Baghdad | Forty years ago, they fought a bloody war. Today, Tehran, via its allies now in power in Baghdad, continues to increase its weight in Iraq, on the political scene as in the trade balance.
At the time of the war between the Islamic Republic of Iran, just born of the 1979 revolution and Iraq of Saddam Hussein, “it was impossible to imagine that one day pro-Iran would take the reins of power, ”Aziz Jaber, professor of political science at Moustansariya University in Baghdad, told AFP.
And yet, it was Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran on September 22, 1980 that sowed the seeds of the new power installed in Iraq after the 2003 US invasion.
During the war, Tehran welcomed, trained and enlisted Iraqi opponents – the Kurds and the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and its much feared armed wing, the Badr organization.
Since 2003, in the wake of an invasion led by Washington which had developed little contact in the ranks of the anti-Saddam, Iran's allies have slowly but surely consolidated their influence.
Of the six prime ministers appointed since then, three spent most of the 1980s in Iran. The commanders of the Badr organization today constitute a large contingent of senior Iraqi state officials, and the Barzani family, which reigns over Kurdistan, was also in exile in Iran under Saddam Hussein.
“Iran has sharp politicians” who “not only created a network of (Iraqi) allies for the war but who then took advantage” of this network when these Iraqis came to power in Baghdad, decrypts Mr. Jaber.
And on its own soil, the war against Iraq remains a benchmark. Today, caregivers fighting the novel coronavirus are praised as the “martyrs” of the war against Saddam Hussein.
Iran's economic lung
In Iraq, the benefits are not just political.
If officially Saddam Hussein's Iraq did not trade with Tehran, the smuggling from Iran made the embargo years (1991-2003) slightly less austere. And once Saddam Hussein was overthrown, geography took over.
“It is the natural order of things that two neighboring countries trade: like Poland and Germany after the horrors of the Second World War”, asserts Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, of the site Bourse & Bazaar, which promotes commercial diplomacy with the 'Iran.
And Iran has a major advantage: its prices are unbeatable. From building materials to cars, including medicines and vegetables, they are crushing those of Iraqi production. Baghdad, with its decaying infrastructure, even depends on Iran for its electricity.
Result: Iraq is Iran's first non-hydrocarbon customer. From March 2019 to March 2020, Tehran sold $ 9 billion worth of goods in Iraq, reports the Iranian Chamber of Commerce.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani set the new target in July: to reach 20 billion.
Because for Iran under US economic sanctions, the western neighbor is a lifeline.
“Iranian companies are looking for consumers because they cannot increase their sales at home,” Batmanghelidj told AFP.
Country “offered to Iran”
But Iran's growing influence isn't making people happy in Iraq.
“Today's leaders have offered our country to Iran, our economy, our agriculture and even our armed forces,” protests Mohammed Abdelamir, who had been drafted to fight the Iranian enemy.
“I fought for five years, was a prisoner of war in Iran for ten years and, in the end, I saw my country being offered to Iran,” he continues.
The demonstrators of the October 2019 revolt in Iraq have clearly expressed it: to boo their leaders, they have nicknamed them “the tentacles of Iran”.
One of the most hated people was Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, architect of the Islamic Republic's Middle East strategy, trained in military action during the war against Iraq.
He was shot down in January by an American drone alongside Abu Mehdi al-Mouhandis, his trained Iraqi lieutenant, within Badr, on the same Iranian front.
Their disappearance dealt a blow to the Iranian influence in his neighbor. But Tehran is far from being destabilized, assures AFP Renad Mansour of the Chatham House think tank.
“Iran has allies in official political networks but also among informal actors – militiamen, businessmen and others”, explains the researcher.
And he adds that Tehran is looking into the long term future: “Where do we want Iraq to be in 50 years”.