Iraq Within a Regional Struggle for Power

(Disponible en français : L’Iraq au cœur d’une lutte régionale pour le pouvoir)

This HillNote examines Iraq’s situation from a regional vantage point, and is a companion to Iraq after ISIS and Canada’s Military Role in Iraq.

While global attention began to drift away from Iraq following the territorial defeat of ISIS, the country is not immune to the push and pull of geopolitical currents. Iraq is situated in the heart of the Middle East, a region of rising inter-state tensions. Accordingly, the consolidation of Iraq’s recent advances toward peace and stability will require a dual focus on internal reforms and external statecraft.

The Historical Context

Iraq lies between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, the former of which is aligned with the United States, while the latter is antagonistic to it. The two rivals have sought to deny each other the ability to dominate the region. In attempting to understand that struggle for power, scholars have debated the degree to which sectarianism is a tool wielded by states within the region, and thus a manifestation of their competition, rather than the driving force behind it.

Either way, inter-state relations in the Middle East cannot be understood in isolation from the history that has shaped them. That includes the 1980–1988 Iran-Iraq war, during which time post-revolutionary Iran was isolated while its adversary – Saddam Hussein’s Iraq – received material and other support from several nations in the region and beyond, including Saudi Arabia and the United States. The war eventually ended in a stalemate but caused severe losses and destruction on both sides.

Partly owing to the financial burden of this long conflict, Hussein invaded Iraq’s smaller and oil-rich neighbour Kuwait in 1990. Iraqi forces were subsequently pushed back by a U.S.-led coalition that used Saudi Arabia as an important staging ground. Tensions between the United States and Iraq remained high until the U.S. toppled Hussein’s regime in 2003. Saudi Arabia and Iraq did not normalize their diplomatic relations until years later.

Perhaps looming over all these events is the 1979 Iranian revolution. That year saw the U.S.-allied Pahlavi monarchy of Mohammad Reza Shah overthrown in the predominantly Shia country, and the establishment of a theocracy in its place. Led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Kohomeini, Iran’s new government set out to promote Iran’s version of political Islam, known as rule of the Islamic jurist (velayat-e faqih), challenging Saudi Arabia’s monarchical system and its position as leader of the Muslim world. Iran’s efforts to expand its influence in the Middle East included the sponsorship of paramilitary groups, notably Hezbollah in Lebanon and various militias in Iraq.

The Arab Spring and the Aftermath

During the 2011 “Arab Spring,” civic uprisings led to the swift downfall of long-standing regimes in Egypt and Tunisia. In the same period, Saudi Arabia may have viewed Iran as standing to benefit from the growing political unrest in the nearby Kingdom of Bahrain. Together with the United Arab Emirates, the Saudis deployed troops to help the ruling authorities restore control.

The strategic competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia also extends to Yemen, which sits along Saudi Arabia’s southern border. There, in support of Yemen’s internationally recognized government that is seeking to regain control of the country, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other regional allies have – since 2015 – been waging a military campaign against what are considered to be Iranian-allied militants, known as the Houthis.

With a mounting humanitarian toll in Yemen and Syria (discussed below), the international perspective on the Middle East and North Africa shifted from concern about the fate of post-Arab Spring reforms to the complex and brutal nature of the region’s armed conflicts.

Nevertheless, analysis published in Foreign Affairs suggests that the tensions exposed in societies across the Middle East during the Arab Spring, namely dissatisfaction with economic malaise and repressive political systems, remain unresolved.

The War in Syria

In addition to the ongoing conflict in Yemen, Syria has yet to emerge from the violence that enveloped it beginning in 2011–2012. The state’s heavy-handed response to anti-regime demonstrations triggered a civil war which, by 2013–2015, had attracted thousands of extremist fighters and caused the outflow of millions of refugees. With intensifying support, Iran and Hezbollah, alongside Russian airpower, intervened to reinforce President Bashar al-Assad’s regime against possible defeat by the armed opposition.

Syria’s descent into a fragmented conflict had a destabilizing effect on its neighbour, Iraq. While the Assad regime consolidated its position around populated areas nearer to Syria’s Mediterranean coast, ISIS began to dominate areas in eastern Syria – including around Raqqah and Deir ez Zour – which is connected by transportation routes to northern and western Iraq. The expanding reach and ambition of that terror group came to global attention when its leader proclaimed a so-called caliphate from Mosul in 2014.

ISIS has since been territorially defeated in both Syria and Iraq. Nonetheless, even if the broader conflict in Syria ends, the absence of a political settlement acceptable to all sides involved in that conflict indicates that Iraq could – potentially for years to come – be sharing a border with an authoritarian state that lacks popular legitimacy or full control over its territory.

The Balancing Act

The United States, which has suffered military losses and expended significant financial resources to stabilize Iraq since 2003, wants to see Iraq’s autonomy maintained and Iran’s interference in the region contained. While recent official figures are not available, media reports from 2018 indicated that the United States had some 5,200 troops stationed in Iraq. Other countries – including Canada – also have troops deployed there as part of multinational training and capacity-building initiatives.

Because of Iraq’s shared border with Iran and the ties that reportedly exist between Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and certain Iraqi Shia militias, Iran retains the ability to play the role of spoiler.

Tensions between Iraq’s two principal external partners have been building since the United States ended its participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a multi-nation agreement dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, and tightened its economic sanctions against Iran, significantly constraining Iran’s oil exports, as well as other financial and commercial interactions. Incidents in June and July 2019 – including Iran’s downing of an unmanned U.S. military aircraft and its seizure of a British-flagged oil tanker transiting the Strait of Hormuz – have raised the spectre of escalation.

Within Iraq, some political figures emphasize the need for a balanced foreign policy. An attempt to pursue such an approach was perhaps symbolized by the visit of Iraq’s new President, Barham Salih, to Riyadh on 18 November 2018, the day after holding meetings in Tehran.

When considered from the broader perspective of a region that has been characterized by autocracy and power politics, Iraq’s democracy – however flawed and incomplete – can be seen as a delicate construction, at risk of being buffeted by the larger forces swirling around it.

Additional Resources

Max Fisher, “How the Iranian-Saudi Proxy Struggle Tore Apart the Middle East,” The Interpreter, The New York Times, 19 November 2016.

Priyanka Boghani, “The Rivalry Behind Three Wars: How Saudi Arabia and Iran Fueled Conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen,” Frontline, 27 February 2018.

The Sunni-Shia Divide, InfoGuide Presentation, Council on Foreign Relations.

Renad Mansour, “Saudi Arabia’s New Approach in Iraq,” Analysis Paper, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Middle East Program, November 2018.

International Crisis Group, Iran’s Priorities in a Turbulent Middle East, Middle East Report No. 184, 13 April 2018.

International Crisis Group, Saudi Arabia: Back to Baghdad, Middle East Report No. 186, 22 May 2018.

Zeina Karam and Qassim Abdul-Zahra, “After IS war, Iraq seeks to reclaim status in Arab World,” Associated Press, 15 April 2019.

Alex Vatanka, “Stuck in the Middle With Iran: Under Pressure, Baghdad Might Not Choose the United States,” Foreign Affairs, 25 June 2019.

Author: Allison Goody, Library of Parliament

One thought on “Iraq Within a Regional Struggle for Power

  1. Another first-rate article from Allison Goody. In terms of the “historical context”, I wonder whether we need to go back to the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the highly artificial boundaries that were drawn up when the Ottoman Empire collapsed. I realize this is beyond the scope of a Hillnote, but it would be interesting to trace the instability in the Middle East to the creation of countries by outside powers that had no understanding or care for the history, religion, ethnic makeup of the area, etc. I don’t see how you can end up with stable governments in places like Syria where a minority Shiite sect (Alawites) rules a majority Sunni country or when a Sunni dictator in Iraq rules over a majority Shiite country. That raises the spectre of sectarianism and how it has been used to ill effect in a very badly governed Iraq. All this to say that I look forward to Allison Goody’s next publication. She is one of the many reasons the Library of Parliament is a cynosure in Canada.

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