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BAGHDAD — Walk into almost any market in Iraq and the shelves are filled with goods from Iran — milk, yogurt, chicken. Turn on the television and channel after channel broadcasts programs sympathetic to Iran.
A new building goes up? It is likely that the cement and bricks came from Iran. And when bored young Iraqi men take pills to get high, the illicit drugs are likely to have been smuggled across the porous Iranian border.
And that’s not even the half of it.
Across the country, Iranian-sponsored militias are hard at work establishing a corridor to move men and guns to proxy forces in Syria and Lebanon. And in the halls of power in Baghdad, even the most senior Iraqi cabinet officials have been blessed, or bounced out, by Iran’s leadership.
When the United States invaded Iraq 14 years ago to topple Saddam Hussein, it saw Iraq as a potential cornerstone of a democratic and Western-facing Middle East, and vast amounts of blood and treasure — about 4,500 American lives lost, more than $1 trillion spent — were poured into the cause.
From Day 1, Iran saw something else: a chance to make a client state of Iraq, a former enemy against which it fought a war in the 1980s so brutal, with chemical weapons and trench warfare, that historians look to World War I for analogies. If it succeeded, Iraq would never again pose a threat, and it could serve as a jumping-off point to spread Iranian influence around the region.
In that contest, Iran won, and the United States lost.
Over the past three years, Americans have focused on the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq, returning more than 5,000 troops to the country and helping to force the militants out of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul.
But Iran never lost sight of its mission: to dominate its neighbor so thoroughly that Iraq could never again endanger it militarily, and to use the country to effectively control a corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean.
“Iranian influence is dominant,” said Hoshyar Zebari, who was ousted last year as finance minister because, he said, Iran distrusted his links to the United States. “It is paramount.”
The country’s dominance over Iraq has heightened sectarian tensions around the region, with Sunni states, and American allies, like Saudi Arabia mobilizing to oppose Iranian expansionism. But Iraq is only part of Iran’s expansion project; it has also used soft and hard power to extend its influence in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, and throughout the region.