Iran has brokered a critical deal with its neighbours that could see a pro-Tehran government installed in Iraq, a move that would shift the fragile country sharply away from a sphere of western influence.
The Guardian can reveal that the Islamic republic was instrumental in forming an alliance between Iraq's Nouri al-Maliki, who is vying for a second term as prime minister, and the country's powerful radical Shia cleric leader, Moqtada al-Sadr.
The deal — which involved Syria, Lebanon's Hezbollah and the highest authorities in Shia Islam — positions Maliki as a frontrunner to return as leader.
It also positions Iran as a potent buffer to US interests at a time when America is looking to change its relationship with Iraq from military overlords to civilian partners.
At the time the US had only just withdrawn its last dedicated combat units from Iraq but left behind a political vacuum with no government in place after March elections delivered a irrevocably split parliament.
“The Iranians were holding out until then,” said a key source about the timing of the Iranian move. Within days of the withdrawal, Sadr, who lives in self-imposed exile in the Iranian city of Qom, was told by the Iranians to reconsider his position as a vehement opponent of Maliki.
US officials have strongly suggested they would scale back their involvement in Iraq if the Sadrists, who have been a key foe, were to emerge as a significant player in any