Foreign Policy ran a piece a few days ago examining the question "Is Iraq an Iranian proxy?" that was most interesting for one of its co-authors: Safa al-Sheikh, the acting national security adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
While Mr. Sheikh is frequently described as a technocrat, he has nevertheless advised Mr. Maliki on security policy for years now, at precisely the time that Iraq has strengthened its ties with Iran and distanced itself from the US (you may remember that Maliki kicked the US military out of Iraq last year). Iraq has uneasily supported Syria's Bashar al-Assad against the Sunni-dominated uprising against his regime. After all, a substantial chunk of the uprising is composed of Sunni jihadis hostile to Maliki's Shiite-dominated government.
So an opinion piece under his name about Iraq's relationship with Iran (co-authored with Emma Sky, a British national who worked in the occupation administration of Iraq and later as an adviser to the US military), is worth noting.
What does he have to say? That the Iraq war tipped the geopolitical scales in favor of Iran in the Middle East, that it provided a new inspiration to Sunni jihadi groups in the region, and that many politicians are in the pockets of foreign powers.
None of that's controversial to anyone who knows Iraq, but that last point, stated by a man in Sheikh's position, is interesting. Here's how he put it:
Iraqi politicians are gripped primarily by the desire to protect and expand their own power and resources. To do so, they often look for foreign patrons: It is no secret that many of Iraq's politicians take funding from neighboring countries, as well as from state coffers. Unsurprisingly, there is little willingness across the political spectrum to push forward a law in parliament that would reveal details of party financing. However, though Iraqis may be influenced by their "donors," this does not mean they are controlled by them.
Yes, the Iranians are the main financiers of some Iraqi political parties. The Saudis and other Sunni gulf monarchies, are patrons of Sunni groups opposed to Maliki. And a senior government adviser can admit the fact that members of parliament are effectively paid by foreign powers with little fallout. After all, it has become standard operating procedure.
As for the US and Iran? He points to both America's poor reputation amongst Iraqi Arabs, Sunni and Shiite alike (one thing they can agree on), and the perception that direct American involvement in the region is set to decline, leaving Iraq to manage relations with Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. He also points out that the US increasingly looks to be backing Sunni Islamist groups against Shiites regionally.
The United States faces many pressing questions that will deeply affect how it is viewed by Iraqi Shiites. For instance, will US support for the Syrian opposition bring a Salafi government to power? Will the United States remain silent in the face of Saudi and Bahraini oppression of their Shiite populations? Will the United States and Israel bomb Iran's nuclear program?
... Iraq finds itself walking a tight rope, caught between the United States and Iran – as well as in the proxy war playing out between Sunni and Shiite powers in the region. Iraq's government calculates that the United States needs it as an ally to keep oil flowing and to have it buy US weapons. But as US influence declines, Turkey and Iran are once more filling the power vacuum in the region. Iraqis have seen this movie before.