|If U.S. Leaves Vacuum in Iraq, Iran’s Deep Influence May Not Fill It |
Joseph Sywenkyj for The New York Times
The Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf, one of the holiest sites for the Shiite diaspora. Some say Iran has worn out its welcome in this region that is a center of Shiite Islam.
By TIM ARANGO
NAJAF, Iraq — As the United States draws down its forces in Iraq, fears abound that Iran will simply move into the vacuum and extend its already substantial political influence more deeply through the soft powers of culture and commerce. But here, in this region that is a center of Shiite Islam, some officials say that Iran wore out its welcome long ago.
Surely, Iran has emerged empowered in Iraq over the last eight years, and it has a sympathetic Shiite-dominated government to show for it, as well as close ties to the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr. But for what so far are rather obscure reasons — perhaps the struggling Iranian economy and mistrust toward Iranians that has been nurtured for centuries — it has been unable to extend its reach.
In fact, a host of countries led by Turkey — but not including the United States — have made the biggest inroads, much to the chagrin of people here in Najaf like the governor.
“Before 2003, 90 percent of Najaf people liked Iranians,” said the governor, Adnan al-Zurufi, who has lived in Chicago and Michigan and holds American citizenship. “Now, 90 percent hate them. Iran likes to take, not give.”
Near midnight, Mr. Zurufi held court at a cafe, his team of bodyguards standing sentry at the door, frisking patrons. Outside, a convoy of white sport utility vehicles waited, and nearby, down a crooked alleyway, thousands of visitors took in the nighttime serenity of the Imam Ali Shrine, one of the holiest sites for the Shiite diaspora, where millions of Iranians flock every year.
Mr. Zurufi’s comments cut against the grain of what is commonly understood about the influence of Iran in southern Iraq, where the two countries have a common religious bond — both are majority Shiite — but where nationality competes with sect.
A standard narrative has it that the Iraq war opened up a chessboard for the United States and Iran to tussle for power. One of the enduring outcomes has been an emboldened Iran that is politically close to Iraq’s leaders, many of whom escaped to Iran during Saddam Hussein’s government, and that is a large trading partner.
Yet the story is more nuanced, particularly in the Shiite-dominated south that became politically empowered after the American invasion upended Sunni rule. It has been other countries — most powerfully Turkey, but also China, Lebanon and Kuwait — that have cemented influence through economic ties.
The patterns were established soon after the American invasion. Shoddy Iranian goods — particularly low-quality cheese, fruit and yogurt — flooded markets in the south, often at exorbitant prices, said Mahdi Najat Nei, a diplomat who heads the Trade Promotion Organization of Iran office in Baghdad. This sullied Iran’s reputation, even though prices have since plummeted, creating an aversion to Iranian goods that lasts to this day, Mr. Nei said.
This has made it difficult for Iranian businesspeople to make investments in southern Iraq, said Ali Rhida, who is from Iran and is building an iron factory on the outskirts of Najaf. “The real problem is with the mangers of the economy in Iran,” he said. “After the fall of the regime, many Iranian companies came here but they screwed it all up.”
In Najaf, officials still complain of low-quality Iranian goods, as well as little real investment from their eastern neighbor and violence perpetrated by militias with links to Iran. Their main complaint about the Americans is their lack of influence.
One aim of the American invasion here was to establish a moderate center of Shiite Islam, democratically inclined and oriented to the West, that would be a counterbalance to Iran’s system of clerical rule. However, something like the reverse seems to have happened. As Iran has used its political connections to hold great sway over Iraq’s leadership class, and has backed militias responsible for assassinations and attacks on American bases, it has been less successful wielding other mechanisms of power at a grass-roots level.
“Investment from Iran has almost stopped,” said Zuheir Sharba, the chairman of Najaf’s provincial council, referring to a phenomenon that has more to do with Iran’s anemic state-run economy than it does to Iranian ambitions. Speaking about Americans, he said, “They were coming, but they’ve stopped.”
Mr. Sharba continued: “We wish that American companies would come here. I wish the American relationship was that, instead of troops, it would be companies.” Mr. Sharba is a cleric, and he spent 14 years in Iran in exile during Mr. Hussein’s government.
With the United States military leaving, it will be left to diplomats, business executives and nongovernmental organizations to maintain American influence in Iraq. And while the State Department is embarking on a vast expansion of its operations, critics say it is missing an opportunity to secure influence here in the seat of Iraq’s Shiite clerical establishment, which is an important power center in the new Iraq.
But winning over the clerics will not be easy. Certainly, some officials, including Mr. Zurufi — who was appointed governor of Najaf in 2004 by L. Paul Bremer III, then the top American administrator in Iraq, and later elected to the post in 2009 — are pro-American, but the clerical establishment, which is less receptive to American influence, wields more power over the people.
Not only did the Americans refuse a request by Mr. Zurufi and other officials to open a consulate in Najaf, the State Department’s Provincial Reconstruction Team in Najaf actually shut down earlier than scheduled this summer after local clerical pressure, particularly from officials loyal to Mr. Sadr, who spends most of his time in Iran.
While Iran may be flagging in the battle for hearts and minds, it is still able to create trouble. A rise this summer in American troop deaths in southern Iraq at the hands of Iranian-backed militias raised alarms in diplomatic circles and became the core of the argument put forth by those who want a longer-lasting American military presence to counter Iran’s clout.
But the troublemaking does not extend to the more important arena of commerce, officials say. “Because of the political sensitivities of Iran, many people say Iran is controlling the economy of Iraq,” said Sami al-Askari, a member of Parliament and a close confidant to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. “No, the Turks are.”
Mr. Maliki once lived in Iran, and he surrounds himself with aides who have close ties to Tehran. Yet even these relationships have not translated into economic or cultural influence that could endear Iran to the Iraqi public at large. “I’ve yet to meet an Iraqi who trusts the Iranians,” said Joost Hiltermann, the International Crisis Group’s deputy program director for the Middle East.
Mr. Hiltermann recalled a recent visit to Mr. Maliki’s compound in Baghdad that illustrated for him the inability of Iran to transfer its political connections to durable economic power here. “Maliki’s aide was clearly resentful that the guesthouse was built by Turkey, but the Iranians couldn’t do it,” he said.
Iran has also been trying to make inroads culturally, but it is bumping up against the same uneasiness that Iraqis have toward Iran’s business efforts. This year Iran negotiated a deal to refurbish several movie theaters in Baghdad that have been dark for years. Yet the renovations have yet to get under way, and officials say they wish it were the Americans — and their technology — involved in the project. “If a person asks me, who do I want to come help me? I wish that the Americans, by occupying Iraq, would support the culture and theater,” said Fuad Thanon, the head of Iraq’s national theater.
Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East analyst at the Congressional Research Service in Washington, said that because of numerous small projects — particularly related to religious tourism in Najaf, including a large underground toilet facility, and some construction projects in Basra — “a lot of these myths get perpetrated” about Iran’s influence in the south. “In the aggregate, it doesn’t add up to much,” he said.