NAJAF, Iraq » As the U.S. 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 Muqtada 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 U.S. — 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 U.S. citizenship. "Now, 90 percent hate them. Iran likes to take, not give."
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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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, 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 U.S. 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 U.S. bases, it has been less successful wielding other mechanisms of power at a grass-roots level.
With the U.S. military leaving, it will be left to diplomats, business executives and nongovernmental organizations to maintain U.S. 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.
While Iran may be flagging in the battle for hearts and minds, it is still more than able to create trouble. A rise this summer in U.S. 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 U.S. military presence to counter Iran’s clout.
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.