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How Much Control Does Iran Have Over Iraq? An Expert Explains.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News

With sectarian violence continuing in Iraq, I decided to call up Vali Nasr, who is an expert on the region, and who has written extensively about Shias in the Middle East. Nasr, the Dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, is also the author of The Shia Revival and, more recently, The Dispensable Nation.

During our conversation we discussed Nouri al-Maliki's political standing, Iran's role in choosing the next Iraqi government, and whether nuclear negotiations will destroy any chance of an American-Iranian alliance.

Isaac Chotiner: It seems like the issue that everyone is focusing on is, for the long term, is how to get Maliki out of there.

Vali Nasr: I would put this in perspective. I think there’s no doubt that leadership matters here, but it’s not everything. It’s being treated as a silver bullet solution to Iraq’s problems. So I would say Maliki at some level is personally sectarian, but he also is reflecting the sectarian anxieties and fears of his community. He’s not alone. There’s a lot of support in his community for the purge of Sunnis out of the military. These guys are not stupid. 

In some ways, yes he is a sectarian leader. I’ve seen a lot of evidence of it: He harbors fear against Sunnis, he’s deeply, deeply worried about a Sunni restoration in Baghdad, and he has been since 2008. The way he sees it is that we’re not there to protect a young Shia government, the whole Sunni region doesn’t recognize the government, doesn’t treat Shiites well, and is also supporting Sunnis who were never truly reconciled to the shift in power. He began to behave like many other people, like many new regimes do, and to try to exclude those who they fear and try to amass power. And he did it very well and the consequence is that he did alienate more Sunnis than he needed to. But the more the Sunnis resorted to extremism, the more  Maliki felt in his own mind that he was being vindicated.

IC: A lot of the talk about Maliki here has been that he’s a power-mad dictator, but it seems like what you’re saying— 

VN: I think that may very well be. And actually I think there’s a lot of evidence for that.

IC: But it seems like you’re saying, also, that while he may be a power-mad dictator, his biases are reflective of the community he’s in as well as perhaps some type of megalomania.

VN: Absolutely. I mean I think we always try to narrow things into a single convenient explanation. And things are always much more complicated. It’s true of our own leaders. They may be faulty at many levels, and then there’s something about them that resonates with the broader community. 

IC: How do you see his support among other Shias? I know he’s had issues with Moqtada al-Sadr, but do you think he’s fairly secure right now?

VN: I would say that there is criticism of him at a tactical level, and at a strategic level. There are those Shiites who think that he’s gone too far in being sectarian and he’s been too abusive of Sunnis. There are others who think that he’s made tactical mistakes. I remember a number of months ago, some Shiites in Iraq I was talking to said they wanted the Iraqi military to completely destroy these guys. And you know ISIS attacks are only the latest. We’ve had months and months of suicide bombing and the Shias want to know what’s he doing about it. And the Shias in Iraq do not blame suicide bombing on Shia megalomania. They blame suicide bombing on Sunni hatred and other regional powers who support them. So in some ways, Maliki’s also being blamed for having failed them. But I think the pressure to remove Maliki is also creating an opportunity for other politicians to begin to smell blood in the water, which is true of any political system. So there’s a lot of people who now see international pressure on him mounting and are beginning to jockey for being the anointed next prime minister. 

IC: What’s your sense of how the Iranian regime currently sees Maliki and how happy it is with him? 

VN: Well the Iranian regime is not beholden to Maliki in person, but again they also have a very different approach to things. They don’t dump friends that readily, as we're seeing in Syria. They’re not beholden to al-Sadr either, but they’re not going to automatically get up and say, "you gotta leave." The Iranians have a larger interest in Iraq, which is to protect their position and to protect the Shias. Also they have to know there’s enormous amounts of anxiety among average Iranians about ISIS’s threat to the shrine city, and there are reports in the Iranian press that say the defense of the city is a religious duty of every Iranian. So Iranians don't want the whole thing to fall. If Maliki becomes too much of a liability, then they will let him go, but they will do this in a way that the entire Shia apparatus of power does not unravel. So Maliki for Iran is both a liability and a threat, and right now he’s keeping the Shia part of Iraq together. He does have, as far as even a bankrupt political process in Iraq is concerned, a mandate. And Iranians are not willing to exchange Maliki for some leader who would be acceptable to the Sunnis. They’re not going to accept somebody whom ISIS and the tribal leaders would agree to.

IC: Well, ISIS isn’t going to agree to anyone, right?

VN: Right.

IC: How much common ground do you think there can be between the U.S. and Iran?

VN: There is room. Iranians may come to the view that Iraq obviously needs a new leader. The more America stands up and shouts that Maliki has to go, the less we’re going to get cooperation from Iran. This, in the region, sounds like some kind of an imperialist exhortation. And they’re not going to do our bidding. These are times when actually quiet diplomacy is much better than these kinds of public pronouncements.

IC: So what do you think is the proper American policy at this point?

VN: I think the proper American policy is much more of a diplomatic engagement, which means that you have to talk to all kinds of regional leaders, to create a certain common ground about what’s the way forward. So even if the Shiites agree to change the leader, what comes next, what’s the road map here? Are the Sunni regional governments going to pressure the tribes to join the government? Are they making that commitment? Are they going to join hands and recognize the new prime minister and embrace him? So we have to work with our allies and we also have to keep telling Iran, “we’re not going to embarrass you publicly, but you don’t want ISIS, we don’t want ISIS, and at least the starting point for the road map is a figure other than Maliki, who’s become too polarizing, and let’s work on that.” But we’re neither leaving Iraq completely to regional actors to figure out themselves, nor are we actually really getting involved in a way to be the decider.

IC: In less than a month the Iranian nuclear deadline is coming up. And I’m just wondering if you think that’s going to play into the Iraq stuff at all or vice versa?

VN: They are on separate tracks, but the fact that Iran and the U.S. have been talking, have made progress on the nuclear issue, actually makes it much more likely that they could at least have constructive conversations around Iraq. It doesn’t mean they’re going to arrive at any agreement. Secondly, I think Iran has now, based on its own internal politics and its own revolutionary foreign policy, way more room to maneuver on Iraq than it has in the past. So the idea of talking to America, or if there were an international conference on Iraq somewhere down the road, that Iran would participate in it, is much more of a realistic expectation than it would have been before. So the nuclear talks can help some kind of regional engagement with the United States, and Iraq on the other hand will not wreck the nuclear issue.

IC: But if the nuclear stuff goes badly in the next month, could that hurt things in Iraq?

VN: Well it could hurt Iraq first of all if the U.S. and Iran stop talking to each other altogether and there’s no more positive momentum in the process. It’s much more difficult to say, “ok let’s forget about this gargantuan issue on which we failed, let’s focus on this other issue.” So you’re gonna make it much more difficult. The nuclear issue has now become the pivot of U.S.-Iran relations: It either creates an environment in which they can have constructive engagement more broadly, or not. Iran is going to follow its own policy, completely separate from the United States. But the irony is, unlike Syria, in Iraq, Iran’s independent policy is much more in line with the United States’, whereas in Syria they were clearly on opposite sides.

IC: Still are.

VN: Still are. Although ISIS is the main issue in both sides, but there, the U.S. is against the government Iran supports, here the U.S. has relations with the government Iran supports and still is supporting the government against the opposition, which was not the case in Syria. In Syria, the U.S. supported the opposition against the government. And that basically is the common denominator between them. So even if they don’t talk at all, so long as they don’t get in each other’s way, they are basically dealing with the same problem and are supporting the same government in the capital city.

IC: It’s like a couple staying together to raise the kids. Even though they have no relationship they can just kind of go their separate ways and allow the kids—

VN: But look, on two other occasions, Iran and the United States, without talking to each other, facilitated Maliki’s election. 

IC: Right, that’s what I’m saying. They can make it work even if they’re not talking. Anyway, it’s pretty remarkable we’re in a situation where Iran can control the governments in both Iraq and Syria—it’s pretty amazing.

VN: It is. But it goes to something that in the region everybody understands, which is long, patient investment. And Iran has invested in these two governments for decades. That's why actually it’s so difficult for Iran to give them up and I think in the case of Iraq, Iran has a lot more say there than it has in Syria, because in Iraq the Shiites are the majority. So at some level what we have to understand is that, as Tip O’Neill said, “all politics is local,” and there’s a lot politics here and it’s not limited just to Maliki personally. There is a constituency in Iraq. There are Shiites who are petrified of ISIS and are petrified of these backers that are behind ISIS and they take the talk of Sunni restoration quite seriously. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.