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The Arduous Path to Restoring the Iran Nuclear Deal
The Arduous Path to Restoring the Iran Nuclear Deal

Iran in Iraq: How Much Influence?

Iran’s influence in Iraq has been one of the most talked about but least understood aspects of the post-war situation.

Executive Summary

Iran's influence in Iraq has been one of the most talked about but least understood aspects of the post-war situation. Tehran has been variously accused by Washington of undue and nefarious interference, by Arab leaders of seeking to establish an Islamic Republic, and by prominent Iraqi officials of an array of illegitimate meddling (manipulating elections, supporting the insurgency, infiltrating the country). In reality, as Crisis Group discovered during months of extensive research in Iran and Iraq, the evidence of attempted destabilising Iranian intervention is far less extensive and clear than is alleged; the evidence of successful destabilising intervention less extensive and clear still.

That Iran has vital interests in what happens in Iraq is beyond dispute. That it so far has exercised its influence with considerable restraint also is apparent, as is the fact that it has the capacity to do far more, and far worse. To maximise the chance that Iraq emerges successfully from its political transition, it will be critical for Tehran and Baghdad to work together on common security issues, and for the U.S. at least to prevent a further deterioration of its relations with the Islamic Republic.

Muqtada al-Sadr's uprising in April 2004 heightened fears that Iran might be backing anti-coalition violence. Iran also has been accused of facilitating the movement of groups such as Ansar al-Islam, and of being responsible for the assassination of Iraqi security officials. More recently, the triumph in the January 2005 elections for Iraq's transitional national assembly of the Shiite-based United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) and, in particular, of three parties within it with long-standing ties to the Iranian regime -- the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Al-Da'wa and Al-Da'wa - Tanzim al-Iraq -- appeared to vindicate the views of those who suspect an Iranian effort to install a loyal, theocratic government.

The notion is widely accepted in Iraq, the Arab world and the U.S. that Iran is intent on destabilising Iraq, moulding its politics decisively (via money or the dispatch of hundreds of thousands of its nationals), or establishing a like-minded, compliant government. Already, this has had the insidious effect of shaping perceptions; if it continues unchallenged, it clearly runs the risk of determining policy. In fact, there is no indication that Iranian electoral manipulation is anything more than speculation or that the Shiites' victory was anything other than the political translation of their demographic predominance. Nor has any concrete evidence been presented to bolster the claim that Iran is either actively promoting the insurgency or seeking to maximise instability.

Iran's strength lies elsewhere. Having fought a brutal eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s, its security agencies are highly familiar with Iraq's physical and political terrain and are able to sustain an active intelligence presence in southern Iraq, Baghdad and Kurdistan. Iranian levers of influence include a widespread network of paid informers, the increasingly assertive Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC, or Pasdaran), and petro-dollar funded religious propaganda and social welfare campaigns. Most importantly, Tehran has tried to influence Iraq's political process by giving support, in particular, to SCIRI. Even then, and while the record of the past two years suggests a solid Iranian motive to interfere in Iraq and plenty of Iranian activity, it also suggests little resonance, and, therefore, a negligible impact, on Iraqi society. This is because of a deep suspicion and resentment on the part of many Iraqis toward their neighbour.

The starting point to understand Iran's role must be a proper assessment of its interests. These are relatively clear and, for the most part, openly acknowledged. Tehran's priority is to prevent Iraq from re-emerging as a threat, whether of a military, political or ideological nature, and whether deriving from its failure (its collapse into civil war or the emergence of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan with huge implications for Iran's disaffected Kurdish minority) or success (its consolidation as an alternative democratic or religious model appealing to Iran's disaffected citizens). Iran consequently is intent on preserving Iraq's territorial integrity, avoiding all-out instability, encouraging a Shiite-dominated, friendly government, and, importantly, keeping the U.S. preoccupied and at bay. This has entailed a complex three-pronged strategy: encouraging electoral democracy (as a means of producing Shiite rule); promoting a degree of chaos but of a manageable kind (in order to generate protracted but controllable disorder); and investing in a wide array of diverse, often competing Iraqi actors (to minimise risks in any conceivable outcome).

These interests and this strategy, more than a purported attempt to mould Iraq in its own image, explain Iran's involvement, its intelligence collection, its provision of funds (and possibly weapons), and perhaps its occasional decision to back armed movements. They explain, too, the paradox of Iran's simultaneous ties to Iraq's political elite, which is hoping to stabilise the country, to Shiite clerics, who aim to Islamicise it, and to some rebellious political activists or insurgents, bent on fuelling unrest.

Finally, they explain why Iran so far has held back rather than try to undermine any chance of success. But this relatively cautious attitude may not last forever. Above all, it will depend on the nature of relations between Washington and Tehran: so long as these remain unchanged, Iran is likely to view events in Iraq as part of its broader rivalry with -- and heightened fears of -- the U.S. Highly suspicious of a large U.S. presence on its borders, concerned about Washington's rhetoric, and fearing its appetite for regime change, Tehran holds in reserve the option of far greater interference to produce far greater instability.

In basing its Iraq policy on cooperation with Shiites and its Iran policy on pressure against the regime, the Bush administration is simultaneously pursuing two paths that risk proving increasingly difficult to straddle. As Crisis Group has argued, the preferred way forward involves an accommodation between Tehran and Washington in which both sides' concerns are addressed: on the one hand Iran's nuclear program, its policies toward the Arab-Israeli peace process, and support for Hizbollah; and on the other, U.S. military presence in the region, its economic sanctions, and frozen pre-revolutionary Iranian assets. For now, however, such a grand bargain appears out of reach.

Some steps nonetheless should be taken to avert the most destabilising scenarios. Washington should avoid resorting to inflammatory rhetoric and take its newfound and welcome willingness to work with the European Union on a joint Iran policy a step further. To be credible, U.S. carrots must include more than lifting opposition to Iran's membership in the World Trade Organisation and to its obtaining aircraft spare parts -- and European sticks should include more than the already announced support for UN Security Council action in the event Iran does not verifiably renounce any military nuclear effort -- if the goal is to encourage constructive Iranian behaviour on the nuclear file. It also is vital for Iraq and Iran to work cooperatively on their respective security concerns, in particular by strengthening border controls and ceasing any support for or harbouring of groups that threaten their neighbour. For its part, and particularly in the aftermath of the January elections, the international community should urgently assist Iraq in rebuilding its intelligence and customs control capabilities.

Amman/Brussels, 21 March 2005

The Arduous Path to Restoring the Iran Nuclear Deal

Originally published in Arms Control Association

A change in U.S. administrations brought with it something rare in the often-acrimonious relationship between Washington and Tehran: a point of agreement. Nearly three years after President Donald Trump unilaterally exited the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), both sides concur on the need to restore core elements of the deal that have been sorely tested since: strict restrictions on and rigorous monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Yet, the shared strategic imperative of full mutual compliance remains out of reach so long as a tactical deadlock continues on how to achieve it.

An explanation of the convergence of U.S. and Iranian interest in reviving the 2015 agreement begins with a stocktaking of the state of play inherited by President Joe Biden in January 2021. Under Trump, the United States abandoned the JCPOA in favor of a “maximum pressure” strategy defined by a sweeping deployment of unilateral sanctions and a broad set of accompanying demands on further restricting Iran’s nuclear activity, halting its ballistic missile development, and containing its regional influence.[fn]“After the Deal: A New Iran Strategy,” The Heritage Foundation, May 21, 2018, https://www.heritage.org/defense/event/after-the-deal-new-iran-strategy.Hide Footnote The financial impact on Iran has been substantial, with the World Bank describing U.S. sanctions, along with the more recent global COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on energy markets, as a “triple shock” on the country’s economy.[fn]The World Bank, “Iran Economic Monitor: Weathering the Triple-Shock,” Fall 2020, http://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/287811608721990695/pdf/Iran-Economic-Monitor-Weathering-the-Triple-Shock.pdf.Hide Footnote

If the Trump administration had hoped Tehran would bend to its will, however, it was mistaken. In mid-2019, Tehran launched a counterstrategy, dubbed “maximum resistance.” Rather than concede to the administration’s demands and to demonstrate that what it viewed as tantamount to an economic siege would not go unanswered, Iran retaliated against the United States and its regional allies directly and through local proxies in places such as Iraq and the Persian Gulf. It also methodically breached its own obligations under the JCPOA on the contention that the evaporation of the financial benefits the deal had promised justified a reduction in its own compliance.

The cumulative impact of Iran’s JCPOA violations, which have escalated in line with a law the Iranian Parliament passed in December 2020 after the killing of a top nuclear scientist, allegedly by Israel, has been to substantially erode the agreement’s nonproliferation provisions in three different respects. The first relates to an expansion of uranium enrichment that cuts the timeline for producing one bomb’s worth of fissile material from a year to approximately three months; the most recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) quarterly report pegs Tehran’s enriched uranium stockpile at 14 times the JCPOA cap of 202.8 kilograms and at an upper enrichment rate of 20 percent uranium-235 instead of the 3.67 percent permitted under the deal.[fn]International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Directors, “Verification and Monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran in Light of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 (2015): Report by the Director-General,” GOV/2021/10, February 23, 2021.

The second concerns the verification and monitoring authorities of the IAEA, which under the nuclear deal is afforded JCPOA-specific transparency accesses, as well as access under the additional protocol to Iran’s comprehensive safeguards agreement. Iran suspended these authorities in February, although IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi negotiated a three-month “bilateral technical understanding” to maintain key oversight capabilities.[fn]“Joint Statement by the Vice-President of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Head of the AEOI and the Director General of the IAEA,” IAEA, February 21, 2021, https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/pressreleases/joint-statement-by-the-vice-president-of-the-islamic-republic-of-iran-and-head-of-the-aeoi-and-the-director-general-of-the-iaea.Hide Footnote The agency is also set to press Iran on outstanding questions relating to past work at undeclared sites during technical discussions scheduled for this month. Finally, although the expansion of uranium enrichment can be undone and IAEA access fully restored, the third area of concern involves ongoing nuclear research and development activities on advanced centrifuges and uranium-metal production that deliver, as the three European JCPOA parties note, “irreversible knowledge gain.”[fn]For example, see UK Mission to the UN in Vienna, “E3 Statement to the IAEA Board of Governors on Verification and Monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” March 4, 2021, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/e3-statement-to-the-iaea-board-of-governors-on-verification-and-monitoring-in-the-islamic-republic-of-iran-march-2021.Hide Footnote

The full article can be read on Arms Control Association's website 
5. For example, see UK Mission to the UN in Vienna, “E3 Statement to the IAEA Board of Governors on Verification and Monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” March 4, 2021, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/e3-statement-to-the-iaea-board-of-governors-on-verification-and-monitoring-in-the-islamic-republic-of-iran-march-2021.Hide Footnote