by Ali Rawaf
Last month, President Obama announced the end of the Iraq war, saying the last few thousand troops would withdraw by Dec. 2. While polls show a majority of Americans support the president’s decision, Iraqis have become significantly concerned over increased meddling from Iran. The State Department has warned Iran against interfering in Iraqi internal affairs after the troops leave and also told the Iraqis that Iran will not be a problem in the future. The truth is that U.S. officials underestimate Iranian influence and control in Iraq and the region.
Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nuri Al-Maliki, who didn’t win the last elections, was able to form a government only because Iran, a Shiite state, pressured the Shiite groups in the country to rally around him and give him the vote of confidence. Al-Maliki, a divisive figure even amongst the Shiites, has been returning the favor to Iran ever since. He has sent the Iraqi army to crack down on Mujahidee Khalk, an Iranian opposition group that has been based in Iraq for a couple of decades. Despite calls from international human rights groups to halt the attacks on the group’s camp, Al-Maliki still periodically sends Iraqi troops to intimidate them. He has vowed to remove the group from the country at the end of the year.
Iranian influence goes well beyond Iraq. In Syria, Iran has been transferring weapons to the Assad regime and abetting Assad’s crackdown on protestors opposing the regime. Last month, California-based BlueCoat said that internet surveillance devices which were sold to the Iraqi government were later found to be used by the Syrian regime to crack down on protestors. How did that happen? The Iranian regime bought those devices for Syria under the name of the Iraqi Communications Ministry.
Al-Maliki is also returning a favor to Iran by keeping quiet about the developments in Syria. As the Syrian regime employed the army to crack down on its people, Al-Maliki hosted a group of Syrian officials and entrepreneurs to strengthen economic ties with the Syrian regime. And recently, Al-Maliki’s foreign minister said Baghdad is committed to preventing any action against Iran.
In the Palestinian territories, Iran funds Hamas, the militant group blocking Palestinian-Israeli peace, and Hezbolla, the anti-western, militant Shiite group in Lebanon. In Yemen, Iran funds extremist, militant Shiite groups.
If Iran is this influential without nuclear weapons, I can only imagine what happens when Tehran acquires such weapons.
If the U.S. follows through with a complete troop withdrawal, Iran would be the sole winner of the Iraq war. The war would have only cleared the way for Iran to exert more influence in the region. After the president’s announcement of a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq, an Iranian delegation visited Iraq and signed economic and political agreements with the Iraqi government, whereas there have been mere talks about such agreements between the United States and Iraq.
Iraq’s strategic location in the Middle East would have served as a good check on the encroaching Iranian regime. Now, Iraq can’t even protect its airspace and its borders. While a prosperous and democratic Iraq would set a good example for the band of countries where people are demanding democracy, a failed one would serve as poster child for how democracy can fail in the Middle East. There is still a chance for negotiations to resume and possibly leave a couple of thousand troops in Iraq. If these negotiations fail, Iraq will be in the hands of Iran and the lost lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of American soldiers would have been in vain.
Ali Rawaf is a government junior and political blogger from Baghdad, Iraq. In 2004, Ali began blogging with Friends of Democracy, an Iraqi group that promoted democracy and women’s rights in Iraq. You can read his blog about politics, religion and life after the fall of Saddam Hussein at http://theiraqifuture.blogspot.com/