How much influence does Iran wield in Iraq? This question has long been a matter of debate and in light of the US troop withdrawal has become all the more relevant, especially with rumors of Iranian plans to have Mahmud Shahrudi, who is an Iraqi-born member of Iran's Guardian Council and advocates clerical involvement in government, succeed the quietist Ali al-Sistani in Najaf.
Unfortunately, partisan politics on the left and right have precluded serious analysis on the subject.
In any event, we can begin by noting that Iraq has close economic ties with Iran. According to the Iranian ambassador to Baghdad, quoted in a report by the Tehran Times, trade transactions between the two countries over the past Iranian calendar year (ending on 19th March 2012) amounted to more than $11 billion.
He also noted that around 1.2 million Iranian pilgrims visited the Shi'a holy cities of Najaf and Karbala in that same year. In the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, a lifting on import tariffs by the Coalition Provisional Authority led to an influx of cheap goods from Iran, and shopkeepers in Karbala have not been unaware of the increase of Iranian products on sale in their stores.
Nor is there a shortage of signs in Farsi advertising accommodation for pilgrims, and many Iraqis in the city have now learnt the Persian language. Unsurprisingly, these developments have provoked suspicions of Iranian cultural infiltration.
When there was a US troop presence in Iraq, Tehran provided backing for small Shi'a militant organizations known as the "Special Groups." These militias came into increasing conflict with the central government as the sectarian civil war began to subside in 2007-8.
Nonetheless, after the American withdrawal, the Special Groups have had no casus belli, and so it is that they have either disbanded or turned to the political process.
A case-in-point is the League of the Righteous, led by Qais Khazali, who is at odds with Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers that comprise an important part of the ruling coalition. By backing the groups that can give rise to internal Shi'a rivalries, Iran can increase its own influence by playing a role as mediator, adviser and kingmaker.
Linked to this point is the fact that in the aftermath of the 2010 elections, which entailed a prolonged stalemate among Iraq's political factions, the Sadrists and the strongly pro-Iranian Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq [ISCI] eventually joined the current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law bloc on Iran's advice.
Thus, it cannot be denied that the Iranian influence exists economically and politically.
Oddly enough, both the US and Iran backed Maliki for a second term as prime minister following the 2010 elections, but of the two countries, it was Iran that showed a degree of influence on the political process in advising the Sadrists and ISCI to unite with Maliki. The US in contrast had no role in suggesting or facilitating coalition-shuffling.
Yet it does not follow that the Iraqi government simply subordinates what it perceives to be its own interests to those of Iran. Iraq is still a leading customer for US arms, despite Iranian disapproval, and will probably remain so over the coming years.
It is also notable that the negotiations over the question of an extension of the US troop presence were conducted in such a way as to exclude the Sadrists from the Iraqi government's decision-making.
The reason the discussions broke down was because of a universal consensus among Iraq's political factions that no legal immunity could be granted to US troops; otherwise all agreed on a postponement of the withdrawal deadline. The voices of pro-Iranian factions were completely irrelevant.
Further, while the Iraqi government has generally not come out in support of the Syrian uprising (with the Sadrists declaring Bashar Assad to be a "brother" solely by virtue of his supposed Shi'a identity), it is not necessarily the case that this stance is due to Iranian influence, for it is clear that the Iraqi government is also keen to avoid actively aiding the Assad regime, as evinced by Baghdad's warning to Tehran in March that it would not permit arms shipments to Syria to pass through its territory or airspace.
This announcement came partly in response to American concerns that Iraq was in violation of the UN Security Council Resolution 1747 that bans arms exports from Iran.
What then of the rumors that Iran is aiming to have Shahrudi succeed Sistani in Najaf? If this were to happen, it would indeed have a profound impact on Iraqi politics, shifting the country towards a much more decisively pro-Iranian alignment.
Nevertheless, there are numerous obstacles that render the prospect of Shahrudi acquiring a position of dominance in Najaf unlikely, primarily because such a move would probably encounter stringent opposition from the Dawa party that is led by Nouri al-Maliki and is the most powerful Shi'a political faction in Iraq (far more so than either the Sadrists or the ISCI).
The Dawa party, unlike the Sadrists or ISCI but in keeping with the consensus in Najaf that itself hinders the possibility of a Shahrudi takeover, has generally not embraced Khomeini's doctrine of velayat-efaqih (governance of the jurist).
Besides, al-Maliki and his bloc, whose greatest concern has always been consolidation of their own power base, are aware of Sunni Arab and Kurdish anxieties about shifting towards an Iranian model of government, and accordingly, as analyst Reidar Visser notes, have been working with al-Iraqiya – the main opposition bloc – and the Kurds to block attempts by ISCI and the Islamic Virtue Party – a branch of the Sadrist movement – to introduce clerical veto in Iraqi law, such as is practiced in Iran.
In short, Iraq is not a satellite state of Iran. In general, the Iraqi government thinks it is in its best interests to maintain good relations with both Iran and the United States. Although Iranian influence in the country is undoubtedly present economically and politically, it does not follow that Iraq complies with Tehran's wishes.
When it comes to Iraqi politics, what matter more than any foreign influence are the rivalries between and within the various factions, often entailing personal power struggles going back many years.
In the end, the formation of the current Iraqi government as per the Arbil compromise struck by Massoud Barzani had nothing to do with the US or Iran, but was rather rooted in the problem of the personal animosity between Maliki and Ayad Allawi, who is leader of the opposition bloc but like Maliki a Shi'ite and has many Shi'a groups in his bloc such as the White Iraqi National Movement.