When the US quit Iraq in 2011, it left the field open for Iran to build a corridor of influence up to the Mediterranean and keep Bashar al-Assad in power in Syria and support Hezbollah in Lebanon
Before leading the 1979 Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini refined his wilayat al-faqih, or the rule of the jurist theory, during his 15-year exile in neighbouring Iraq’s Najaf. The theory would become the basis for the Iranian political system that vests a supreme leader with absolute legal authority and the right to arbitrate the state’s matters.
Khomeini sought to establish what has been described as a Shia papacy. But his fiat never extended beyond Iran. Shias outside Iran accepted him as a political leader but continued to seek religious guidance from the Shia clerical assemblage in Najaf.
Najafi clerics reject clerical control and seek a mere advisory role for themselves in the state’s affairs. They disagree with Khomeini’s theory that provides for a well-known cleric with complete legal authority.
Grand Ayatollah Abu al Qassim al-Khoei, a leading figure during Khomeini’s time in Najaf, believed even the most learned clerics do not have the right to rule.
Iranian system’s image in Iraq was also poisoned during the country’s war with Iran when Saddam Hussein’s regime would imprison and execute anyone suspected of sympathising with Tehran. As a result, wrote Susan Sachs in The New York Times, ‘many Iraqis say, the Iranian experience with clerical rule never developed a real following, except as a theory.’
Khomeini’s time as Iran’s supreme leader mostly coincided with the Iraq-Iran war and the cessation of ties. Iranians, who were banished then, are now ubiquitous in Najaf. They have greatly expanded their influence in Iraq since Saddam’s ouster.
Hundreds of thousands of Iranians visit Najaf annually. They account for a bulk of—up to 85%—of over a million pilgrims, who visit Najaf per year.
The pilgrims contribute significantly to the city’s economy and are important sources of business in local markets, restaurants, and hotels as well as donations to local religious establishments.
In Najaf, almost all hotels serve Iranian cuisine. It is common for local shop owners to accept Iranian currency along with that of India and Pakistan, the second and third largest sources of pilgrims in Najaf.
From cosmetics to eggs, milk, yogurt, and chicken, many of the items in Iraqi markets are imported from Iran. Iraq is also dependent on Iranian steel, electricity, and construction material such as cement, and bricks.
Iran has bankrolled the expansion of Imam Ali’s shrine and was among other things building a museum in Najaf when I visited Iraq as part of a group of journalists covering the war on ISIS.
Iran was also constructing a power plant to supply electricity to Najaf and Karbala. It ran charities and Imam Ali Hospital in Najaf, where an Iranian firm is even in charge of picking up garbage.
From the areas for ablutions, to clean drinking water and toilets, Iranian contributions in even setting up basic facilities are visible everywhere in the shrine.
Iran has built schools and mosques in Najaf too. Even illicit drugs are smuggled from Iran as are cleaning supplies and floor tiles. Hundreds of Iranian trucks cross over to Iraq daily and carry fruits, yogurt, concrete, bricks, candies, and soda.
Barring oil, Iraq is dependent on Iran for practically everything. Iran has sought to increase its sway in Iraq to offset the American clout by building on the goodwill it has earned by actively backing the war on ISIS.
Iran enjoys much influence over Iraqi politicians and the media. The then-Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to Iraq in March 2019 in the backdrop of fresh American sanctions on Iran and Baghdad’s decision against becoming a party to them reflected this sway.
The two countries during Rohani’s visit signed pacts to increase trade, build a rail link, end travel restrictions for tourists and investors and restore a waters’ sharing agreement.
Rouhani capped his visit with a sit-down with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, which The Washington Post noted, ‘has eluded previous Iranian presidents and American leaders alike.’
The Post reported the meeting ‘signals to Washington that the religious, cultural and economic bonds that tie Iran and Iraq will not be undermined by a focused US effort to isolate Tehran.’
Sistani, who rarely meets anyone, issued a statement coinciding with Rouhani’s visit and welcomed steps to strengthen Iraq’s relations with its neighbours.
But, in a subtle message to Iran, he emphasised that ties should be ‘based on respect for the sovereignty of the countries and no interference in domestic affairs.’
The anger over the Iranian interference among a section of Iraqis boiled over eight months later when Iran’s consulate in Najaf was burnt down.
Angry protesters shouting ‘Out, out Iran!’ and waving Iraqi flags torched the consulate amid two-month-long protests against the government over unemployment and misgovernance.
The arson attack was widely condemned and was not more than a blip in Iran-Iraq ties. It came amid worries in the US over the growing Iranian influence in Iraq, which has been key to its corridor of influence that extends up to the Mediterranean.
Tehran built the influence after the US invaded Iraq, ousted Saddam Hussein, and left the country in 2011, leaving the field open for its archfoe. The invasion claimed about 4,500 American lives, cost $1 trillion, and ended up benefitting Iran.
Tehran effectively used the corridor to keep Bashar al-Assad in power in Syria and support Hezbollah in Lebanon. Such is the Iranian influence in Iraq that Hoshyar Zebari was ousted in 2016 as Iraq’s finance minister because Iran distrusted him for his links to the US.