From financing the expansion of the vast courtyards that lead into the Shiite shrines of the holy city of Najaf, to ensuring that a Tehran-friendly candidate gets the job of interior minister, Iran’s role in Iraq keeps growing, The New York Times reported.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani arrived in Baghdad on Monday for a visit to a place that his country has shaped in ways big and small over the past several years. Iran was the real winner of last year’s parliamentary elections in Iraq: the parties linked to the paramilitary Popular Mobilization Forces, most of them with ties to Tehran, emerged as the kingmakers.
“Iran is a small body with a big brain, and the United States is a big body with a small brain,” said Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni Muslim who was a former speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, trying to explain how Iran seemed to have gained the upper hand in Iraq.
Adnan al-Zurfi, a Shiite member of the Iraqi Parliament who has lived in the United States, put it succinctly.
“There is no American presence in Iraq, only a military presence,” he said. By contrast, Iran has insinuated itself into Iraqi political life and the military, and now seeks to expand economically and culturally, he said.
Cementing its dominance in Iraq is a piece with Iran’s regional ambitions, which aim to secure a route to the Mediterranean through friendly countries, in part so it can ship arms and support to Hezbollah in Lebanon, continue assisting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s military and threaten Israel.
Now that Iran has expanded the Shiite armed groups into a political force, much as they have done with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Tehran’s new priority is to increase economic ties with Iraq to offset the reinstated American sanctions.
Previewing Rouhani’s visit, the Iranian ambassador to Iraq, Iraj Masjidi, said on Saturday that Iran “considers Iraq the first destination for Iranian goods” and wants to outstrip Turkey and China as one of Iraq’s top trade partners.