In recent weeks, the U.S. media has highlighted Iraq's ties to the Islamic Republic of Iran -- namely, how it has helped Iran subvert the international sanctions regime and enabled Iranian support to the Syrian regime. This is leading to uncomfortable questions over whether the new Iraq is an ally of the United States, as President Barack Obama's administration claims, or a client state of Iran, as many of its neighbors fear.
In fact, Baghdad's political allegiances are not so easy to pigeonhole. To understand Iraq's foreign policy, it is important to recognize how domestic and regional environments shape its behavior.
The Iraq war had three unintended consequences in the Middle East. First, it dramatically shifted the regional balance of power in Iran's favor, due to the toppling of Saddam Hussein's vehemently anti-Iranian regime and the destruction of Iraq's military. Iran's resurgence, along with the extension of its influence into Arab countries, sets off a struggle for regional leadership between Iran on one side and the United States and Saudi Arabia on the other. This competition manifests itself today in Persian-Arab and Shiite-Sunni tensions across the Middle East.
Second, the Iraq war brought about the evolution and growth of jihadi groups -- Sunni extremists who were inspired to fight U.S. forces in Iraq and the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. Such groups see new opportunities in the Arab Spring to expand their power in the region. Although al Qaeda in Iraq has been weakened, it is threatening a revival, boosted by the perceived successes of jihadi groups in Syria. On Sept. 28, for instance, al Qaeda launched an attack on a prison in Tikrit, freeing dozens of its members. This was part of the terrorist group's "Destroying the Walls" offensive, which has seen a wave of attacks throughout Iraq over the last few months.
Third, the war led to a bloody sectarian conflict in Iraq, as various militias competed to fill the power vacuum created by the overthrow of the Baath regime. Iraq is still emerging from this civil war: Most stakeholders are participating in the political process, but they still maintain the capacity to fight. Mistrust and fear prevent the implementation of power-sharing agreements, and the specter of a return to civil war still lurks in the background.
The fragility of the Iraqi state harms its ability to project a consistent, coherent foreign policy. Iraqi politicians are gripped primarily by the desire to protect and expand their own power and resources. To do so, they often look for foreign patrons: It is no secret that many of Iraq's politicians take funding from neighboring countries, as well as from state coffers. Unsurprisingly, there is little willingness across the political spectrum to push forward a law in parliament that would reveal details of party financing. However, though Iraqis may be influenced by their "donors," this does not mean they are controlled by them.