Sanctions-hit Iran is consolidating its hold over neighbouring Iraq, an economic lifeline where pro-Tehran parties dominate politics, all to the chagrin of the United States, experts say.
For years, Iraq has been caught in a delicate balancing act between its two main allies Tehran and Washington, themselves arch foes.
After a 2003 US-led invasion toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Iran’s influence has grown through political links among both countries’ Shiite-Muslim majorities.
Pro-Iran parties now dominate Iraq’s parliament, and in October they named a new prime minister following a year-long tussle with their Shiite rivals.
Iraq has become an “economic lifeline” for Iran, said Ihsan al-Shammari, a political scientist at the University of Baghdad.
This is “even more so with sharpening Western economic sanctions and nuclear negotiations that do not seem to be leading to a favourable deal for Iran”, Shammari said.
“Iran’s role will be even more important than during previous (Iraqi) governments”
During a visit to Tehran late last month, Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani and Iranian officials urged greater bilateral cooperation in all fields.
He thanked Iran which provides gas and electricity — around one-third of Iraq’s needs — and added this would continue until Iraq was self-sufficient.
His country is already the number one importer of Iranian goods.
In Shammari’s view, Tehran has an “urgent need” to keep Iraq close.
– ‘Contested’ –
Under a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, Iran agreed to curbs on its atomic programme in exchange for relief from economically crippling sanctions.
The deal began unravelling in 2018 when then-president Donald Trump withdrew the United States, and reimposed financial penalties including a ban on Iran’s oil exports. Efforts to revive the nuclear deal since then have largely stalled.
Western countries have imposed additional sanctions following Iran’s crackdown on protests that have rocked the country since September.
Iran accuses exiled Kurdish opposition groups of fomenting the unrest, and has carried out cross-border strikes in Iraq against them.
“Iraq is contested by the United States and Iran, with Turkey in third place in the north,” said Fabrice Balanche, from France’s Lumiere Lyon 2 university.
“With a pro-Iranian figure at the head of the government, Iran will be able to further take advantage of the Iraqi economy,” he added, referring to Sudani, who is close to pro-Iran former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Iran’s influence can also be seen through its links with Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi, a former paramilitary force made up mainly of pro-Iran militias that have since been integrated into the regular forces.
The Hashed played a major role in defeating the Islamic State group in Iraq and now has a significant presence in the country’s politics.