Earlier this week, reporters at Reuters got their hands on documents indicating that Iraq had agreed to purchase $195 million of arms from Iran — a violation of a United Nations embargo on Iranian arms sales. The revelation has resulted in denials from Iran, rationalizations from Iraq, and agitation in Washington. Meanwhile, most everyone else has been left wondering what the hell is going on — aren’t Iran and Iraq sworn enemies?
Sort of. But the purchase has a lot more to do with regional politics than military effectiveness. For starters, years of sanctions and embargoes have left Iran starved for hard currency, so they’ll do pretty much anything for a buck, illicit or not. Plus, $195 million isn’t a huge amount of money for an arms deal, and the type of arms purchased in this case — mostly ammunition and small arms — are not a big deal from a military perspective. This is probably because the Iraqis wanted to get stuff they think Iran can make without screwing up; the Iraqis procure much better hardware and systems form other countries. It’s also likely that Iran wasn’t eager to send any of its state-of-the-art (ish) weaponry to a place where Americans could get a really good look.
Another reason that whole "sworn enemies" thing doesn't tell the whole story? When Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki won a second term in the December 2010 elections, he did so due in large part to Iranian help. Maliki was running into problems getting some Shiite groups in line. So he asked Iran to call in a few favors, and those Shiite voting blocs were subsequently delivered.
Maliki is up for a third term at the end of April. Iraq watchers speculate that the arms deal was basically a little bit of baksheesh for Iran in exchange for April votes. Keep in mind this is essentially the same thing Congress does with lobbyists, unions, trade groups, industry associations, and so on. It's just that when Iran and Iraq do it, the process involves more artillery shells.
Iraq has been struggling with a terrorist insurgency in the west of their country, the result of spillover from neighboring Syria. Thanks to Maliki’s ham-fisted approach to governance — he has a fondness for paramilitary death squads — the largely Sunni extremist fighters in the west of Iraq have been able to take and hold a sizable region. The Iraqi government has been, in diplomatic parlance, shitting itself over this development. And considering what has happened to Syria, their reaction understandable.
Right now, the Iraqis are buying arms from just about anyone who will sell them arms — Russia, the US, Ukraine, etc. But shockingly, the US can be somewhat fussy about who it sells arms to, because of concerns about technology getting in the hands of enemies, and because of the bad press that's generated when weapons of death stamped with “Made in the USA” are used in atrocities.
So, in buying arms from Iran, Iraq is trying to serve notice to the West that it should quit dicking around and sell Iraq more arms if the country is going to have a shot at getting on top of its current instability. Additionally, the sale is a subtle messge to the Saudis (among others) that the more weapons they ship to Syria for those fighting against the Iranian-backed government, the more weapons flow into the hands of terrorist groups in Iraq, and so if it gets too far out of hand, maybe Iraq will be better served by seeking help from Iran. (Granted, the chances of that actually happening are extremely slim.)
In the long run, these weapons won't change much in geopolitical terms. However, they're a great reminder that old fights and historic grudges can take a back seat to pragmatism, even in the Middle East.