Did Iran really do so well out of the Iraq war?

Many think Iran was the biggest beneficiary of the 2003 Iraq war – but they forget it is Iraq that has democracy

Iraqi Parliamentary Election, Baghdad, Iraq - 06 Mar 2010 The Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, casts his ballot in March’s parliamentary election. Photograph: KPA/Zuma/Rex FeaturesMany people argue the biggest winner of the 2003 Iraq war is neighbouring Iran. The American-led forces removed one of Iran’s bitterest enemies, Saddam Hussein, and paved the way for successive Shia-dominated governments in Baghdad. The Iranians have not shied away from interfering in domestic Iraqi affairs and the power vacuum created by the American administration in Iraq gave them ample room to flex their muscles.

Several Shia political parties have been established and funded in Tehran, or have been given safe haven in Iran. Weapons, military training, millions of dollars and protection have been gifted to these parties and their armed militias, and these valuable resources were used to consolidate their grip on power in Iraq following the demise of the Ba’athist regime.

The Americans, on the other hand, spent over a trillion dollars, lost more than 4,000 people, tarnished their reputation in the region and failed to control Iraq’s oil wealth. The Iranians, so the argument goes, have outplayed the Americans in this game of chess.

Proponents of this argument are forgetting one vital ingredient that Iraq has and Iran lacks. Democracy. Iran can arm and fund militias till kingdom come, but at the end of the day, in Iraq, it is ballot papers, not bullets, that decide who stays in power and who gets the boot. Of course, security issues can destabilise the political process, as we have seen time and time again, but now the Iraqi people have the last say. It is true that the recent election results have been indecisive, and no clear winner has emerged, but a closer look at the numbers proves one thing: Iran did not win.

Iran’s staunchest allies, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, who dropped the word “revolution” from their name because it sounded too Iranian, barely managed to win 20 seats out of 325 in parliament. Iran’s next best friends, the Sadrists, won almost the exact same number of votes but they spread them along district lines and gained double the amount of seats.

Alongside democracy, another factor that will ensure Iraq can never be controlled by Iran, is, ironically, theology. The differences between the Najaf and Qum schools illustrate two diametrically opposed worldviews. Put simply, bearing in mind there are always exceptions, the clerics in Iraq hold the religious belief that jurists cannot hold the same political power their counterparts enjoy in Iran. When Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s highest-ranking Shia scholar, fell ill during the summer of 2004, he tactically avoided travelling to Iran for treatment.

When push comes to shove, the Iraqi army, under the leadership of both Ayad Allawi and Nouri al-Maliki, has shown willingness – and most crucially capability – to tackle the Iranian-backed militias in Baghdad and in their comfort zones in the southern provinces. In both major confrontations with the Iraqi army, the militias were forced to negotiate and abandon their weapons.

Maliki, a Shia politician with historic relations with the Iranian regime, ordered the Iraqi-planned and Iraqi-led Operation Charge of the Knights in March 2008. The Americans advised Maliki against pursuing the “outlaws” (a term used to refer to the Mehdi army) in Basra and the Iraqi government was taken aback by the fierce resistance put up by the rebels. However, after only a week of fighting, the militias melted away and the Iraqi army gave the region an impressive display of their ability.

I have focused on Iran, but the same can be said about all Iraq’s neighbours, including Saudi Arabia. Many people propagate these arguments to push political agendas that incite fear and hatred. These neighbours do have many religious, cultural and economic ties with Iraq, and they do wield influence, but they do not, and cannot, dictate policy in Baghdad.

The recent wave of terrorist attacks in Iraq has killed many innocent people, but Iraq’s enemies have still not understood the determination and resilience of the people. As the terrorists slaughter young men queuing up to join the security forces, hundreds more are willing to take their place.

The Iraqi army continues to go from strength to strength, the Iraqi intelligence is ever more capable of gathering information and Iraq will soon catch up with the region in oil exports. Iraq’s neighbours will do well to respect that and ensure they have as few enemies as possible.

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