Iran and the Iraq War of 2003: the Real Victor?

The Iraq War emboldened hawks in the United States and Iran. Increasingly obsessed with each other, they shunned pragmatism for an ideology of confrontation which saw both sides expend political and economic capital they could not afford for ambitions that were beyond them.

Some six months after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, analysts and policy makers came to a conclusion that many of us working on Iran had reached some time before: that the real beneficiary of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, was the Islamic Republic of Iran. Since then, it has become increasingly fashionable to argue that Iran, has inadvertently, become the real victor of America's global war on terror (GWOT), with some more conspiratorial explanations suggesting that the invasion of Iraq had actually been instigated by Iran!

To be sure, few people in Iran shed tears over the deposition of Saddam Hussein but Iran's assessment of both the causes of the invasion and its consequences, have been far more mixed than most people have realised, shaped as it has been by an ideological fixation with the United States. Indeed, encouraged by and fearful of barely disguised neo-con ambitions in the wider region, including most obviously Iran itself, a number of Iranian officials privately expressed the hope that the Iraqi regime would prove a far harder nut to crack than American strategists suggested.

Real anxiety existed in many quarters - especially after Bush's ill judged 'axis of evil' speech -  that the momentum of the American military would be difficult to stall. When after a brief campaign that momentarily fulfilled their worst nightmares, the American operation in Iraq did become bogged down, it ironically gave succour to the more bombastic elements within Iranian politics, with consequences which are still unfolding .

One Foe Replaced by Another

Iranian attitudes towards the overthrow of Saddam Hussein cannot be understood outside the contradictions between the bitter experience of the eight year Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) and the dictates of an officially sanctioned and promoted ideology of anti-Americanism. Iranians of all political hues could barely disguise their contempt for the Iraqi regime and found themselves unusually sympathetic to the American plan.

Iran was one of the few countries in the world not to play host to anti-war protests, only getting round to organising a half-hearted demonstration sometime after the invasion had begun. Indeed it was striking that despite Bush's earlier designation of Iran as part of the 'axis of evil', senior Iranian politicians remained cautiously positive about the operation. Their reasons were not hard to discern. With the overthrow of both the Taliban to the east and Saddam Hussein to the West, the United States had successfully transformed the geopolitical environment dramatically in Iran's favour. More subtle Iranian politicians, such as Hashemi Rafsanjani, made no secret of the fact that the real issue now facing Iranian strategists was how to manage the American occupation in Iran's favour with a view to securing Iran's long term influence and America's withdrawal.[1]

But others within the political system, most obviously the hardliners, were less sanguine about these prospects and, inadvertently aided and abetted by hawks in the United States, a tentative policy of engagement soon gave way to one of increasingly open confrontation. Time and space does not allow us to forensically analyse how within the space of two years, an Iranian attempt at a 'grand bargain', was effectively subverted by an unholy if unconscious alliance of hawks so blinded by political expediency that the broader strategic gains of managed engagement were peremptorily dismissed.[2]

The Rise of New Hawks in Iran

From the Iranian perspective the ideological priorities of domestic politics soon took precedence, and from 2004, with the heavily manipulated electoral seizure of the Iranian parliament by Iran's very own brand of neo-conservative politician, the scene was set for a more confrontational posture towards the American occupation.[3] The strategic subtlety outlined by Rafsanjani, and quietly and effectively applied by the Khatami administration was deconstructed and replaced by something altogether more robust and unforgiving. In practical terms, the Revolutionary Guards were effectively unleashed and given extensive room for manoeuvre in Iraq transforming what had meant to be a political and cultural relationship, into a substantively militarised one.

That this should have been so, reflected the fact that Iraq was seen through the prism of a wider conflict with the United States rather than an opportunity through which a better relationship might be constructed. Given the vocal proclivities of American neo-cons, it is not difficult to see how hardliners in Iran might have reached this particular conclusion. But more recent revelations suggest that the situation was not quite so black and white, and that if American hawks were determined not to see alternative Iranian voices in 2003, their Iranian counterparts returned the favour in 2004. According to Hasan Rohani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, President Bush suggested a grand bargain of his own in 2004, but that this too was rebuffed by Iranian hardliners - not least the Supreme Leader himself.

This policy of confrontation appeared in the first instance to yield results. In a series of what might be generously termed as managed elections, the reformists and pragmatists in Iranian politics were eased out of power, the most obvious and immediate example being the replacement of Mohammad Khatami (who had completed his maximum term) with Mahmud Ahmadinejad in 2005.

The Rise and Fall of Iranian Power

With American incompetence leading to a quagmire in Iraq, and the continuing international crisis raising oil prices to dramatically higher levels, Iran's hard-liners enjoyed an intoxicating ascendancy both at home and abroad. Vast oil wealth was liberally expended buying support, eliminating domestic critics and extending Iranian influence abroad. The high tide for Iran came in 2006, with the misjudged Israeli assault on the Lebanon and the much-vaunted resistance of Hizbullah. Iran's international prestige and power appeared at an all time high, symbolised at the end of the year with the gruesome execution of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

But history will tell us that 2006 was the turning point. Not only did the Americans begin to regroup and rethink their strategy in Iraq, with the surge launched in 2007 to stabilise Iraq, but perhaps most tellingly for the future, Arab Sunni (led by Saudi Arabia) states began to mobilise their opposition to the much publicised if somewhat hollow 'Shia Crescent' forming under Iranian leadership. It soon became apparent that Iranian power was predicated far more on the absence of others than any real strength the Iranians might enjoy.

By 2009, economic and above all political mismanagement had effectively put the Iranian state on an emergency footing. By 2011, turmoil in the Arab world laid bare the vacuity of Iranian influence as the contest was increasingly shaped by competing Turkish and Saudi visions of Islamic politics. Most startlingly perhaps, the Saudi's moved swiftly to help crush Shia opposition in Bahrain, while the Iranians (via the Revolutionary Guards) have become embroiled in a quagmire of their own in Syria - driven as always by an ideological conviction that Syria represents the front line of 'resistance' against American hegemony.

As historians continue to reflect and assess the consequences of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, one particularly striking parallel may come to their attention. Hawks in both countries, increasingly obsessed with the other, eschewed pragmatism and the subtleties of grand strategy for an ideology of confrontation which saw both sides expend political and economic capital they could not afford for ambitions that were beyond them.

Arguably, the United States has begun the long process of recovery, shielded and assisted by a political infrastructure that remains robust. Iran enjoys no such advantage. The political infrastructure is weak and increasingly dependent on the whims of an individual; the tremendous political and economic capital of the last decade, the opportunities to chart a new course both at home and abroad have been squandered on a millenarian myth of resistance obsessively defined against the United States. For many Iranians the costs of this political folly are only now coming home to roost.

Ali Ansari, Senior Associate Fellow



1. Rahbord, 16 Farvardin 1382 / 5 April 2003

2. For more detail see A Ansari, Iran, Islam and Democracy: the Politics of Managing Change, (London: RIIA, 2006), pp. 229-67.

3. For a particularly naive Western assessment and misreading of the domestic situation see, Iran's Conservatives to Ease Engagements, AFP 18 November 2004


Ali Ansari

Senior Associate Fellow; Professor of Iranian History and Director of the Institute for Iranian Studies, University of St Andrews

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