During the rule of Saddam Hussein, few Iranians dared to make the religious pilgrimage to the holy city of Karbala in Iraq. But the toppling of Saddam has drawn millions of worshippers back, revealing Iran’s powerful influence there. In the first of three reports, special correspondent Reza Sayah explores the scope of and limits on that influence, in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
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But, first, we begin tonight a three-part series we’re calling Iran Rising in Iraq.
Special correspondent Reza Sayah and videographer Gelareh Kiazand, in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, traveled throughout Iraq to examine the growing influence of its neighbor the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Just how far has Iran extended its reach in Iraq? What are its intentions? And are American concerns that Iran is destabilizing Iraq justified?
Over these three nights, the series takes us to the capital, Baghdad, to the outskirts of Mosul, to Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan, and to the contested city of Kirkuk.
We begin in the holy city of Karbala and a look at Iran’s religious and political influence, one that’s growing, but also which faces serious limits.
On a countryside highway, heading south from Baghdad, weary Shia pilgrims, some of whom have walked for days, pause to soothe their aching muscles.
Allah Ghazi and his helpers say their modified electric car polishers always deliver relief.
Allah Ghazi (through Interpreter):
I am working hard for the Islamic nation. I do this every year for my fellow Muslims.
The roadside massage pit stop, free of charge, embodies the charitable spirit of Arbaeen, the annual pilgrimage that marks the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, the Muslim Prophet Mohammed’s grandson.
Pilgrims come by any means from all directions. Marching columns stretch as far as the eye can see. Their destination is the holy city of Karbala, where the revered Shia figure was beheaded in the seventh century.
Among the masses, millions are from neighboring Iran, the country with the largest Shia population in the world.
Man (through Interpreter):
I’m Alireza Rezaian. I’m from Mashhad, from Iran.
I’m Adel. I’m from Iran.
Man (through Interpreter):
I’m Bijan Felij. I come from the nation of Iran.
Raise your hands if you’re Iranian.
When the swarms of worshipers finally reach the shrine of Imam Hussain, many pray for healing and forgiveness. Others give thanks.
The crowds are huge here, and some of the estimates are staggering. Officials say as many as 20 million gather here every year for Arbaeen. To put that in perspective, that’s equal to the population of New York cramming into a city of less than one million.
And, literally, every few steps I take, I hear an Iranian speaking Farsi. See? He was just speaking Farsi.
Ramin Yazdani (through Interpreter):
Everyone here is Iranian. Look around. All you see are Iranians.
For the 24 years Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, few Iranians dared to make this journey. The two countries were mortal enemies, at war for eight years, and the secular dictator had banned the pilgrimage.
In 2003, the U.S.-led coalition toppled Saddam. In came a Shia-majority government, and back came Iranian worshipers. Today, few events reveal the return of Iran’s powerful religious influence in Iraq more so than Arbaeen.
Iranian religious music is everywhere, Iranian clerics offering spiritual guidance, donation boxes for Iranian religious charities filled with Iranian money.
Ali Khaledi came from Iran with a homemade flag to show the bond between the two countries.
Ali Khaledi (through Interpreter):
I wanted to show the whole world the friendship between Iran and Iraq.
Are you Iranian?
Reza Shirzadi and Ali Hassanpour are among 2,000 sanitation workers sent here by the Iranian government.
Why was it important for you to come here and do this?
Reza Shirzadi (through Interpreter):
We volunteered from the heart for Imam Hussain. We believe in him and love him. We came to clean the streets for his followers.
Iran’s religious presence here sometimes extends to where the lines that separate faith, politics, and power begin to blur.
Images of Iran’s supreme leader and the late Imam Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, are common sights. So are posters of the Iranian-backed militia that played a key role in fighting ISIS in Iraq.
The sheer number of Iranians here creates the impression that Iran, its government and its leadership have huge influence in Iraq, and perhaps even intervening in Iraqi affairs, something that has very much alarmed Washington.
But during our visit here, we learned that Iran’s influence is not as clear-cut, not as simple, and not as extensive as many in Washington describe.
There are powerful barriers to Iran’s influence in Iraq. Among them is Iranian-born cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Sistani is Iraq’s highest religious authority. His roughly 20 million Shia followers say he strives to keep religion separate from politics and supports an inclusive Iraqi democracy.
Sistani is increasingly viewed as a rival to Iran’s top religious authority, the anti-U.S. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Ahmad Lashkari is a senior cleric within the Sistani movement. Lashkari says the movement stands firm against any political influence from Iran or any other country.
Ahmad Lashkari (through Interpreter):
We try to maintain independence in this movement to prevent any unacceptable outside interference.
When Iranian-backed Nouri al-Maliki refused to step down as prime minister in 2014, it was Sistani who pressured him to bow out, clearing the way for Washington’s favorite candidate, current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
When one of Iran’s top clerical envoys visited Iraq in September, Sistani reportedly refused to meet him. And nowhere among Sistani’s followers here do you see pictures of Iran’s religious leaders.
Ahmad Lashkari (through Interpreter):
Our most important aim from this event is to distance ourselves from the culture of posting pictures and advertising for one person. This is not the place for advertising the presence of one individual.
Soon after that comment, a picture of Iran’s supreme leader does appear, a sign that the struggle for control over Iraq’s Shia population continues.
Throughout Iraq, there are similar dichotomies in Iran’s cultural and economic influence. In the streets of Baghdad, most taxis are Iranian-made SAIPAs. In supermarkets, Iranian products often line the shelves, as Iran-Iraq trade ties strengthen, although Iranian imports are still outnumbered by finer and more popular products from other regional trade partners like Turkey.
In the city of Sulaymaniyah, Iranian music plays in open markets that sell Iranian goods. At this Iranian-themed cafe, patrons smoke hookahs and play the ancient Iranian game of backgammon. And at the local university, students rave about Iranian culture.
Actually, I see a lot of people here, they listen to the Iranian music, songs.
Our culture and theirs are like — it’s almost the exact same thing, OK, like, the language, the poetry.
But the praise rarely translates into political support for Iran.
We can simply see the Kurdish people love Iranian culture, but they hate Iranian political policy, because Iranian political policy towards Kurds is not friendly.
Iran’s influence in Iraq is not always welcome, but throughout our journey, we saw that it’s clearly growing, much of it the natural result of two neighbors with ties that go back 2,500 years.
We also learned that U.S. allegations that Iran is destabilizing Iraq by meddling in its affairs are not totally supported by what we saw on the ground. What few dispute is that nearly 15 years after the U.S. ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and spent nearly a trillion dollars on the war, it’s Iran’s influence that seemingly outweighs Washington’s.
I think there’s no competition. The Iranians have far more influence.
Iran-based political analyst Mohammad Marandi says the U.S. is partly to blame.
I think the reason why the Americans are so surprised at the amount of influence Iran has is basically because Iran has done everything that the Americans have not done. The Americans came in, occupied the country, dictated terms.
The Iranians, on the other hand, didn’t open bases in Iraq. They went to the actors in Iraq that existed, the different parties, and tried to establish good links with them. And the reason that they have that influence is that they treat the Iraqis as their equals.
Despite Iran’s gains, analysts say America is unlikely to back down, and the fight for influence in Iraq between Washington and Tehran is only beginning.
For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Reza Sayah in Baghdad.
Tomorrow, Reza Sayah continues our series with a report on the controversial Iranian-backed militias in Iraq that were instrumental in the fight against ISIS.