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8:00AM

Being realistic on Iran's long-term influence in Iraq: it will lose out to Turkey and China and Kuwait

Story in WAPO gets the Iran-is-winning crowd all jacked up: Iraq is condemned for not siding with the anti-Assad movement in Syria and actually offering support to the regime! This is spun as clear evidence of Iran's influence, when there are a host of pragmatic reasons why Baghdad isn't so interested in having the Arab Spring topple the dictator Assad.

Some analysis that's far more nuanced and realistic is found in the NYT Sunday ("Vacuum Is Feared as U.S. Quits Iraq, but Iran's Deep Influence May Not Fill It," by Tim Arango).

The best bits:

As the United States draws down its forces in Iraq, fears abound that Iran will simply move into the vacuum and extend its already substantial political influence more deeply through the soft powers of culture and commerce. But here, in this region that is a center of Shiite Islam, some officials say that Iran wore out its welcome long ago.

Surely, Iran has emerged empowered in Iraq over the last eight years, and it has a sympathetic Shiite-dominated government to show for it, as well as close ties to the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr. But for what so far are rather obscure reasons — perhaps the struggling Iranian economy and mistrust toward Iranians that has been nurtured for centuries — it has been unable to extend its reach.

In fact, a host of countries led by Turkey — but not including the United States — have made the biggest inroads, much to the chagrin of people here in Najaf like the governor.

“Before 2003, 90 percent of Najaf people liked Iranians,” said the governor, Adnan al-Zurufi, who has lived in Chicago and Michigan and holds American citizenship. “Now, 90 percent hate them. Iran likes to take, not give” . . .

So big surprise: those who deliver economically achieve real standing. Iran simply cannot do this, because it's economy is broken - just like its "revolution."

Now to address the conventional wisdom: 

A standard narrative has it that the Iraq war opened up a chessboard for the United States and Iran to tussle for power. One of the enduring outcomes has been an emboldened Iran that is politically close to Iraq’s leaders, many of whom escaped to Iran during Saddam Hussein’s government, and that is a large trading partner.

Yet the story is more nuanced, particularly in the Shiite-dominated south that became politically empowered after the American invasion upended Sunni rule. It has been other countries — most powerfully Turkey, but also China, Lebanon and Kuwait — that have cemented influence through economic ties.

The patterns were established soon after the American invasion. Shoddy Iranian goods — particularly low-quality cheese, fruit and yogurt — flooded markets in the south, often at exorbitant prices, said Mahdi Najat Nei, a diplomat who heads the Trade Promotion Organization of Iran office in Baghdad. This sullied Iran’s reputation, even though prices have since plummeted, creating an aversion to Iranian goods that lasts to this day, Mr. Nei said.

This has made it difficult for Iranian businesspeople to make investments in southern Iraq, said Ali Rhida, who is from Iran and is building an iron factory on the outskirts of Najaf. “The real problem is with the mangers of the economy in Iran,” he said. “After the fall of the regime, many Iranian companies came here but they screwed it all up.”

As always, the real winners are the ones who deliver opportunity. Iran makes demands and delivers burdens.

“Investment from Iran has almost stopped,” said Zuheir Sharba, the chairman of Najaf’s provincial council, referring to a phenomenon that has more to do with Iran’s anemic state-run economy than it does to Iranian ambitions. Speaking about Americans, he said, “They were coming, but they’ve stopped.”

Mr. Sharba continued: “We wish that American companies would come here. I wish the American relationship was that, instead of troops, it would be companies.” Mr. Sharba is a cleric, and he spent 14 years in Iran in exile during Mr. Hussein’s government.

Our failure at economy-building staring us in the face.  Why? We became obsessed with the notion that government-building equates to state-building, when it's economy-building that triggers the locals to make their own state happen. We acted like the Gorbachev here: imagining politics determines economics, when we should have played it like Deng, understanding that you start with the economics and let the politics slowly evolve.

Yes, Iran can make trouble, but who cuts the deals?

While Iran may be flagging in the battle for hearts and minds, it is still able to create trouble. A rise this summer in American troop deaths in southern Iraq at the hands of Iranian-backed militias raised alarms in diplomatic circles and became the core of the argument put forth by those who want a longer-lasting American military presence to counter Iran’s clout.

But the troublemaking does not extend to the more important arena of commerce, officials say. “Because of the political sensitivities of Iran, many people say Iran is controlling the economy of Iraq,” said Sami al-Askari, a member of Parliament and a close confidant to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. “No, the Turks are.”

Mr. Maliki once lived in Iran, and he surrounds himself with aides who have close ties to Tehran. Yet even these relationships have not translated into economic or cultural influence that could endear Iran to the Iraqi public at large. “I’ve yet to meet an Iraqi who trusts the Iranians,” said Joost Hiltermann, the International Crisis Group’s deputy program director for the Middle East.

But the mythology dies hard in Washington, so eager are we to crap on ourselves and see "loss" in everything right now. It's silly and it's childish, but that's what we are right now.

Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East analyst at the Congressional Research Service in Washington, said that because of numerous small projects — particularly related to religious tourism in Najaf, including a large underground toilet facility, and some construction projects in Basra — “a lot of these myths get perpetrated” about Iran’s influence in the south. “In the aggregate, it doesn’t add up to much,” he said.

Atmospherics trumping reality. Iran is a master at spewing this nonsense and we are adept at swallowing it, much like Ahmadinejad's diatribes and threats against Israel.

The Saudis know better and so do the Turks.  Given the choice, I choose Turkey, which, BTW, is really "winning" in Iraq - and that's just fine by me.

Will we Americans ever grow past this pathetic need to view all interventions in such black-and-white terms? I have great faith in the Millennials. The Boomers were raised in a Manichean childhood, and it permanently ruined their strategic thinking.

References (4)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.

Reader Comments (5)

It's too early to tell who will fill the vacuum in Iraq.

I doubt Iran will emerged unscathed from the Arab Spring, Iran is right next door and Iran has the potential to be a much more progressive nation than either Saudi or Kuwait. Turkey might be a winner but China will win big.

(In 2009, the Mullahs were seriously shaken by Iranian youth, the Green Movement is not yet dead).

The most worrying trend however, is the direction of US foreign policy. US foreign policy in Africa and Latin America is a mirror image of its Iraq / Afghanistan policy:

1. Narrow focus: Africa (Energy Security, Counter-Terrorism, Humanitarian Aid), Latin America (War on Drugs).

2. Dependence on Government to Government interaction: Africa (AFRICOM - military to military, Humanitarian: USAID to Government Agencies), Latin America (War on Drugs: Military to Military, DEA to Local Drugs Agencies).

3. Neglect of economic realities, providing ample space for China to operate (and the wishful thinking that having worked so hard to build economic ties, that the Chinese will willingly "cooperate" with the US to further US interests).

Finally, I would like to know where your faith in the "millennials" comes from. They are even less engaged with the rest of the World than their grandparents were, they are less curious, less idealistic and more isolationist. (I am talking about the vast majority, not a few social science grad students and NGO volunteers).

In my neck of the woods (in Africa), I have seen a generation of young Indians, Chinese and South Africans leaving home, taking immense risks to start a new life. I haven't seen too many young Americans (State Department travel advisory warnings tend to scare the hell out of them).

Once again, what is your faith in the millennials based on?

October 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMaduka

After your exscellent Turkey-Cyprus article I want to praise this article. In the Western world we just see a bloc of Shiites and think they are a homogenous bloc.We just see: There are Shiites in Iran, in Iraq, in Lebanon and in the North of Saudiarabia and therefore we think: This is the big threat. Your article shows that the economic spheres of influence are much more diverse.And: That China, Turkey and Kuweit will be the big winners of the Iraqi play, but not the USA and Iran. I think this is partly correct: Great Britain and France are also having big stakes in the Iraqi oil industry.You should quote more statistics than interviews with some business men.Your article should expand its view on the political sphere: The Shiites are not a political homogenous bloc, even if their canidates are on a united party coalition list. Muktadar-el Sadr isn´t comparable to Dawaa or the secular Shiites.They unite against the Sunnites, but also have their differences. What your article doesn´t mention is the stabilzing role of Great Ajatollah Sistani.As a quietist he is balancing the Iraqi Shiites between religious demands and political and economic necessities.If he dies, you will have a different situation in Iraq if he doesn´t declare another integrating cleric as his successor. Therefore another article giving a holistic vbiew--both economically and politally--would be great!!

October 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRalf Ostner

What does Manichean childhood mean?

October 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTom Oliver

Manichean means black-v-white thinking, or us-v-them. Being raised in the Cold War's heyday (1950s) meant Boomers got a strong dose of that, against which they rebelled in the 1960s, and yet the mindset seems to have stuck in that portion that entered politics.

October 14, 2011 | Registered CommenterThomas P.M. Barnett

Problem is, the Millennials and their post-9/11 successors have spent the past 10 years being exposed to huge doses of that same Manichean thinking. Not just on foreign affairs ("axis of evil", "cheese-eating surrender monkeys", etc) either; any more, a lot of people on either side of the political divide in the US seems to have trouble thinking of people on the side opposite as human.

Tend to agree that Turkey's influence is a good thing, though; a nice, big buffer zone between the Iranian and Saudi spheres of influence could save a lot of lives.

October 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

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