Iraq was invaded on March 19, 2003. To sell their war, neoconservatives in the United States – the main driving force behind the invasion – intentionally deceived the American public.  Had they declared their real reasons for invading, the public would surely never have given its support.

So, what was their true aim? Was it to deal a blow to the “Axis of Evil” by establishing a “democracy” in the heart of the Middle East? Was it to convey a message to the world that the “rules of the game” had changed after September 11, 2001 and that the Global War of Terror knew no national boundaries? Or was it merely to secure the “Eastern Front” for Israel by eliminating Iraq as a threat to its national security?

In fact, the neoconservatives’ real target was Iran.

In May 2003, just as Bush foolishly declared “Mission Accomplished,” a senior official in his administration said, “Anyone can go to Baghdad. Real men go to Tehran.” According to former NATO and the U.S. Southern Command head General Wesley Clark, the Bush administration devised plans only ten days after 9/11 to invade seven countries in the Middle East and North Africa and topple each of their regimes. Because the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan had bogged down U.S. forces, these plans were shelved, at least temporarily.

In the end, the biggest beneficiary of the Iraq invasion was neither the United States nor the people of Iraq (as the neoconservatives still dare pretend). Rather, and ironically so, the Islamic Republic of Iran came out on top.

The Rise of Hardliners in Tehran

There is little doubt that the Iraq invasion was directly responsible for the rise of hardliners in Tehran. When the 9/11 attacks occurred, then Iranian President Mohammad Khatami – a reformist – immediately sent his condolences to the American people.

Such good will was not, however, reciprocated by the Bush administration. When the United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, the moderate Khatami administration provided significant assistance in deposing the Taliban regime, a longtime enemy of Iran and its most significant national security threat.

The Taliban had massacred thousands of Shiites in Afghanistan, increased narcotic trafficking through Iran, and led to a dramatic spike in the number of Afghan refugees fleeing to the country. When in late summer of 1998 the Taliban murdered nine Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan, war between the two nations nearly broke out.

During the U.S. invasion, Iran opened its airspace to U.S. forces, provided highly valuable intelligence on the movement of Taliban fighters, closed its borders to al-Qaeda, and agreed to return any American soldiers forced to land in Iran.

Most importantly, it was the Afghan Northern Alliance, trained, funded and supported by Iran, which first entered Kabul on November 14, 2001 and overthrew the Taliban government. Retired Major General Mohsen Rezaee, former chief of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) even boasted that the IRGC fought alongside the Northern Alliance.

In a conference held shortly after the invasion in Bonn, Germany, Iran played a fundamental role in convincing its allies to join the nascent national unity government in Afghanistan, a move praised by the U.S. representative to the conference, James Dobbins.

What did Iran receive in return for all the help it provided to U.S. forces? On January 29, 2002, less than a month after the Bonn conference, George W. Bush declared Iran a charter member of the “Axis of Evil” during his State of the Union address. That was just the beginning.

The constant threat of an American military attack against Iran was followed, in May 2003, by the Bush administration’s wholesale rejection of a comprehensive proposal by Iran to resolve all outstanding issues between the two countries, from Iran’s nuclear program to its support for Hezbollah and Palestinian resistance groups.

Such U.S. belligerence and rejectionism played into the hands of Tehran’s hardliners, who used it as an excuse to increase political repression and create a national security state. In this, they behaved similarly to the American right-wing, which had exploited the tragic 9/11 attacks to instill fear in a traumatized public, silencing dissent and creating a condition in which any opposition to neoconservative military adventures was deemed unpatriotic, almost akin to treason.

In 2002, Iran held nation-wide elections for its city councils. Frustrated by the inability of the Khatami administration to implement significant reforms and terrified by the prospect of a U.S. attack, Iranians elected city councils dominated by hardliners. Tehran’s newly-formed council appointed as mayor a little-known politician named Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Two years later, hardliners swept to power in parliamentary elections after the official disqualification of over 600 popular reformist candidates. Both elections provided the foundation for Ahmadinejad’s election to Iran’s presidency in June 2005.

The Rise to Power of Iran’s Shiite Allies in Iraq

One of the greatest strategic benefits for Iran, resulting from the U.S. invasion of Iraq, was the overthrow of its archenemy, Saddam Hussein.  Saddam had never forgiven Iran’s Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi for supporting Iraqi Kurdish dissidents in the 1970s.

He resented the Algiers Accord of 1975, effectively imposed on his regime by the Shah, which settled a border dispute between the two nations. He was positively terrified by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s anti-Iraq rhetoric following the Iranian Revolution in 1979. As a result, and with the backing of both Western and Gulf Arab states, Saddam’s army invaded Iran in September of 1980, starting a war that was to last eight long years.

It is widely believed that Iraq’s secret nuclear program, discovered in 1991, was meant to be a deterrent against the dreaded Persians. Though Iraq had no program for developing weapons of mass destruction after 1991, Saddam’s regime remained ambiguous regarding its intentions. Even on his way to the gallows in December 2006, Saddam railed against “the Persians and other traitors.”

Perhaps more importantly for Iran than the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime was the subsequent ascension of allied Iraqi Shiites to power. Before becoming Iraq’s Prime Minister in 2005-2006, Ibrahim al-Jafari had served as spokesman for the Islamic Dawa Party which supported Iran’s Islamic revolution and the leadership of Khomeini from its headquarters in Tehran. (Al-Jafari was later expelled from Dawa). Current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is the Secretary-General of Dawa and a demonstrated ally of the Iran regime.

The Badr Brigades, the military arm of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution (SCIRI) in Iraq, was trained and armed by Iran, headquartered in Tehran, and formerly led by Ayatollah Sayyed Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, Iran’s judiciary chief from 1999 to 2009. It has since changed its name to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

Shiite firebrand and Iraqi militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr also has very close ties with Iran, as does Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani. Iran and Iraq now collaborate closely in the Organization of the Oil Exporting Countries (OPEC), weakening Saudi Arabia’s power in the organization.

Iran’s Nuclear Program

Although Iran’s 2003 overture to the Bush administration was rejected, then-Iranian President Khatami made another attempt later that same year to reconcile relations with the West.

After intense negotiations between Iran, Britain, France, and Germany (EU3), a memorandum known as the Sa’dabad Agreement was signed on October 21, 2003. According to this agreement, Iran agreed to voluntarily suspend its enrichment of uranium and acquiesce to intrusive inspections of its nuclear infrastructure in return for a comprehensive European proposal to address Iran’s security concerns, expand economic cooperation, and help Iran set up a network of nuclear reactors for producing electricity.

Although Iran reaffirmed its commitment by signing the Paris Agreement on November 14, 2004 and carrying out all of its obligations (including allowing two visits by the IAEA to the Parchin military site in southeast Tehran in January and November of 2005, which found no evidence of any activity related to a nuclear weapons program), the EU3 reneged on its promises.

The group submitted a proposal to Iran in August 2005 which promised nothing meaningful and was swiftly rejected by Tehran. Iran decided to terminate the voluntary suspension of its enrichment program and, following Ahmadinejad’s ascension to power, the program resumed in full force in February 2006. The new administration also installed thousands of centrifuges in the Natanz facility and completed the work on the Fordo enrichment facility near Qom

The invasion of Iraq had a highly important effect on the nature of Iran’s nuclear program as well. The U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of November 2007 stated that Iran had suspended nuclear weapons research in 2003. The NIE has been reaffirmed twice since 2007, its conclusions unchanged.

Despite this assessment, no evidence of an Iranian weaponization program prior to 2003 has ever been disclosed. Even if it was provided, Iran’s shuttering of this alleged research program in 2003 would demonstrate that such efforts were a response to Iraq’s own presumed nuclear deterrent. Once Saddam’s regime collapsed, there was no longer any justification for the suspected research to continue.  Contrary to the myriad claims of neoconservatives and the Israel lobby about the nature and aims of Iran’s nuclear program, according to U.S. intelligence agencies, an attack by Israel or the United States did not factor into Iranian calculations regarding its own alleged nuclear deterrent.

Iran-Syria Alliance and the Shiite Crescent

The rise of the Shiites to power in Iraq, their close relationship with Iran, and the strategic alliance between Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon prompted King Abdullah of Jordan to warn in 2004 of an emerging “Shiite Crescent” in the region.

Spanning from Mashhad to Beirut, this geo-political alliance presents a direct challenge not only to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s bitter enemy, but also to reactionary Sunni regimes backed by the United States and Europe.

As a result of this new power dynamic, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been arming Salafi-Wahabi forces and instigating sectarian violence in the hope of toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite regime, thus depriving Iran of a strong strategic ally in the Arab world. The Saudis consider Iraq already lost to Iran, effectively creating a common border between Iran and the Kingdom. Viewed through this sectarian lens, the support for extremists in Syria can be seen as a proxy war against growing Iranian influence in the region.

For its part, an emboldened Iran – along with Russia – has continued to stand by the increasingly brutal Syrian government while repeatedly calling for multilateral talks and elections to end the bloody conflict. The eventual fall of the Assad regime would also weaken the Iran-Hezbollah alliance, a potential boon to Gulf States and their Western benefactors.

Iran’s Military Strategy

While hostility between Iran and the United States goes back decades, the invasion of Iraq and the resulting long war, coupled with the continuing occupation of Afghanistan, have provided ample time for Iran’s military to advance its defensive military capabilities.

The IRGC strategic brain trust [see here and here] and its Quds Force have been carefully and closely monitoring the U.S. wars in those countries. Together with the summer 2006 war between Israel and the Lebanese Hezbollah, these military ventures convinced Iran that the only sound strategy was one of deterrence, self-defense and, if necessary, asymmetrical retaliation, a doctrine devised and implemented by the IRGC and its chief Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari.. Such a strategy has been a success. Even the Pentagon acknowledges that “Iran’s unconventional forces are trained according to its asymmetric warfare doctrine and would present a formidable force while defending Iranian territory.”


The Islamic Republic of Iran appears to be the greatest beneficiary of the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq. Its archenemy in Baghdad was eliminated; its close ideological allies assumed power; its nuclear program has substantially expanded and its indigenous scientific and technological industries have made great advancements. The many failures of U.S. forces in Iraq (and Afghanistan) have taught Iranian military leaders important lessons about how best to defend their own nation against foreign aggression.

Furthermore, the increased regional influence and confidence of Iran in continuing to support Assad’s repressive autocracy has spurred the reactionary dictatorships of Saudi Arabia and other Arab client states of the Persian Gulf to intervene in Syria’s internal conflict, not for humanitarian reasons or any fondness for democracy, but with the cynical hope of delivering a strategic blow to Tehran.

The Iraq War’s tragic legacy, it seems, is even more unnecessary bloodshed.


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