Webcast Recap

In a conference addressing Iran, Iraq, and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, experts analyzed their domestic and foreign policies, their impact on the region, and the depth of the ties between them.

On September 28, the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center and the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University (NDU) hosted a conference, “Iran, Iraq, and the GCC: New Realities in Persian Gulf Security” with David Siddhartha Patel, Cornell University; Mohsen Milani, University of South Florida, Tampa; F. Gregory Gause, University of Vermont; and Roy Mottahedeh, Harvard University. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the first panel, and Judith Yaphe, NDU Distinguished Research Fellow for the Middle East, moderated the second panel.

Patel argued against the idea that Iran has influence over Iraq. He opened by explaining that although Shi'a form a large part of government, Iraq's decisions are driven domestically and Iranians do not “call the shots.” Patel outlined three thematic perspectives that influence Iraq's view of Iran, the first being “threat and material interests.” While some see Iraq's economic ties to Iran as a sign of Iranian influence, Patel noted that the two countries’ short-term trajectories are “headed in opposite directions.” Second, domestic politics play a role in Iraqi attitudes. Patel argued that “the United States has more influence in Iraq than Iran does,” but still has not been able to control Iraq. Given that “Iranian policy is as much in flux and up in the air as U.S. policy,” there is little room for Iran to achieve anything in Iraq through political means. The third perspective Patel outlined was that of state identity approaches. He cautioned against ascribing to the popular, “problematic” view that “because Iraq is Shi'a” it makes pro-Iranian policy. Labeling all countries as “Sunni” or “Shi'a,” Patel argued, merely predisposes the reader to assume that all differences stem from religious affiliations.

Milani followed by analyzing the effectiveness of what he saw as Iran’s main objectives in Iraq. The first—to “establish a friendly Shi'a-dominated government” strong enough for cohesion but too weak to be a threat—Milani dubbed an Iranian “success.” After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he said Iran took advantage of the ensuing security vacuum to expand its geopolitical influence. Milani then turned to Iran and Iraq’s “close economic relations.” He noted that investments and trade mean it is unlikely Iraq will have any desire to attack Iran for “years and years to come,” even if it is “not an enduring and reliable partner.” Iranian policy regarding Iraq and the Gulf has also “forced Saudi Arabia to show its hand” in their ongoing Cold War, prompting further Saudi efforts to contain or overthrow Iran. In the “most important arena,” energy, Iran has “lost big,” as Saudi Arabia controls oil production. Milani wrapped up with the conclusion that Iraq is not likely to become a strategic ally of Iran, but faces too many internal problems to make it a threat or competitor. Similarly, Iran’s growing isolation renders it “incapable of imposing its will on others,” though it has gained some benefits from its often disruptive Iraqi policies.

In the second panel, Gause opened with a presentation on the GCC and the Arab Spring, focusing on the latter’s effect on the “new Middle East Cold War” between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Gause depicted the Arab Spring in Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain as the “crumbling of hard shells” of state repression, which turned them from international players to “playing fields.” Such domestically weak states, Iraq included, are the sites of regional power games. Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, the regional Cold War has led GCC countries to back regional monarchs, supporting revolutions only where they see democratic movements as a curb on Iranian influence, as in Syria. However, Saudis are “not all in” when it comes to oil policy against Iran. Though publicly they support embargoes on Iran, domestically they have not increased oil production, which would offer an alternative source of oil and lower oil prices, both results that would hurt Iran. Gause argued that the Middle East Cold War is not itself a matter of sectarianism, although the weak states in which it is fought are especially prone to sectarian division. However, ongoing conflict and rhetoric in Bahrain and Syria is contributing to a “polarization,” pushing Arab Shi’a closer to Iran and Sunnis closer to the Salafis, overall creating a “dangerous situation for the U.S.”

Mottahedeh concluded the event by discussing the differences between Iran and Iraq’s Shi’a legal traditions. Whereas mainstream Iranian Shi’ism tends to grant religious authority to sources of emulation (marja-e taqlid) who are more learned, the Iraqi clerics in Najaf use more of a “cut and paste method” of using multiple reference points for emulation, and fatwas are more often co-signed, showing greater cooperation among clerics. Mottahedeh said that the Afghan cleric living in Iraq, Mohammad Ishaq Al-Fayyad explicitly opposes the formation of an Iranian-style velayet-e faqih in Iraq, despite the stipulation that the Iraqi Shi’a spiritual leader must be of Iranian origin. Furthermore, Iraqi clerics do not want to take sides in “a quarrel of the Iranian clergy” while they face their own internal succession questions. 

By Laura Rostad, Middle East Program