For decades, but more aggressively since the US withdrew its troops in 2011, Iran has attempted to mold and pressure Iraq into a Shia client state. While Iran’s campaign has achieved intelligence, military, economic, and political gains, it has also served to destabilize Iraq. Tehran is creating a wedge between the country’s Sunni and Shia communities while buying out Iraqi politicians and diverting funds away from the Iraqi people. Iranian entrenchment has also affected Iraq’s vital economic diversification initiatives as the country seeks to create industries other than oil. To this end, Iraq’s agricultural sector is left stagnant, leaving many Iraqi farmers struggling to survive. For Iraq’s economy and quality of life to improve, it is critical that Iraq regains its sovereignty by pushing back on Iranian interference.
Tehran operates a highly sophisticated influence web, consisting primarily of a 100,000 man strong Shia militia along with dozens of turned high-ranking Iraqi officials. Iran was able to capitalize upon many American strategic errors revolving around ‘de-Baathification’ – a strategy to rid the country of Saddam’s Sunni alliance that ultimately led to a Sunni insurgency. Iran then stepped in to strategically insert and rebrand itself as the protector of Iraq’s Shia population Indeed, Iraq’s previous Prime Minister, Al-Mahdi was overtly seen as a compromise candidate to the US and Iran. Critically, Iran helped prop up Prime Minister Al-Mahdi as his regime was faltering.
Iran’s reasons for exerting such a muscular pressure campaign are manifold: Iraq holds access to key holy sites for Shia Islam, Iran has hegemonic designs for the Middle East and views Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria as states it may exert to rebut Western influence. Critically, its pressure campaign in Iraq allows Iran to avoid the international sanctions placed on its economy by siphoning resources from Iraq. Regardless of its reasons, the output is undeniable: Iran’s meddling is hampering Iraq’s development.
Development and diversification are two economic pillars that Iraq desperately needs. 38% of the country’s GDP comes from oil, factoring in public sector jobs financed from oil, that figure jumps to 61%. While Iraq has the benefit of being energy self-reliant, an overreliance on oil opens the country to dangers. Even the smallest oil price dip means that Iraq’s economy suffers heavily. Compounding this issue is the public-service apparatus known as muhasasa that doles out oil revenues through expensive and redundant state salaries in a corrupt, client-patron quota system of government. Consequently, oil income isn’t reaching the citizens, instead, diverted to regional political leaders jockeying for influence.
It is against the corruption of this muhasasa system, one that facilitates Iranian influence, that Iraq’s protests have taken place leading to deaths of over 600 Iraqi protesters since October 2019.
On the other hand, Iraq’s GDP is only 10% agriculture-based. Iraq contains over 8 million hectares of arable land, yet only 4 to 5 million are being used optimally; nearly 50% remain uncultivated. Iraq has the potential to practically double its agricultural output, tipping the scales away from an oil-based system, allowing farmers to benefit directly from the revenue. Though Iran blocks this growth.
In an effort to dodge international sanctions, Iran has been pouring agricultural products into Iraq and undercutting local Iraqi produce prices. While leveraging this arrangement to seek revenue in the wake of its currency and economic collapse, Iran also supplies Iraq with $6 billion in food aid without providing any economic infrastructure to help grow Iraq’s wheat industry following ISIS’ scorched earth attacks. This keeps Iraq entirely reliant on Iranian food and agriculture.
One farmer stated that “We are putting in a lot of money and effort in planting our crops, and in the end, Iranian crops flood in and deprive us of our livelihoods and leave us with nothing but despair.”
While Iran may be the “benefactor” of some of Iraq’s Shia elite, Iraq’s working class is exploited. The working poor of Iraq does not gain from keeping 50% of Iraq’s arable lands fallow. These last months of deadly protests, comprised of both Sunni and Shia communities, resoundingly rejected this cronyism. Iraq’s government, a mixture of corrupt official and capitulative policies, has overstepped its mark so much that it is helping bridge Iraqi’s sectarian divides. Even though these protests may be in defiance of the Iraqi state, protestors understand that Iran is behind this cultivation. Tehran, threatened by Iraqi unity, has brought its militias to bear on the Iraqi protesters.
For Iraq to flourish, it must be governed by pro-sovereignty forces that understand the critical nature of diversifying the economy and moving away from corrupt, patron-client systems of government. Groups like the Najafa Brothers from Mosul, the National Wisdom Movement led by Ammar al-Hakim, and the National Independent Iraqi Front, a movement of Sunni and Shia leaders, appear to best reflect those communities most ravaged by Iran’s meddling. Whether from farmers, Sunni or Shia, these new emerging parties are gaining popularity for their pro-sovereignty and anti-Iran messaging. So much so, that a pro-sovereignty umbrella organization, the Sovereignty Alliance for Iraq, is forming to bolster support.
The groups realize that Iraq’s economic diversity lies in growing Iraq’s nascent agricultural industry, which will bring in much-needed revenue and serve to decrease Iraq’s reliance on oil and Iranian aid. For Iraq’s Western allies, the best ways to help are to actively champion and support pro-sovereignty forces, as well as not to underestimate the significant and diverse avenues of power that Iran has cultivated. Iraq is a sovereign nation and Iran must respect that.