin, the Americans came and went both diplomatically and militarily, the Chinese are setting up shop over oil in a big way but, inarguably, the Persians from Iran are currently the dominant foreign influence.

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This may be changing. Because the Iranian economy is increasingly approaching “basket-case” status, the cash-driven “benevolent” nature of its dominance in Iraq is slowing to a stop.

Over the last few years, the Iranians have built projects and provided money for many initiatives in both the culture and economy of Iraq. Now, those funds are drying-up and the projects are not only unfinished but, in this incomplete status, are actually harming the local populace of Iraq.

The Marshland Housing project is just one such example. Paid in advance for thousands of housing units to assist the very poor Marsh Arabs living in the South of Iraq, the Iranian companies who were selected only poured concrete foundations for the projected dwellings and did no other work. They bolted with the money and have not been back.

Plagued by economic infirmity at home and no small amount of corruption internally, these Iranian companies have simply stolen the initial cash having done only a small amount of work. Now the Marsh Arabs not only have no housing but also no longer have sufficient funds left to get the housing built by a new contractor.

Another example is the al-Sheeb border-crossing road, which stands incomplete in Maysan Province. Initially, Iran wanted this road very badly to deliver its goods from the border crossing to urban areas of Maysan and beyond. However, Iran is economically unable to continue construction, however necessary it is. The road stands half built and there is no anticipation of it being finished.

People are affected by tear gas fired by anti-riot Iranian police to disperse demonstrators in a protest over Iran's weak economy, in Tehran, Iran. (AP)
People are affected by tear gas fired by anti-riot Iranian police to disperse demonstrators in a protest over Iran's weak economy, in Tehran, Iran. (AP)

Iraq is seeing more and more of Iranian retreat from economic assistance and past promises by both the Iranian government and Iranian companies. Taking the place of Iranian contract execution and neighborly largess is the forceful actions of the Iranian militias in Iraq. That which the Iranians can no longer earn by deeds, they are taking by force.

The border areas in the South of Iraq are still under Iraqi control (as opposed to the northern border crossings, which are under the control of the Popular Mobilization Forces – that is, Iran). These crossings are increasingly rejecting Iranian shipments for import as “substandard goods.” These sales are critical for Iran.

Its militias in Iraq are making an actual military play for control of these border crossings to insure that Iranian goods get into Iraq and are sold. At the crossings in the border provinces of Wasit, Maysan, Basra and at the Gulf seaport of Umm Qasr, Iranian militias are vying for literal, actual control of these ports against the proper Iraqi government authority.

Protection rackets

Additionally, these militias are increasingly operating much like ISIS did but without the religious patina. These militias regularly engage in protection rackets, theft and actual business take-overs at gun point. To back-up these activities, they make credible threats, attempt assassinations and perform general mayhem throughout Iraq to wrest monies from Iraqi enterprises to both feed themselves and to send funds back to Iran.

By all of this outrageous activity, the actual harm that the militias wreak is growing but, in a directly related way, its legitimate influence in Iraq is diminishing. Iraqis understand that even the most violent militia activities will eventually run their course as their legitimate influence diminishes. Iraq has seen it all before and can successfully and patiently anticipate the change.

As a matter of fact, that change may be on its way. The other Arab states are economically stepping into Iraq in a very large way. In many ways they are supplanting the Iranians in economic and political influence.

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For example, at the recent Baghdad International Exhibition (the premier trade and contracting event in Iraq) the Arab presence was far more robust than ever before. The Saudi Trade Minister attended in person. Also, Kuwait, the UAE and Saudi Arabia had much larger delegations and financial commitments than ever before. Conversely, Iran’s presence stagnated as the Arabs increased to pose an equal presence at the event.

Additionally, Kuwait has direct projects in the South of Iraq to rehabilitate the land and to return it to a productive status while Saudi Arabia is doing the same thing in Anbar Province. These well-funded and far-reaching projects are aiming to “turn the desert green.”

These lands were very productive once and can be again with proper land management and the investment of time and effort by the Iraqis. The Arab states are financially making this possible.

It is possible that the turning point is at hand. Iran will continue to wield influence legitimately by political and economic activities or illegitimately through its militias. In either case, Iran will be the dominant foreign presence in Iraq for some time to come but the writing may be on the wall. Iran’s time may be coming to an end in Iraq.

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