Iran and Iraq: Is there a marriage made in Heaven?

The future my students projected for Pakistan back in 2008 was grim. Reality a year later is at least as grim. Looking back over their predictions – some about things that have now happened and others about events yet to come – it seems that their play of the predictioneer’s game has proven depressingly accurate. Sometimes it really would be better to get things wrong.

Now, in the spring of 2009, we have another chance to test the game. Let’s grab that chance and see where it takes us. Just a hop, skip and a jump away from Pakistan and all its troubles, Iran and Iraq are facing an uncertain future. That uncertainty provides a golden opportunity to dare again to be embarrassed. You see, as I write this in early April, 2009, I am again teaching the course on solving foreign crises that was used in 2008 to predict Pakistan’s stability (or, more precisely, its instability). Two excellent students in the 2009 version of my course have put my model to good use looking into the future relations between Iran and Iraq. In doing so, they have uncovered some pretty important insights about likely political developments in each of those countries. Their starting point – Will Iran and Iraq forge a strategic partnership? – illuminates a debate at the heart of two entirely different perspectives on American foreign policy: should the United States government keep troops in Iraq, as President Obama proposes to do, or should we pull out altogether? The predictioneer’s game can help answer that question.

Let’s review a few critical facts before plunging into the analysis. Back before the November 2008 presidential election, then-candidate Barack Obama promised to withdraw American troops from Iraq within 16 months. On February 27, 2009, ensconced in the White House, Obama stretched his pre-election withdrawal timetable a little bit, to August 2010. That does not seem to have elicited any great controversy either among “pro-war” Republicans or “anti-war” Democrats. But when he announced the timing of the US withdrawal, he also declared his intention to keep 50,000 American troops in Iraq. That’s no small, token force. It is, in fact, 36 percent of all of the US soldiers in Iraq at the time he announced his policy. Not too surprisingly, he was subjected to plenty of complaints within the ranks of the Democratic Party for moving too slowly on pulling US forces out of Iraq altogether. Predictably, he also got scant praise in return from the Republicans. Politics is not a warm and cuddly business. Obama took additional heat because these combat-ready troops are slated to stay in Iraq at least until 2011 when a pre-existing agreement with the Iraqi government calls for a full withdrawal. The possibility remains, of course, that the 2011 deadline could be extended indefinitely.

The decision President Obama took back in February 2009 and the reality he will face in August 2010 may look alike and they may not. Pressure within his own party and changing circumstances on the ground might result in a decision to keep far fewer troops in Iraq. But, of course, it is also possible that President Obama will – so to speak – stick to his guns (50,000 of them). I am not going to try to resolve here which he will do but I am going to use the predictioneer’s game to resolve which he ought to do. The answer will not depend on my personal inclinations or those of my students. I certainly don’t know what they favor. I had barely given this question any thought myself before doing the analysis.

Of course this investigation only touches on a few aspects of the policy implications of keeping or withdrawing US forces from Iraq. Facets of American security not examined here may also be influenced by the US decision to pull out or stay in Iraq. For instance, the troop decision also might make a difference in which way Iran heads in its pursuit of a nuclear capability, but I do not tackle that issue here. I will just say that the prospects of resolving that country’s nuclear threat are sufficiently good (based on earlier analyses I have done on Iran) that I do not believe a continued, greatly reduced American military presence will materially tip the resolution of the nuclear issue one way or the other.

Why Might Iran and Iraq Want to be Partners?

Pulling American troops out of Iraq is predicated on the idea that by the summer of 2010 Iraq will be able to defend itself against internal and external threats to its security. The Iraqi leadership must, of course, be mindful of the giant white elephant on its border as well as the potential of resurgent insurgents at home. One way to cope with its giant neighbor, Iran, is to forge close ties between the two countries. With that possibility in mind, let’s think about the range of deals Iran’s Shi’ite theocracy might strike with Iraq’s secular, but Shi’ite dominated government. As we contemplate a possible Iraqi-Iranian partnership we must keep in mind that relations between Sunni and Shia Muslims often are extremely fractious, the more so in countries like Iraq, where both groups make up a substantial segment of the population.

Iraq’s population is divided roughly 65% to 35% between Shia and Sunni Muslims and many of them hate each other. That divide certainly was a major factor that gave rise to Iraq’s insurgencies and the US creation of those CLC’s we talked about in Game Theory 101. During the insurgency, many Shia residents in Sunni areas were driven from their homes and sometimes murdered on sight by local Sunni militias. Likewise Sunni residents in Shia-dominated communities were driven out or murdered. Although things are calmer now and some people even have returned to their homes, many have not and animosities linger just beneath the service, ever ready to explode at the first signs of provocation.

Unlike Iraq, Iran does not have much of a domestic Shia-Sunni problem. That’s not so surprising. After all, Sunni Muslims are in scarce supply in Iran. There are about 10 Shia for every one Sunni in that country. That is, however, not to suggest that Iranians are warmly disposed or even indifferent to the Sunni branch of Islam. Iran has certainly had more than its share of fractious relations with Sunni-dominated governments in the Middle East and in the wider Islamic world. Most notably, Iran had terrible relations with Iraq during the long years in which that country was run by Saddam Hussein. Iran and Iraq fought an eight-year long war that killed more than a million people and saw the extensive use of chemical warfare. Few in Iraq or Iran have forgotten, and fewer still are likely to forgive, so building bridges between these two countries will not be an easy matter. Staying apart, however, carries its own big share of risks.

The Shia-dominated Iraqi government headed by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki sees Iran as a potentially sympathetic and like-minded ally. In contrast, he and his closest Iraqi followers may consider their own Sunni brethren as a threat to their regime and their vision for Iraq’s future. Maliki surely wants to shore up Iraq’s security and, according to the data my students assembled, he sees forming a strategic alliance with Iran as the way to do it once the US reduces its military presence or pulls out altogether. His starting position on the partnering issue described in table 10.1 is at 80. That means getting Iran to guarantee Iraq’s security. Such an assurance would provide a credible military threat from Iran against any anti-Shia rebellion in Iraq. That could be just the insurance the Maliki government needs.

Table 10.1: The Iran-Iraq Partner’s Game


Meaning Detailed Implications for Iran-Iraq Relations


Full Strategic Partnership Free flow of arms and military technology; a mutual defense alliance; joint intelligence operations.


Concentrated Partnership Restricted flow of arms and technology; some intelligence sharing; an alliance in which each guarantees to defend the other.


Restrictive Partnership Limited arms flow; no technology transfer; no shared intelligence; each promises not to use force against the other.


Minimal Partnership Considerable restrictions on arms flow; no signed alliance agreement at all.


No Strategic Partnership No flow of arms or technology; the two governments reaffirm their commitment to the Algiers Accord.

Putting such a partnership together, however, will not be easy. Besides the usual complexities behind any international negotiation, it is likely that the United States government will present stiff diplomatic opposition to such a move by Iraq. Besides pressure from Obama, we can be confident that those who represent Iraq’s Sunni interests will also strenuously oppose any deal with Iran. As for Iran, a deal with Iraq would advance Iran’s ambition to become the dominant regional power, but the Iranian government will have to ponder the risks of associating closely with a regime that could “fall into” Sunni hands. The partnership issue seems especially well suited to evaluate whether the US is better off keeping troops in Iraq or removing all of them. Iran, after all, is hardly the state Obama would like to see exercise real influence over Iraqi policy and yet a partnership could have exactly that consequence.

Table 10.1 tells us that there’s quite a range of possible future relations between Iran and Iraq and, of course, we need to play the game to work out what is likely to happen. From Barack Obama’s vantage point, Iraq ought not to be too quick to jump into bed with Iran. He thinks a policy around 0 on the scale is just right. That is, the Obama administration wants the two countries to go their separate ways while maintaining quiet at the borders as is their obligation under the terms of their 1975 treaty. But that is not what Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki wants. He advocates a concentrated strategic partnership (80 on the scale). Maliki’s government needs a protector. If it won’t be the United States then he would be content to obtain security guarantees from Iran. For him, forging a close association with his much larger neighbor makes a lot of sense. Left to his own devices Maliki would choose a path that is opposite to what President Obama wants. Of course, neither Maliki nor any future Iraqi leader will just be left to his own devices. There’s plenty of pulls and tugs on all sides so we really do need a tool, like game theory, to help us sort out what the future holds.

While President Obama urges Prime Minister Maliki not to make a deal with Iran, the expert data going into the game indicates that Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khameini – the supreme leader with a veto over all Iranian policy – welcomes an opportunity for an even closer relationship than Maliki desires. He too wants a mutual defense agreement, but he also wants an almost unrestricted flow of intelligence and arms dealing between his government and Iraq’s. It appears that Khameini would like to use Iraq as a base for gathering information about the goings-on in the Arab states next door and beyond. So, there is a substantial difference between Obama’s vision for Iran and Iraq and the ambitions of the leaders of those two countries.

What will Iraq offer to Iran?

With this bit of background in mind, we can ask what is likely to happen under two plausible scenarios: (1) Iran and Iraq first work out their respective positions through the normal internal give and take of domestic politics and then, having resolved the stance they will take, negotiate with one another against the backdrop of ongoing US pressure in the form of a continuing 50,000-strong American military presence in Iraq or (2) they each settle their domestic games and then negotiate their future relations bilaterally, without outside interference and with American forces fully withdrawn.

Figure 10.6a displays the evolving positions of four key political figures in Iraq (Prime Minister Maliki; Vice President and leading Sunni politician, Tariq al-Hashimi; Iraq’s President Jalal Talibani who leads Iraq’s Kurdish faction; and Muqtada al-Sadr, the militant anti-American Shi’ite leader).  The analysis on which the figure is based assumes that the United States fully withdraws its troops by August 2010, an outcome favored not only by many Americans but also by many Iraqis. Figure 10.6b displays the same key Iraqi political leaders, but this time having solved the game under the assumption that the US maintains 50,000 combat-ready forces in Iraq. The analyses are not precise about when Iraq’s leaders will come to a stable point of view on dealing with Iran but they do imply that a decision will be reached not much later than August 2010 and quite possibly earlier. The issue appears to be on the back burner for now but it will surely heat up as the US withdrawal date draws nearer.

The model shows that it takes six or seven bargaining rounds before Iraq’s political interests (including many more than the four leaders displayed in the figures) come to an agreement on how to deal with Iran. That is a large number of rounds before a stable outcome emerges. So many rounds of internal discussion imply a long stretch of time between when the issue moves to the front burner and when it is settled internally. Apparently it will not be easy for the Iraqis to work out what they want their future relationship with Iran to look like.

Figures 10.6a and b about here

Figures 10.6a and 10.6b, viewed together, tell an interesting story. Despite their deep differences, Maliki, Talibani, and Hashimi slowly but surely come around to a collective agreement. They will support a relatively lukewarm relationship with Iran, a relationship not nearly as close as Maliki wants. According to the game, Iraqi diplomats will be authorized to seek an agreement with Iran that includes limited arms flows between the two countries, with no preparedness to transfer technology or to share intelligence. In terms of a formal treaty relationship, what is likely to be sought is that each promises not to use force against the other. That means, in the parlance of international affairs, that Iraq seeks a mutual non-aggression pact. The United States ultimately will support this undertaking, but only after a protracted negotiation. If US troops remain in Iraq, Talibani will feel emboldened to press for an even weaker association with Iran but he will not prevail. He goes along with Maliki’s compromise position if US troops are withdrawn.

There is one more element in Figures 10.6a and b that is strikingly important. Muqtada al-Sadr, the militant Shia cleric, steadfastly opposes pursuit of a watered-down, weak partnership with Iran. In the absence of a US military presence he does not budge from his initial point of view. That perspective favors almost the most extreme partnership anyone advocates. Indeed, as we will see, only some Iranian leaders like Ahmadinejad want as much. Sadr advocates a free flow of arms and military technology between the two countries, accompanied by a mutual defense alliance and joint intelligence operations. He backs ever so slightly away from that extreme position if the US retains troops in Iraq, presumably out of concern for the security of his own operations.

Iraq’s Political Winners and Losers

Before leaving the internal decision making in Iraq for a look at the comparable domestic evaluation of choices in Iran, we would do well to inquire about who will be Iraq’s political winners and losers on this big question of partnership with Iran. Figure 10.7a displays the predicted changes in political influence for Maliki, Hashimi, Sadr and Talibani if the US fully withdraws. Figure 10.7b evaluates the same power question if Obama leaves 50,000 combat troops in Iraq.

Figures 10.7a and 10.7b about here

Even a cursory glance at the projected changes in political power in Iraq suggests that Prime Minister Maliki will need a deal with Iran’s Ayatollah Khameini more urgently if the US pulls out than if Obama proves true to his word and keeps American soldiers in Iraq. Figure 10.7a indicates that after months of rising political clout, Maliki’s influence will start to decline around late spring or early summer, 2011. Meanwhile, Hashimi’s power rises steadily. Without a substantial US troop presence, the game indicates that some time around early to mid-2012 Hashimi will be almost dead-even with Maliki in clout. Conversely, if the US retains a large contingent of combat-ready troops, then while Hashimi’s growth in power is unabated, Maliki’s power does not go into decline. He remains considerably more powerful than his Sunni political rival. Since Maliki has shown himself willing to cooperate with the United States government and Hashimi mostly has not, a continued troop presence may be important to prevent Hashimi from becoming a bigger player than he already is. Maliki may want to reconsider the 2011 deadline for a complete US troop withdrawal.

With 50,000 American soldiers in Iraq, Sadr’s political future looks much worse than if the United States withdraws. To be sure, the assessment derived from the game indicates that Sadr is entering a period of decline either way, but his downfall is deeper if President Obama resists the pressure to withdraw. President Talibani is also on the way down either way, but he falls faster and farther if the United States pulls out. That is a rather unfortunate combination of circumstances because Sadr is openly hostile to the United States and Talibani views the United States as an important ally.

The really big story in Iraq, however, takes us back to the changing fortunes of Hashimi and Maliki, especially if the United States pulls all of its forces out of Iraq. As I mentioned, Maliki is a reasonably reliable friend. To be sure, he understands the brazen pursuit of his self-interest. He will just as quickly make a deal with Iran if we pull out as he will make nice to the United States if American troops remain in place. He’s got his finger in the wind and he is working out who will do the most to be his guardian angel. The big risk in his political life is being ousted from office. The major domestic threat to his continued hold on power clearly comes from Hashimi. Hashimi wants Iraq to have nothing to do with Iran. Furthermore, he wants to reverse the government’s policy of de-Baathification; That is, he wants an end to the ongoing exclusion of former Baathists (Saddam Hussein’s party) from the government. And Hashimi staunchly opposes a federal structure for Iraq. Federalism is seen by many – most notably, Vice President Joseph Biden – as the most promising means to avert civil war. Thus, a political struggle along the Shia-Sunni (Maliki-Hashimi) divide is likely to cast a huge shadow over Iraq if US forces are withdrawn. It is a much smaller shadow with US forces on the scene.

With Maliki’s power slipping while Hashimi’s rises under the withdrawal scenario, there seems to be only two ways things can go and neither is good from the US perspective. Maliki can enter into a power-sharing arrangement with Hashimi. That would significantly strengthen the central government and assuage many Sunnis, two good things, but it might also open the door for the Baathists to regain control, a potentially very bad outcome indeed. After all, the projected power in the absence of the US shows Maliki and Hashimi almost dead-even and with Maliki on a downward spiral while Hashimi is ascending. Maliki, fearful of just such a takeover by Baathists might opt for the second solution to the threat to his power. Rather than sharing leadership with Hashimi, he might call on Iran to step in and help defend his regime against a nascent Sunni-led insurgency or civil war. That, of course, would be an awful outcome for just about everyone except the Iranian leadership.

Iran-Iraq Partnership

The feasibility of Iran’s army being invited in to help shore up Maliki’s regime against a Sunni threat depends, of course, on the nature of the deal the two countries will strike. The internal dynamics in Iran lead quickly – after just three rounds of domestic give and take – to a decision on how Khameini should deal with Iraq in trying to forge a partnership. He will seek a full strategic partnership. Once each country has resolved its own views on partnership, it will be time for the respective negotiators to come together to discover whether they have common ground for a deal.

Figures 10.8a and b show what is likely to emerge from bilateral, Iran-Iraq negotiations if the US has pulled out militarily or if the US keeps 50,000 troops on the ground. The pictures tell radically different stories. Without US troops present, Maliki and Khameini quickly come to terms. If American forces are on the scene, it looks like the negotiations will be abandoned – or at least tabled – well before an agreement is reached. Indeed, the game suggests that the two governments will not have come to terms with each other even after more than two years of negotiations if and only if Obama maintains a 50,000 strong combat contingent in Iraq.

Figures 10.8a and b about here

Figures 10.8a and b depict the policy positions of the two principal decision makers – Khameini and Maliki – during the course of bilateral negotiations, but the figures also show the evolving policy stances of the most extreme elements with real clout in each country. Thus we see the near polar opposite positions of Iran’s President Ahmadinejad and the Bonyads, a group of Iranian tax-exempt charities that, in reality, exert massive control over much of Iran’s economy and that have enormous influence over Khameini and the ruling council of Ayatollahs. Khameini appears comfortable with showing real flexibility to advance the prospects of striking a deal with Maliki’s government whether US troops remain or go. But Mahmoud Ahmadinejad resists the partnership agreements that could be in the cards regardless of whether the US stays or goes.

According to the predictioneer’s game, Ahmadinejad starts out and ends up advocating much firmer Iranian influence over Iraq than the Iraqis can agree to, and in doing so he is likely to alienate Khameini.

Indeed, as we will see, Ahmadinejad doesn’t get his way and this gradually costs him political influence. Meanwhile, the Bonyads; that is, the principal moneyed interests in Iran, remain equally steadfast in their opposition to what could be a very costly Iranian partnership with Iraq. They hold out for about as weak a set of ties as the United States is willing to live with. They advocate a bit more than cordial relations between the two countries, but not much more than that. Who knows, as the Ayatollahs’ influence declines – and as we will see it is already doing so – the Bonyads may become a vehicle through which the United States can find common ground with important stakeholders in Iran.

On the Iraqi side, Muqtada al-Sadr plays much the same part that Ahmadinejad plays in Iran. Sadr too proves all but immovable. However, even as he and Ahmadinejad try to scuttle an agreement, the game indicates that if the US withdraws, Maliki and Khameini will arrive swiftly at an agreement. The deal they are predicted to strike if Obama withdraws all American combat-ready troops is at 60 on the issue scale. This means the two countries will engage in a fair amount of arms transfers. They will capitalize on some coordination between their intelligence services and they probably will sign an alliance (such as a mutual entente) that assures more than non-aggression between them but that does not go as far as to provide guarantees of mutual defense. Such an arrangement probably would be sufficient for Maliki to call on Iran to defend his government against a Sunni uprising if one were to occur, thereby improving the odds of keeping Hashimi at bay.

If, however, the United States keeps 50,000 troops in Iraq, then the picture is entirely different. As can be seen in figure 10.8b, although negotiations can result in Khameini and Maliki coming to terms, the conditions for a stable outcome are not present. That is undoubtedly because Maliki will face great political pressure at home. That pressure will oppose his signing a partnership agreement with Iran. So, facing such stiff domestic political pressure, Maliki will put any possible deal on hold. Even after simulating more than two years of negotiations, the model does not arrive at an equilibrium outcome: the game goes on.  According to the game, the discussions would most probably be broken off well before the two sides could discover a deal the Iraqis could sell politically at home. That is, the American military presence is sufficient to hold Maliki’s feet to the fire, keeping him from making big concessions to Khameini. There are ways to overcome the problems Maliki will face but, considering that there is a reasonable chance that Iraqi or Iranian diplomats might read this, I leave it to them to work out how to solve their problem. It isn’t likely that they would listen to what I have to say, but why test those waters?

Before closing this opportunity to be embarrassed, let’s take a look at the predicted evolution of political influence in Iran. This reveals some interesting insights that may make us more hopeful for the future, especially if the United States keeps forces in Iraq long enough to buy time for the predicted developments in Iran to take hold.

Figure 10.9 shows the projected changes in political power among four key Iranian interests.

Ayatollah Ali Khameini, the most powerful figure in Iran is, according to projections from the predictioneer’s game, entering a long period of political decline, probably to culminate in his retirement. This signals a major change in Iranian affairs since he has a veto over virtually all policy decisions. Less well-known in the west are General Mohammad-Ali Jafari and Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati. Ayatollah Jannati is chairman of the Guardian Council. An anti-reform cleric, he can veto candidates for parliament and he has the authority to assess whether parliamentary decisions are consistent with the constitution and with Shariah (that is, Islamic) law. As such, he is nearly as powerful a figure as Ayatollah Khameini. Major General Jafari commands the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps; that is, the elite military unit whose support sustains the regime. Each of these individuals is far more powerful than Iran’s President and American nemesis, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Figure 10.9 also shows the evolving power of Iran’s Bonyads. The Bonyads were originally created during the era of the Shah and then were completely recast after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. As I have noted, they control vast sums of money, are exempt from taxes, and answer to no one except Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khameini. They control Iran’s purse strings and, not surprisingly, have a reputation for corruption and mismanagement. But they are also political pragmatists, as we have seen, and so they may be people with whom the Obama administration can find a path through to resolve many of the tensions between the US and Iran.

Figure 10.9 about here

Figure 10.9, if correct, tells a startling story of emerging change in Iran.

Key religious leaders, like Khameini and Jannati, are in political decline. Other clerics (especially the less politically involved Qum clerics sometimes known as the Quietists) may be picking up some of the lost power but the lions share of shifting political influence falls into the hands of General Jafari as the principle representative of Iran’s elite military units, and the Bonyads, Iran’s money managers. Business interests are also gaining in influence. That is, a more secular, pragmatic, albeit militarized, corruption-laden regime appears to be emerging as Iran’s theocracy goes into political, if not spiritual, decline. While the theocracy is likely to hold on to the symbolic trappings of power, real control is slipping away from them and toward a more conventional strongman, moneyed dictatorship.

The analysis certainly suggests a very different world with or without American troops in Iraq beyond August 2010. If Iran can strike a significant partnership arrangement with Iraq, as is likely if the US withdraws, then Iran will be well on its way to asserting itself as the dominant power in the region and will position Iran to resume its aggressive efforts to export its form of fundamentalist Islam. Such a triumph might even reverse the Ayatollahs’ slide toward lost political control. Fortunately, these developments are unlikely because President Obama is likely to be a man who sticks to his word. Keeping US forces in Iraq appears to be sufficient to deter the strong ties between Iran and Iraq that would provide a basis for Iranian military intervention in Iraq to defend the Maliki government against a potential Sunni uprising. And it also appears to be sufficient to keep Maliki strong enough that Hashimi is likely to think twice before attempting to push him aside. With a continued US military presence, time can be bought to provide the opportunity for a less anti-US regime to take control in Iran. Staying creates the chance to deal with a “normal” petty dictatorship and maybe, just maybe even a nascent more democratic regime. Withdrawal raises the prospects of helping the Ayatollahs stay in power while also jeopardizing the prospects of a pro-US Iraq in the future.

With our analysis in hand, we can cast the debate over whether to leave the troops in place or pull everyone out by August 2010 in a clearer light. Pulling out is tantamount to inviting Iran to step in to fill the void. That would be extremely dangerous from the American perspective. On the flip side, however, we should also ask to what extent a continued US presence is likely to stymie efforts by President Obama and his secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, to negotiate a resolution of Iran’s growing nuclear threat. The risk, based on other assessments I have done, seems small. What is more, if the Qum Quietist Ayatollahs are on the rise, as seems true from the game, and if the Bonyads and the military are also on the rise, then Iran is soon to enter a more pragmatic era that will help foster resolution of issues, like the nuclear issue, that loom so large now. Time will tell. I invite others, studying these problems from different perspectives, to dare also to be embarrassed and tell us now what they think will happen two years into the future.

Figure10.6a : The Likely Iraqi Approach to Iran if the US Pulls Out


Figure 10.6b: The Likely Iraqi Approach to Iran if the US Keeps 50,000 Troops in Iraq


Figure 10.7a: Changing Power in Iraq If the US Withdraws Completely


Figure 10.7b: Changing Power in Iraq If the US Keeps 50,000 Combat Troops There


Figure 10.8a: Iran-Iraq Negotiations After the US withdraws


Figure 10.8b Iran-Iraq Negotiations if the US Does Not Withdraw


Figure 10.9: Evolving Power in Iran: Some Hope for the Future