When Iraq invaded Iran on September 22, 1980, many in the region and around the world were not particularly sorry. An Arab diplomat at the United Nations noted back when he was happy to see Iraq attempting to “destroy the myth of the Iranian revolution,” which had toppled the Iranian monarchy a year earlier and raised fears of a similar regime change among the kingdoms and sheikhs of the Persian Gulf.
In Washington, where the Jimmy Carter administration was desperate to free fifty-two American diplomats held hostage in Tehran for nearly a year, there was no love for Iraq from Saddam Hussein. Nonetheless, there was a feeling that Iran deserved to be punished and isolated on the international stage. This led the United States to lean towards Baghdad, like much of the rest of the world, during the bloody conflict of 1980-1988.
Almost forty years later, however, Iran has emerged as the dominant power in the region with inordinate influence in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq. In 2003, the United States accomplished in a matter of weeks what Iran failed to accomplish in nearly a decade of war: to overthrow Saddam’s secular Sunni regime and empower the Shiite majority in Iraq. This upset the sectarian balance in the Middle East, which had long favored Sunnis, and weakened ties between Washington and its traditional partners in the Arab world. Meanwhile, the Iranian theocracy that Saddam and his supporters failed to destroy remains nationally rooted, albeit increasingly unpopular.
The Iran-Iraq war – the “imposed war” as the Iranians call it – left the territorial borders of the two countries intact – at the cost of a million people killed or injured and economic devastation. Iran has lost at least 250,000 people and its soldiers have fallen victim to weapons of mass destruction – Iraqi munitions containing deadly chemicals. This created a state of mind among Iranian national security officials that Tehran should be able to deter such an invasion in the future through various means, including the development of a ballistic missile program and the cultivation of Shiite militant groups among neighbors under Sunni Arab rule, notably Lebanon and Iraq. The war cemented Iran’s alliance with Alawite Syria, whose Baathist regime was a rival to that of Saddam. Iran has also relaunched a nuclear program that began under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a program whose progress has increasingly worried the international community.
Historically a strategically lonely nation – predominantly Shiite and Persian in a predominantly Sunni Arab and Turkish sea – Iran has tried to make its drawbacks a virtue. However, the Iran-Iraq war overwhelmingly attracted the US military to the Middle East, which did not decline until forty years later. Hostility between the US and Iranian governments that escalated during the 444-day hostage crisis and the Eight-Year War persists, to the detriment of both of their peoples.
Meanwhile, in Iraq, hostility to Iran has grown since 2003. However, the ruling class – ironically, jointly installed by Washington and Tehran – has little capacity to separate itself from its powerful neighbor even as ‘she tries to maintain ties with her deliverer, the US.
The reluctance of Arab countries, especially those in the Persian Gulf, to engage post-2003 Iraqi governments has brought Iraq and Iran even closer together. The two countries have cultivated their religious affinities, historical social and cultural ties and mutual economic interests, forming a strong alliance.
When the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) invaded and occupied nearly a third of Iraqi territory and put Baghdad at close range in the summer of 2014, the Iranians were the first to show up, placing many of their capabilities to the elimination of Iraq. With the fatwa from the Great Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani who followed the invasion of ISIS, Iraq single-handedly obtained more than the fighters needed and needed only weapons, military advisers and others logistical aids. Iran made much of this available within twenty-four hours. It was essential for Iraq to prevent ISIS terrorists from advancing further on the ground until the Iraqi armed forces recovered from the initial defeat and an international alliance led by the United States. . begin its operations in August 2014, with the United States providing critical air support.
Although Ayatollah Sistani fatwa did not call for the formation of fighting forces outside the regular Iraqi armed forces, dozens of militia groups have been created and exploited in the war against ISIS in many Iraqi provinces. Several of these groups are very close to Iran and others, such as the Badr organization, have existed since the Iran-Iraq war. All parties tolerated this security fact until ISIS’s territorial defeat in 2017. Since then, many voices inside and outside Iraq have called for the dissolution or merger of these militant groups under the Iraqi armed forces. The last few years have proven that this proposition is easier said than done. The assassination by the United States of the head of the Quds force of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, General Qassem Soleimani, and of senior Iraqi militia official Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in early 2020 appears to have leads to an even greater proliferation of armed groups.
Economic relations between Iraq and Iran have been on an upward trajectory since 2003, with trade to exchange of $ 12 billion per year and a plan to to augment to $ 20 billion for the foreseeable future. Much of this trade is Iranian exports to Iraqi markets. Despite US sanctions, Iran exports fuel essential for Iraqi electricity generation, and at peak times Iranian electricity is also exported (with waivers approved by the US government).
As the fortieth anniversary of the war coincides with the commemoration of the martyrdom of Shiite Imam Hossein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, the two countries have announced a mutual plan to give up visa and increase the number of Iranian pilgrims visiting Iraq. The move will also benefit Iraqis who visit Iran for recreation, religious pilgrimage and healthcare.
More than four decades after the start of a horrific war that shaped the life and worldview of a generation, Iraq and Iran seem to have put the past behind them and moved on to a new relationship. But the road ahead is not without landmines. The balance of power is too out of balance in Iran’s favor to allow for a healthy alliance, and Iran’s continued estrangement from the United States makes Baghdad’s balance even more delicate. The Iranians may be profiting from their triumphant position in the short term, but the long term consequences could be catastrophic.
Barbara slavin is Director of the Initiative for the Future of Iran at the Atlantic Council. Follow her on Twitter: @ BarbaraSlavin1.
Dr Abbas Kadhim is director of the Iraq Initiative of the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter: @DrAbbasKadhim.
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