While in Iraq earlier this fall, National Journal's Yochi J. Dreazen was reporting on Tehran's growing influence in the southern province of Basra when Iranian security guards drew guns on the correspondent and his translator.
They were taking photos of the Iranian consulate, which dominates a section of the oil-rich city’s skyline. An enormous Iranian flag can be seen from half a mile away, ringed by a welter of radio towers and satellite dishes.
Watch Dreazen discuss the tense moment:
The region produces most of Iraq's oil and has been distancing itself from Baghdad.
The ties between Basra and Tehran come down to oil and cash. Dreazen writes:
On one side, they complain that they’re getting a raw deal from Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. The province sends roughly $50 billion each year to Baghdad from oil and natural-gas sales, accounting for 75 percent of the Iraqi government’s total revenue, but it is supposed to receive just $1 billion per year in return, barely 10 percent of the money given to Kurdistan, the country’s other oil-rich region. Even then, the province actually gets only a tiny fraction of that tiny fraction: Baghdad, which wields veto power over local infrastructure projects, has allowed Basra to spend 3 percent of its allowance. The province can’t do anything meaningful with its own money.
On the other side, Basrawis are growing anxious about Kuwait. Leaders here believe that their neighbor is trying to block Iraq’s ability to export oil through the Persian Gulf by building an enormous $1.1 billion seaport that will make it physically difficult for large tankers to reach the Iraqi port of Um Qasr. They also think that Kuwait is using horizontal drilling technology to burrow under the border between the two countries and suck oil out of Iraq’s reservoirs. It’s a charge that both Kuwaitis and Americans here say is baseless, but it nevertheless galls the local government.…
Iran seems poised to become the province’s new best friend. Its consulate is the nerve center of a sprawling effort to expand Iran’s political and economic influence, from supporting local charities to building hotels and banks. Iran has also won points in Basra by taking a hard public line with Kuwait, deriding the oil-rich Persian Gulf state as an American stooge.
Video by Theresa Poulson with photo by Magnus Manske