Last week the Iraqi government, which had once welcomed Al Jazeera and other Arab television networks, gave them the boot, accusing them of exacerbating domestic sectarian tensions. The policy reversal comes as Iraq appears poised to go the way of Syria with sectarian conflict threatening to turn into full-fledged civil war. Though the United States and Turkey continue to play major roles in internal Iraqi politics, the main drivers are the Saudi-Iranian power struggle and region-wide Shia-Sunni rivalry, contributing to domestic sectarian divide, pushing Iraq towards civil war.
In Syria, sectarianism is a byproduct of four decades of Alawite minority rule; in Iraq, power has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of the Shia majority or a segment thereof through the manipulation of electoral outcomes, thus fueling Sunni discontent based on an acute feeling of political discrimination. Secondly, while the Syrian crisis is homegrown and the result of indigenous authoritarian rule by family and sect, the Iraqi counterpart is a product of foreign invasion that led not only to regime change and almost a decade of foreign occupation, but also to near-total state failure. This last outcome led to the abdication by the state of providing security to its citizens, thus forcing individuals and families to take refuge in sectarian solidarities as a survival strategy.
Matters were made worse by the US occupation, with authorities playing favorites by privileging the Shia on the mistaken notion that Sunnis largely supported Saddam Hussein and therefore must not be allowed access to the levers of power. This strategy turned into self-fulfilling prophecy, leading to a Sunni insurgency and establishment of Al Qaeda in Iraq during the early years of the occupation, thus further embittering Sunni-Shia relations in the country. Sectarian divisions in Iraq would have been far less salient than they are today had the transition from Saddam's regime to a successor government, popularly elected, proceeded without foreign intercession. Given this background, when the state began to reappear on the scene during the past few years it could not fully shed its sectarian hue, thus laying the basis for the current crisis in Iraq.
Matters have been made worse in and for Iraq by the fact that, like Syria, Iraq has become a major theater of a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with Turkey pushed by force of circumstances into adopting an anti-Iranian role, probably against the better judgment of its political leadership. Since both Saudi Arabia and Turkey are US allies, it's clear that there's a proxy war within a proxy war in Iraq that pits Iran against the United States, which considers Tehran its principal antagonist in the energy-rich and strategically important Middle East.
The Iranian objective in Iraq is clear - to prevent reemergence of the sort of military threat that Iraq under Saddam Hussein posed to Iran, a threat dramatically demonstrated by the Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980 that led to an eight-year bloody conflict and left a million people dead.
The sectarian Shia card that Iran plays in Iraq to prevent the recurrence of this threat is but an instrument to achieve this objective. Tehran's primary goal is not to establish a Shia crescent in the Arab world for this would run counter to its broader objective of winning friends and influencing people in the predominantly Sunni Middle East, an essential condition for it to be recognized as a major power in the region.