While the main protagonists of the Iran-Iraq war are long gone, the seeds sown by the conflict continue to ripple through the region today. With Iranian soft power at unprecedented levels, what future for Iraq?
In response to what the Baathists claimed were ongoing Iranian provocations, attempted assassinations of officials, support for separatist groups and the bombing of border villages, the Iraqi armed forces launched a ground invasion of Iran there. is 41, plunging the two countries into a war that lasted almost eight years.
However, despite the end of the war almost half a century ago, its effects are still profound and have irrevocably shaped not only relations between Iraq and Iran, but the modern Middle East such as us. know him.
Coming almost immediately after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Shia Islamic Revolution in 1979, which overthrew the Iranian Pahlavi dynasty and ushered in a new era of Islamic Republican rule, the Iran-Iraq War paved the way for the sectarianism that ravages the region today. ‘hui, as well as the use of proxy forces to settle scores between regional and international rivals.
“At the regional level, Iran exerts influence over key geostrategic territories commonly referred to as the ‘Shiite crescent’. This crescent stretches from Iran itself to Iraq, Syria and beyond to Lebanon, where the Lebanese Hezbollah group is a dominant force both militarily and politically. “
Modern Iraq is still a reflection of war
While the US-led wars against Iraq in 1991 and 2003 were arguably much more destructive, they did nothing to erase the legacy of the Iran-Iraq war for the two countries that have it. fought.
It has been argued by many experts and analysts that the main winner of the US-UK-led occupation of Iraq in 2003 was not the so-called “Coalition of the Volunteers” – as former President George W Bush called his alliance invading. Iraq – but was in fact neighboring Iran, the oldest adversary of the modern Iraqi state.
Since Iraq and Iran gained at least nominal independence from colonial rule in the aftermath of World War I, they have had a series of disputes that have generally left Tehran in a superior position to Baghdad.
These ranged from conflicts over control of the strategic Shatt al-Arab waterway, to Iranian support for Kurdish separatists and the Pahlavi dynasty’s military occupation of three Persian Gulf islands belonging to the United Arab Emirates.
The hostilities between the two nations predate Iraq’s declaration of war against the State of Israel, a diplomatic condition that has not changed since 1948. Even after the overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy in 1958 and the overthrow from the Shah of Iran in 1979, the successor states to these monarchies inherited the geopolitical conflict from their predecessors.
Using Kurdish separatist militants, Pahlavi Iran succeeded in bleeding the Iraqi armed forces and intimidating the young Iraqi Baathist government into conceding half of the Chatt al-Arab waterway, which was previously under the sole sovereignty of Baghdad. .
The 1975 Algiers Accords were negotiated, giving Tehran control of half of the Shatt’s navigation rights with access to the Persian Gulf in exchange for stopping Iranian support for the Kurdish rebels. With the deal sealed, and not for the first or last time in history, the Kurds were sold off by their Iranian benefactors and suppressed by the Iraqi state.
While outright war never broke out between Iraq and Iran in the early mid-20th century, this state of latent tensions over Iraqi bitterness over the loss of half the Shatt, as well. that the exhaustion of its military manpower, would soon explode in one of the most brutal wars of the century.
The Iran-Iraq war continued for nearly a decade, causing millions of casualties and billions of damage to infrastructure and the economy. While Iraq was on the defensive for much of the war, its offensives in 1987 and 1988 ended the war in favor of Iraq.
Four decades later, and after the 2003 Iraq war, Iran has established itself as the main intermediary for Iraqi affairs. All of the major political blocs participating in the Iraqi political experiment have ties to Tehran, and a branch of the Iraqi armed forces, the Popular Mobilization Force, is currently being groomed as an Iraqi version of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC ).
Modern Iraqi politicians like the Shiite Islamist Hadi al-Amiri, who controls the Badr Organization and has held high-level ministerial positions, today enjoy prominence in Iraq that is mainly facilitated by Iranian support. Tehran backed Amiri because he was one of their most loyal lieutenants, even fighting alongside Iran against Iraq in the 1980s.
Organizations like the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, now known by their modern name of the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq, also found their origins in the Iran-Iraq war. Indeed, the Badr Amiri organization is an offshoot of this group which was led by the prominent Shiite cleric Ammar al-Hakim before creating another offshoot in 2017 called the Wisdom Movement.
The Iraqi political and military landscape is also dominated by notorious groups like Asaib Ahl ul-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah, all of fairly recent creations but with strong ties to Iran and who have been designated as terrorist organizations by the United States. and others.
“If the Iranian economy was no longer in the grip of crippling sanctions, then Tehran would take one more step towards realizing its ambitions first stated by Khomeini many years ago when the Iran-Iraq war broke for the first time “
By becoming the patrons of these Iraqi Shiite Islamist dissident groups in their formative years, and often participating in their creation through ties forged in the crucible of the Iran-Iraq war, Tehran’s proxies in Iraq are not mere puppets, but are considered long-time friends and allies.
This sentiment is reciprocal, with frequent declarations of loyalty and friendship to Iran from top Iraqi players who view Khomeini’s Islamist revolution as a landmark event that must be fully implemented and replicated throughout. the region, starting with Iraq.
The Iran-Iraq war and the region
Indeed, as the Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988, it can be argued that Khomeini’s goal of exporting his revolution has at least, for now, succeeded decades later.
At the regional level, Iran exerts influence over key geostrategic territories commonly referred to as the “Shiite crescent”. This crescent stretches from Iran itself, through Iraq, Syria and beyond to Lebanon, where the Lebanese Hezbollah group is a dominant force both militarily and politically.
The idea behind the crescent is for Tehran to build a land bridge between Iran itself and the Mediterranean Sea, establishing the Shia Islamist republic as a regional hegemon with significant leverage, forcing the engagement of enemies. historical such as the United States.
However, Tehran also has influence among Shiite dissident groups in Bahrain, in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, and is known to arm and supply Houthi rebels in Yemen who are at war not only with the government recognized by the UN, but also with the government of Tehran. enemies in court in Riyadh.
During the Iran-Iraq war, many oil-rich Sunni Arab monarchies – including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and others – feared Khomeini’s stated intention to export his revolution to their domains. To that end, they loaned Iraq billions of dollars to fund the Iraqi war effort, an initiative that helped contain Iranian ambitions.
However, and with the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist dictatorship, Iran has not only been able to strategically surround Saudi Arabia and other Sunni powers, but it is also able to agitate their Shiite minorities (or majority, as in the case of Bahrain).
This represents one of the biggest concerns of these emerging monarchies, with Saudi Arabia in particular feeling increasingly estranged from its traditional protector, the United States. This is arguably the reasoning behind Riyadh’s adoption of a stronger foreign and military policy since the Arab Spring, as the ruling family no longer feels as secure as it once was of Washington’s support.
Nonetheless, and despite taking a more assertive stance, which has largely led from disaster to disaster, with Saudi Arabia now stuck in the Yemeni quagmire, unable to defeat a well-established and well-supplied Iranian proxy. in the form of the Houthis. Again, this has left Iran in a dominant position regionally, its enemies wondering what else they can do.
Despite extensive Saudi lobbying to ensure that the Iran nuclear deal remains dead after former President Donald Trump unilaterally and unceremoniously abandoned the 2015 deal struck by his predecessor Barack Obama, it appears the ideological successor to ‘Obama and former running mate, incumbent Joe Biden, either eager to revive the nuclear deal.
If that happened, and if the Iranian economy was no longer in the grip of crippling sanctions, then Tehran would take one more step towards realizing its ambitions first articulated by Khomeini many years ago when the Iran-Iraq war has broken out for the first time – Iran will eventually be able to intimidate its opponents in the region and start exporting its revolution without any opposition.
Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the Institute for Strategy and Security, University of Exeter and winner of the 2015 Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award. Her research focuses on security and counterterrorism issues in the Middle East.
Follow him on Twitter: @thewarjournal