In the U.S.-Led Iraq War, Iran Was the Big Winner

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In the 20 years since the United States invaded Iraq, Iran has built up loyal militias wrong Iraq, gained heavy governmental power successful the state and reaped economical benefits. For Washington, these were unintended consequences.

Women lasting  and seated successful  contemplation astatine  a shrine whose walls are adorned with intricate designs.
Pilgrims astatine the Imam Ali shrine successful Najaf, an Iraqi Shiite beatified city, during a pilgrimage successful September.Credit...Emily Garthwaite for The New York Times

March 19, 2023, 3:00 a.m. ET

If visitors to Baghdad knew thing of Iraqi politics, they could beryllium forgiven for reasoning that the trim-bearded, green-uniformed antheral whose larger-than-life photograph is everyplace successful the Iraqi superior was Iraq’s president.

Along the boulevard that tracks the Tigris River and wrong the Green Zone, the spot of Iraq’s government, the likeness of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani towers supra roundabouts and stands astride medians. The past idiosyncratic to beryllium truthful glorified was Saddam Hussein, the dictator deposed and killed successful the American-led penetration of Iraq that began astir precisely 20 years ago.

But Mr. Suleimani was Iranian, not Iraqi.

The commandant of the Quds Force, the outer limb of Iran’s almighty Revolutionary Guards Corps, helium achieved near-mythic presumption successful Iraq arsenic an influential force who helped hindrance Iraq and Iran unneurotic aft the invasion. It was acknowledgment successful ample portion to Mr. Suleimani, whom the United States assassinated successful Iraq successful 2020, that Iran came to extend its influence into astir each facet of Iraqi information and politics.

That, successful turn, gave Iran outsize power implicit the portion and beyond. Tehran’s emergence exposed the unintended consequences of Washington’s strategy successful Iraq, analysts and erstwhile U.S. officials say, and damaged the United States’ narration with its determination allies.

The penetration “was the archetypal sin,” said Emile Hokayem, a elder chap for Middle East information astatine the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British deliberation tank. “It helped Iran bolster its presumption by being a predator successful Iraq. It’s wherever Iran perfected the usage of unit and militias to get its goals. It eroded the U.S.’s image. It led to fragmentation successful the region.”


A poster of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani astatine a pilgrims’ structure successful Najaf.Credit...Emily Garthwaite for The New York Times

The U.S. State Department declined to remark connected the interaction of the warfare successful Iraq.

“On Iraq specifically, our absorption is connected the 20 years ahead; little astir looking backward,” the section said successful an email effect to questions. “Our concern contiguous has evolved acold beyond security, to a 360-degree narration that delivers results for the Iraqi people.”

All of that was enabled by the governmental changes that the American penetration of Iraq connected March 20, 2003, acceptable successful motion. Later on, the 2014 takeover of a ample swathe of bluish Iraq by the Islamic State violent radical prompted Iraq to crook to Iran arsenic good arsenic the United States for help, cementing Iran’s grip.

As destabilizing arsenic the Iranian engagement has been for galore Iraqis, it has been astatine slightest arsenic unsettling for overmuch of the remainder of the region.

Iraq and Iran are the 2 largest Middle Eastern countries with a Shiite Muslim majority, and Shiites emerged from the Iraq warfare empowered crossed the portion — often unnerving their past sectarian rivals, the Sunni Muslims, who predominate astir different Arab countries.

Under the Iraqi dictatorship, the Sunni number had formed the basal of Mr. Hussein’s power; erstwhile helium was killed, Iran acceptable up loyal militias wrong Iraq. It besides went connected to dismay Saudi Arabia and the different Gulf monarchies and Israel by supporting proxies and partners, specified arsenic the Houthi militia successful Yemen, that brought unit close to their doorsteps.

Before 2003, it would person been hard to ideate Saudi Arabia, a pillar of the United States’ Middle East argumentation for decades and a starring Sunni power, showing unfastened choler toward American leaders implicit their behaviour successful the region. But the Saudi king astatine the clip did conscionable that successful a January 2006 gathering with the American ambassador to Iraq, telling him that the mode Washington saw things going successful Baghdad reflected “wishful thinking,” according to a State Department cable released by WikiLeaks successful 2010.


Americans kept ticker arsenic the Ministry of Transportation burned successful Baghdad days aft the penetration successful 2003.

By the clip of that meeting, Iraqis had approved a caller Constitution and held parliamentary elections that swept Shiite parties to power, and Sunni-Shiite sectarian tensions had escalated.

Saudi King Abdullah told the ambassador that earlier Mr. Hussein’s ouster, his kingdom — Iran’s longtime rival for power successful the Middle East — could number connected Iraq arsenic different Sunni powerfulness keeping Iran successful check.

Now, helium said, Iraq had been handed to Iran similar “a acquisition connected a aureate platter.”

The United States, whose subject musculus guided its policies, often with small sensitivity for Iraq’s spiritual and governmental dynamics, according to analysts, was not the state champion placed to marque lasting inroads successful Iraq.

Iran, by contrast, could physique the bonds created by the Shiite religion it shared with galore successful Iraq’s population.

Iranian and Iraqi clerics, on with millions of pilgrims, frequented Shiite shrines successful some countries each twelvemonth and enjoyed a communal knowing of each other’s culture. Tribes and families span their astir 1,000-mile-long border. And the begetter of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, spent 13 years successful Iraq’s Shiite pilgrimage metropolis of Najaf, portion Iraq’s apical Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, was calved successful 1 Iranian beatified metropolis and educated successful another.

Still, that proximity hardly bred friendship, astatine slightest earlier 2003.


American troops watched implicit Iraqi detainees astatine a basal successful Najaf successful 2004 aft an aboriginal greeting raid.Credit...Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

In 1980, erstwhile Iraq invaded Iran, the United States and different Western countries softly supported Iraq successful the ensuing war.

The eight-year struggle was truthful devastating that immoderate analysts accidental it shaped the mentality of an full procreation of Iranian leaders, making them determined to ne'er again let Iraq to turn beardown capable to onslaught them. That could explicate why, nether Mr. Hussein’s repressive rule, which empowered Iraq’s Sunni number implicit its Shiite majority, Iran gave structure and enactment to some Shiites and Kurds successful the Iraqi opposition.

When the United States toppled Mr. Hussein, it neutralized Iran’s foremost force without Tehran having to assistance a finger. Afterward, the Americans diminished Sunni powerfulness successful Iraq by dismantling the country’s service and purging the Sunni-dominated governing elite.

Iran saw opportunity.

“What they were looking for and person been looking for isn’t Iranian control,” Ryan Crocker, a erstwhile United States ambassador to Iraq, said of Iran. “It’s Iraqi instability.”

After the 2003 invasion, Iranians streamed into Baghdad and Iraq’s Shiite-dominated south: operation engineers to rebuild Iraqi cities, governmental consultants to bid Shiite activists earlier the Iraqi elections, media professionals to found Shiite-owned tv channels.

Iranian pilgrims who had been barred successful the Saddam Hussein epoch from visiting Iraq’s Shiite shrines present hurried crossed the borderline to the Shiite beatified cities of Karbala and Najaf, wherever Iranian companies invested successful acres of hotels and restaurants for the millions of worshipers, galore of them Iranian, who sojourn the shrines each year.


Credit...Emily Garthwaite for The New York Times

A bully fig of the Iraqi leaders who emerged aft 2003 besides had ties to Iran. The Shiite and Kurdish absorption politicians who had taken refuge determination years earlier returned to Iraq aft the invasion. Some of Iraq’s largest Shiite parties had backing and method enactment from Iran, putting politicians from those parties successful Iran’s indebtedness erstwhile they won seats.

The Americans “somehow didn’t marque the transportation with Iran explicitly and recognize that it’s not the Shiites you are giving the precocious manus to, it’s the Shiites backed by Iran,” Marwan Muasher, who was past Jordan’s overseas minister, said past week.

Across Iraq’s confederate border, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies watched with increasing frustration.

Gulf wariness of Iran dated backmost centuries. Less than 150 miles of Persian Gulf waters abstracted Iran from the Arabian Peninsula, a dynamic that has agelong fueled commercialized rivalries and territorial disputes. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Sunni Gulf monarchies feared that Iran would export its marque of Shiite theocracy crossed a portion traditionally ruled by Sunnis.

Before 2003, the Gulf disquieted astir the Iraqi dictator, too. But Western-led sanctions had weakened Iraq, and the Gulf States and the Iraqis shared a communal force successful Iran.

The toppling of Mr. Hussein unleashed what the Gulf saw arsenic Iran’s destructive power: Now, Iran was expanding its power implicit a large Arab state with tremendous lipid reserves connected Saudi Arabia’s bluish border, conscionable arsenic grounds was increasing that Iran was processing a atomic program.


A presumption of the Imam Ali shrine from the apical level of Aldur Palace, a four-star edifice for planetary pilgrims.Credit...Emily Garthwaite for The New York Times

These days, nary Iraqi premier curate tin instrumentality bureau without astatine slightest the tacit support of some the United States and Iran, an statement that often produces premier ministers torn betwixt Washington and Tehran. Iraqis with connections to Iran clasp posts passim the government.

The outgo of Iranian power to Iraqi improvement and stableness has been high.

Cut disconnected from the satellite system by sanctions, Iran has recovered an economical lifeline successful Iraq, which buys astir astatine slightest $7 cardinal successful Iranian exports a twelvemonth portion selling lone astir $250 cardinal of goods successful return. The good people connected galore medicines shows that they are Iranian made, and ample quantities of Iranian operation materials travel stacked connected motortruck convoys crossed the borderline each day.

Many Iraqi farmers and businesspeople kick that Iran has suffocated Iraqi manufacturing and farming by dumping ample quantities of nutrient and inexpensive goods successful Iraq.


Iranian pilgrims who had been barred successful the Saddam Hussein epoch from visiting Iraq’s Shiite shrines present transverse the borderline to the beatified cities of Karbala and Najaf.Credit...Emily Garthwaite for The New York Times

Although Shiites successful Iraq’s governmental elite tolerated Iran’s activities and respected General Suleimani, resentment of Iran among different Iraqis helped acceptable disconnected wide antigovernment demonstrations successful 2019 successful which protesters demanded an extremity to Iran’s interference successful Iraqi affairs.

Beyond Iraq, Iran has utilized each struggle successful the portion to widen its reach.

It inserted fighters into Syria aft the 2011 Arab Spring revolt, aiming to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It supported the Houthis successful Yemen’s civilian warfare against a Saudi-led coalition, establishing Iranian power connected the confederate Saudi border. And it further cemented its presumption successful Iraq and Syria by recruiting and grooming Shiite fighters against the Islamic State.

“Every accidental that determination was successful the region, the dominoes fell successful Iran’s favor,” said Vali Nasr, a prof of planetary affairs and Middle East studies astatine Johns Hopkins University. Exploiting Iraq’s weakness, helium added, gradually turned into “a almighty overseas argumentation instrumentality for Iran connected the determination level.”

Particularly worrisome to its Sunni Arab neighbors was Tehran’s consolidation of power crossed a alleged Shiite Crescent stretching from Iran done Iraq and into Syria and Lebanon. Some Sunni governments, main among them Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, blamed the United States — the state they had agelong depended connected to person their backs — for failing to halt Iran from moving goods, weapons and unit freely crossed the region, analysts say.

Later quarrels successful the narration arose implicit what the Gulf saw arsenic the U.S. nonaccomplishment to intervene successful Syria oregon to support the Gulf from Iranian-linked attacks connected Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.

The State Department said the United States values its narration with the Gulf and is committed to “to fortify cooperation, coordination, and consultation with our Gulf partners successful each fields, including security, counterterrorism, and economical partnership.”

The Gulf remains profoundly connected to the United States, but since the 2003 penetration it has looked to broaden and deepen its ties to China and Russia arsenic alternate partners. When Saudi Arabia agreed to reconstruct diplomatic relations with Iran past week, for example, it did truthful successful Beijing.


Credit...Emily Garthwaite for The New York Times

That statement was the latest motion that Saudi Arabia has decided to effort engaging with its adversaries alternatively than holding them astatine arm’s magnitude arsenic the Gulf monarchies did for years successful Iraq.

Despite Iraq and its Gulf neighbors’ shared Arab identity, they each but forfeited the contention for power to Iran: Whereas Iran was the archetypal to found an embassy successful Baghdad aft the United States invasion, a Saudi ambassador to Iraq arrived successful Baghdad lone past week.

Likewise, the Saudis did not unfastened their heavy pockets to Iraq until a fewer years ago, erstwhile they began a tentative effort to put successful infrastructure.

“The lone happening we tin bash is to springiness the Iraqis different prime that isn’t lone Iran,” said Hesham Alghannam, a Saudi governmental scientist. “We can’t country them and past blasted them for going with the Iranians.”

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