Iran’s once-indomitable influence in Iraq is waning, new public opinion data shows. The rise of Iranian influence can be traced to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Iran filled a political vacuum left after the fall of Saddam Hussein in ways the United States could not, cultivating a wide range of Iraqi proxies and constituencies.
Iran’s popularity increased significantly in Iraq from 2003 until 2014. Iran’s strategy was to exploit Iraq’s sectarian divide, using Shiite parties to increase its influence not only among the political elite but also among average Iraqi Shiites. Sectarian religious propaganda was one of the main tools used by Iran to increase its popularity and hence influence among Iraqis.
But while many analysts treat Iran’s influence in Iraq as something akin to a natural fact, new public opinion survey evidence shows that Iran’s honeymoon with Iraqi Shiites is rapidly fading. This shift in attitudes could have profound effects on the future trajectory of Iraqi politics.
New attitudes toward Iran
Recent data from surveys conducted by my research group, Alustakilla (IIACSS), shows new trends in public opinion about Iran among Iraqi Shiites. These surveys are based on nationwide representative samples of 2,500 to 3,500 face-to-face interviews conducted two to three times annually during the past decade.
The findings from recent surveys reveal genuinely striking changes. The percentage of Iraqi Shiites who have favorable attitudes toward Iran decreased from 88 percent in 2015 to 47 percent in the fall of 2018. During the same period, those who have unfavorable attitudes toward Iran increased from 6 percent to 51 percent. This means that the majority of Iraqi Shiites currently have negative attitudes toward Iran.
At the same time, the percentage of Shiites who believe that Iran is a reliable partner in Iraq has decreased sharply, from 76 percent to 43 percent, over the same period. Those who believe that Iran is not a reliable partner increased from 24 percent to 55 percent. There is a significant increase in the percentage of Iraqi Shiites who believe that Iran is a real threat to Iraqi sovereignty. This number has jumped from 25 percent in 2016 to 58 percent in 2018.
The same trend among Sunni Iraqis’ public opinion toward Islamic fundamentalists could be seen in my surveys over the past four years. Because of the barbarism of the Islamic State occupation in Sunni areas of Iraq, it is not surprising the Sunnis in Iraq have soured on Sunni Islamist fundamentalism. The new survey leaves no doubt that Iraqi Shiites are showing the same trend toward Iran.
Why have Iraqi Shiites turned against Iran?
Iraqi Shiites hold Iran responsible for their misery on three levels: political, economic and social. On the political level, Shiites regard Iran as the main supporter for all Iraqi governments since 2006. These governments, which have been controlled by Shiite Islamic parties, had the full support of Iran — and yet failed to deliver a decent standard of living for Iraqis in general and in the Shiite areas in particular. This has driven a remarkable wave of protests over the past year in Iraq’s south.
The role of Iran in composing the new Iraqi government was very clear to the public. On an economic level, Iran has used Iraq as a way to bypass economic sanctions. It dumped goods in the Iraqi market — especially in Shiite areas, which are close to Iraq’s borders — that were very cheap and of low quality. This practice negatively affected the local economy, destroying small and medium Iraqi industrial and agricultural producers. For instance, the largest petrochemical complex — and thousands of tomato farms in Basra — stopped their production due to this unfair competition.
Iran also receives blame for the water problems that have plagued Basra and southern Iraq. Due to water supply and electricity production shortages in Iran, the Iranian government had to cut the flow of rivers that provided clean water to Iraq. This resulted in a large shortage in drinkable water in southern Iraq, which is predominantly Shiite.
All these factors resulted in large protests in the Shiite south, especially in Basra. Protesters hold Iran responsible — and even burned its consulate in Basra.
How this matters for Iraqi politics
There is little reason to believe that Iran will lose all influence or appeal inside Iraq. It retains a wide range of allies and proxies, including the Popular Mobilization Forces and leading political parties.
Still, the popular Iraqi Shiite disillusionment with Iran shows that the polarization of Iraqi attitudes toward Iran or Arab Sunni countries is vanishing. This leaves more space for nonsectarian national politics, which can help Iraq move forward, focusing on national reconciliation.
Munqith M. Dagher is founder and chief executive of Almustakilla for Research, based in Baghdad.