Iran’s diplomatic relations with its key allies are falling apart. Teheran’s special relationship with Hamas is coming to an end now that the Gaza based terrorist group has realigned itself with Sunni Islamist nations. Hamas’ lack of support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad brought relations with Teheran to a nadir, and Reuters even reported last year that, “Iran has reduced or possibly halted its funding of Hamas.”
Even Syria may no longer be a reliable ally of Teheran. If Defense Minister Ehud Barak is correct that the Assad regime is facing “the beginning of the end,” then a new Syrian government (that will probably be lead by Sunni forces) will likely be hostile to the Iranian leadership (that is Shiite). Now that Iran has lost the support of Hamas, and may not be able to count on a future Syrian Government, there is another nation that will receive the significant patronage of the Iranian regime.
Iraq, a once brutal enemy of their Shiite neighbor, is now becoming a key ally of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
How did such a dramatic change occur? Iraq’s old Sunni leadership, lead by former President Saddam Hussein, used to be heavily suspicious of Iran. Hussein had feared that Iran was trying to gain influence over Iraq’s Shiite majority population, and in 1980 he decided to launch a military offensive against Iran that ultimately lead to a catastrophic eight year war.
In 2003, when the United States led a military operation that ousted Hussein from power, this diplomatic reality became political history.
Control of Iraq was inevitably given to its Shiite majority population, and now the new government in Baghdad is looking to cooperate with its like minded Shiite neighbor. Current Prime Minister of Iraq Nouri al-Maliki even supported Iran in the eight year war against his own country.
A powerful alliance between Teheran and Baghdad will be even more troublesome for Israel than the current Iranian axis with Hezbollah and Syria. Unlike Lebanon and Syria, Iraq has territorial continuity with Iran, so the transfer of resources (troops, military equipment, amongst other things) across borders is relatively easier. This is especially significant if there is a war between Israel and Iran; Teheran can send its resources towards the western boundaries of Iraq and fight Israel with more logistical ease.
The benefit of such an alliance for Iran can be realized even further, for if Assad is victorious at the end of the Syrian civil war, then the Iranian axis will be stronger than ever. There will be enough territorial continuity so that Teheran can easily spread its resources to Iraq, Syria, and Hezbollah, and they can avoid sending boats through the Mediterranean that the Israel Defense Forces often intercept.
Unlike on the high seas, where no nation has internationally recognized sovereignty, the movement of contraband on land can place Israel into a very precarious situation. The confiscation of weapons on land would mean that Israel is defying the sovereignty of another nation, and Iran may view this as a causus belli and declare war on Israel. Additionally, this would allow Teheran to gain international support in a war, and further isolate Israel in the international community.
The potential of their relationship is not solely linked to territorial matters. Iran and Iraq have already initiated high levels of cooperation on the export of petroleum, and are predicted to share billions of dollars in projected revenues over the coming years. These two nations may become economically interdependent over time, and the imploding Iranian economy (due to sanctions against Teheran) will ensure that Iran will view future economic cooperation with Baghdad as a high priority.
Furthermore, Maliki is dependent on Iran for domestic political purposes; he may be faced with an enormous amount of pressure from the minority populations in his country without the help of Teheran. Iraq’s small Shiite majority presides over a significant minority of Sunnis and Kurds, and Maliki needs to stabilize his regime so he can maintain his rule. Iran has been able to assist Maliki with this problem, for Teheran has even reached out to Iraq’s minority population to ensure Iraqi unity.
For instance, Iran is trying to gain influence over the Kurds of Iraq, so it can try to ensure that Iraqi Kurds will be loyal to the Maliki regime. As an added bonus for Teheran, overtures to the Kurds of Iraq also increase Iranian influence over the Kurds of Syria, and therefore help to stabilize the Assad regime as well.
Years of military occupation have stunted Iraqi influence in the Middle East, but Maliki now intends to change the facts on the ground. Luckily for him, he has a powerful ally that will guide Iraq from the ashes of war. It is only a matter of time that Iraq becomes a significant player in Middle Eastern politics.