Iran, and its Lebanese proxy Hizballah, have been actively involved in supporting Shi'a militias and encouraging sectarian violence in Iraq since the invasion of 2003-and Iranian planning and preparation for that effort began as early as 2002. The precise purposes of this support are unclear and may have changed over time. Given the pattern of Iranian support, it seems that Tehran has a goal of a Shi'a dominated Iraq that is dependent upon Iran. As evidence of this hypothesis, Iran and its proxies made ongoing attempts to sabotage the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) negotiations by stalling the political process in Iraq in the interest of preventing a continued US presence on Iraqi soil. They also reportedly bribed members of the Iraqi government to sabotage the agreement.
Additionally, Iran has a stake in the Shi'a religious rivalry between the Iraqi city of Najaf and the Iranian city of Qom. Both cities are vying to be the center of Shi'a power. Additionally, the quietist philosophy of the Najaf clergy differs from the more outspoken paradigm of the leadership in Qom. Iran therefore has an interest in increasing the power of the leadership in Qom while also reaching out to Shi'a leaders in Najaf.
Iran has consistently supplied sophisticated weapons, its own advisors, and Lebanese Hizballah advisors to multiple resistance groups in Iraq - both Sunni and Shi'a - and has supported these groups as they have targeted Sunni Arabs, Coalition forces, Iraqi Security Forces, and the Iraqi Government. Iran's influence runs from Kurdistan to Basra, and Coalition sources report that by August 2007, Iranian-backed insurgents accounted for roughly half the attacks on Coalition forces. This marked a dramatic change from previous periods that had seen the overwhelming majority of attacks coming from the Sunni Arab insurgency and al Qaeda.
Iran escalated its support for violence in Iraq at the start of the Surge. However, Coalition successes against al-Qaeda in Iraq and the larger Sunni Arab insurgency permitted Coalition forces to devote more effort to counter harmful Iranian influence in Iraq. Successful offenses by Coalition and Iraqi Forces against Iranian backed networks in the spring of 2008 left these networks in a weak and fractured state. Moqtada al-Sadr's Jaysh al-Mahdi militia called for a ceasefire in early 2008, leaving many of these Iranian backed groups to be singled out by Coalition and Iraqi Forces. In the wake of the surge, Special Groups militias remained significant. (see Iraq Report #11, Special Groups Regenerate). Special Groups criminals employed new tactics including nearly 200 cases of attacks using magnetic 'sticky bombs', Improvised Rocket Assisted Mortar (IRAM) attacks, as well as the targeted assassinations of low and mid level Iraqi leaders using silenced weapons.1
Recently, Iran has entered a process of re-tooling its strategy based on the passage of the SOFA and successful elections. Tactics have been particularly focused as of late on soft power diplomacy and trade. High ranking Iranian officials have made visits to Iraq in order to establish a diplomatic relationship. Additionally, Iran has attempted to flood the Iraqi market with Iranian agricultural products in order to discourage an independent Iraqi farming economy. Iranian farmers are given a 3% subsidy on goods they export, while imported goods carry a 150% tarriff.
Iran also provides Iraq with a significant amount of electricity from generators in Iran. Additionally, Iran has signed a 150 million dollar contract to build a 300-megawatt power plant in Baghdad.
* A detailed map of Special Groups activity, updated in Novermber 2008, can be found here
1Stack, Liam. “Uptick in Baghdad attacks reveals new insurgent tactics”. The Christian Science Monitor. Nov 5, 2008.