How Much Does Iran Dominate Iraq's Government?

The Iraq crisis could draw the U.S. and Iran into an uneasy alliance. To sort out the regional dynamics, Steve Inskeep talks to Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next, let's try to make sense of the warring sides in Iraq. Sunni Muslim extremists have captured much of that country. Secretary of State, John Kerry, was in Baghdad yesterday seeking ways to help the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government.

On this program yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, suggested neither side is much worth helping.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: The battle in Iraq and in Syria is part of an ongoing fight between radical Shiites led by Iran and radical Sunnis led by Al Qaeda, ISIS and other organizations.

Now, both of these camps are mortal enemies of the United States and of Israel. And my view is that when your enemies are fighting each other, you don't strengthen either one of them. You weaken both.

INSKEEP: Netanyahu says Iraq's government is dominated by Iran. Let's talk about this with Shadi Hamid. He's a fellow at the Suban Center at the Brookings Institution. Welcome back to the program.

SHADI HAMID: Hi, Steve. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: So how much does Iran dominate Iraq's government?

HAMID: So Iran is certainly one of the most influential actors - if not the most - in terms of having good relationships with the major Shia parties and with the Maliki government. Maliki, now, is coming under increasing criticism. And there are potential replacements jockeying to be prime minister.

So Iran can play a real role in putting pressure on Maliki to make concessions because up until now, Maliki has been rather stubborn and isn't listening to the advice that's coming to him.

INSKEEP: We'll remind people that Nouri al-Maliki is the Prime Minister of Iraq. It is a Shia-dominated government.

And it's interesting what you just said there, Shadi, because you said Iran can play a role in being helpful here. Netanyahu seems to be seeing it exactly the opposite, saying wait a minute, wait a minute. If you let Iran in, you are actually going to be helping Iran.

HAMID: Well, Netanyahu's comments are problematic in that he's drawing a moral equivalency between the Sunni extremists of ISIS and the Iranian government. Yes, the Iranian government has been a very problematic actor in the region for a variety of reasons, but they are a rational actor. Dialogue is possible with them. That's been happening with the discussions and negotiations over the nuclear program. And I don't see how it's possible to really push Iraq in a more positive direction without some kind of buy-in from the Iranians.

INSKEEP: I hear you saying, first, that you think that ISIS, the Sunnis, are far worse, far more radical. And, second, that the United States has no choice but to deal with Iran on this.

HAMID: Well, exactly - I mean, ISIS - you can't do business with them. You can't negotiate with them. They are not interested in rational discussion of issues. They want to form a caliphate and undermine the whole nation-state system of the Middle East as we know it. They're one of the most vicious, brutal groups in recent memory.

No one, I think, is saying that we have to bring Iran totally into a process and rehabilitate them. We're talking about a very specific situation having to do with trying to get Iraq back on track. So as long as we keep it very focused on those specific goals, there's no reason that Iran should be pushed out of that entirely. That doesn't mean we legitimize or support Iran's problematic behavior, including in Syria, where I would say it's playing a very negative role.

INSKEEP: So if we look at this crisis in Iraq, and dealing with ISIS in both Iraq and Syria, are U.S. interests and Israeli interests the same?

HAMID: Well, it's certainly true that the U.S., Israel and most other countries in the region do not want to see ISIS gain ground. But where they do diverge is on the issue of Iran.

The Israelis see Iran as an existential threat. They don't trust Iranian commitments. But there's no doubt, I think, that the basic common denominator is that the rise of Sunni extremists is changing the nature of the region.

And there's a real power vacuum. And part of that, I would say, is a result of U.S. disengagement. And there's a real question now. Is the U.S. willing to step up and play a leadership role that it's been reluctant to take on over the last couple of years?

INSKEEP: Shadi Hamid's new book is called "Temptations Of Power." Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.

HAMID: Thanks for having me, Steve.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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