Renad Mansour writes: Iraq is, once again, deeply embroiled in crisis. For three years, the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish region fought together to oust the Islamic State. Now, following the Sept. 25 referendum on independence for the region, they are pointing their guns at each other.
The dynamics in Iraq are far from simple, with intra-Kurdish rivalries; ethnic, sectarian and political divisions in Baghdad; and a war against the Islamic State barely in the rearview mirror. And yet too many people in Washington and elsewhere seem myopically focused on just one factor: Iran, which they view as controlling and dominating the situation in Iraq in pursuit of an ambitious, expansionist foreign policy. That’s far from the full story.
Since coming to power in 2014, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq has worked to push back against Iranian hegemony. Although he is (like the Iranian government) Shiite, he professes to be first and foremost an Iraqi nationalist. And he is certainly not an adherent of the Iranian government’s revolutionary ideology.
This doesn’t make Mr. Abadi unique. Most Iraqi Shiites likewise don’t want to see their country become Tehran’s puppet. The populist Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr now openly opposes Iranian dominance. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Iraqi who is the global spiritual leader of all Shiites, has criticized Tehran’s interference, and in September, he refused to meet with a top Iranian cleric who had been dispatched by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Even the Popular Mobilization Forces, a constellation of some 60 Shiite-dominated paramilitary groups in Iraq, are divided: Some are aligned with Iran, others oppose it.
To balance Iranian influence, Mr. Abadi has sought to build alliances with other local, regional and international players. He has visited Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional nemesis, twice in recent months and has established strong ties with Washington.
The prime minister has also become increasingly popular with Iraq’s Sunnis, who are wary of Iran’s deep penetration into the Iraqi state since 2003 and now see Mr. Abadi as a conciliatory figure and a safeguard against too much Iranian influence.
The evolution of the fight against the Islamic State has revealed this balancing act. When the Islamic State swept across Iraq in the summer of 2014, Iran came to the rescue, quickly providing material and tactical support. Later, when Iraqi forces were advancing against the Islamic State, Mr. Abadi invited a United States-led coalition to join the fight — despite strong Iranian objections. And in more recent battles, Mr. Abadi has kept Iranian proxies back from the front lines.
This is some of the context that too many in Washington are ignoring right now as they view the tension between Baghdad and the Kurds as one piece in an Iranian gambit for control. [Continue reading…]