Addressing Iranian Influence in Iraq
by Giorgio Cafiero
As Iraqis celebrate Mosul’s liberation from the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), their country’s future is anything but certain. Although it is premature to conclude that the fight against IS in Iraq is over, the Trump administration’s approach to Iraq is likely to focus more on countering Iran’s influence in the Shi’ite-majority Arab country. Saudi Arabia will support Trump in this. Until recently, Riyadh avoided engaging the Shi’ite leadership in Baghdad based on the view that the post-2003 political order in Iraq has been entirely under Tehran’s thumb. Last month’s rare visit to Riyadh of Muqtada al-Sadr, a prominent Iraqi Shi’ite cleric who has called for the disbanding of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, signaled how the kingdom too has a heightened interest in attempting to bring Iraq farther away from the Islamic Republic’s orbit of influence.
Although Washington and Tehran have fought IS in parallel, no mutual interest in defeating it has resulted in any substantial or official cooperation. The Obama administration was far more accommodating of Iran in the fight against IS than Trump’s administration. For example, last year then-Secretary of State John Kerry asserted that, despite all the problems in Washington-Tehran relations, “Iran in Iraq has been in certain ways helpful, and they clearly are focused on ISIL-Daesh, and so we have a common interest, actually.” Trump and his team, nonetheless, are determined to distinguish themselves from Obama by conducting a foreign policy that is more hawkish and aggressive toward Iran in areas where they believe the previous president was “weak” or willing to concede too much to Tehran for the purpose of peacefully resolving the nuclear standoff.
Despite reluctantly certifying Tehran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the White House is imposing new sanctions on Iran, signaling its intention to sabotage the accord, and even talking of regime change against the Islamic Republic. Additionally, Trump recently praised Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government for fighting on the “front lines in the fight against ISIS, al-Qaeda and Hezbollah.” Since he became president earlier this year, the United States has intentionally conducted direct military strikes on Syrian government military infrastructure and Washington has increased support for the Saudi-led campaign against Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen.
Odds are good that Iraq will become more of a flashpoint in tension between the United States and Iran as the post-IS chapter begins in Mosul, leaving the two countries with even less common interest in the city and Iraq at large. In May, while speaking at the Arab Islamic American Summit, Trump said that in Iraq Iran “funds, arms, and trains terrorists, militias, and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos.” In turn, Tehran maintains that the US military presence in Iraq is a root cause of much of the country’s chaotic tumult.
Iraq’s position in the Middle East’s geopolitical order will also largely depend on the extent to which Baghdad and Riyadh can overcome their tensions that prompted officials in the latter to avoid engaging with the Shi’ite leadership in the former. In light of the recent visits of the Iraqi prime minister, minister of interior, and al-Sadr, the kingdom is clearly set on reaching out to elements in Baghdad with which Saudi Arabia seeks to work, rather than Nouri al-Maliki, whom Riyadh views as an Iranian puppet. Underlying Saudi Arabia’s new approach toward Iraq is pressure from the White House and a desire to counter Tehran’s expanded clout in the Arab country.
By bringing Iraq further from the Iranian-led “resistance axis” and closer to the Sunni Arab fold, Saudi Arabia hopes to cultivate ties with Shi’ite politicians in Baghdad who advocate a foreign policy that restores Iraqi’s leadership role in the Arab world. Ultimately, in a battle for geopolitical leverage in the region, Saudi Arabia and Iran will compete when it comes to the reconstruction of parts of Iraq destroyed by the campaign to defeat IS.
On July 23, Iran and Iraq signed a military cooperation agreement to combat “terrorism and extremism,” marking yet another blow to Washington’s efforts to counter Tehran’s consolidated influence in the Middle East. The memorandum of understanding, according to Iranian state-owned media, “includes expansion of cooperation and exchange of experiences on combating terrorism and extremism, security of borders, as well as educational, logistic, technical and military support.” The following day, Iran’s Foreign Ministry declared that Iranian-Iraqi relations were a bilateral matter of no business to any other government. The message was directed toward both Washington and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, chiefly Saudi Arabia.
Tehran opposes America’s military presence in post-IS Iraq. Iran’s security apparatus has maintained the same view of America’s military intervention in nearby countries, which has endured through all the changes in Washington-Tehran relations since 1979. The regime’s perception of the existential threat of the US military in Iraq did not fade even when the Obama administration made diplomatic overtures to Iran.
Iran’s regime sees militant Salafist-jihadist groups in Iraq as an existential threat too. The leaders of the Islamic Republic maintain a popular narrative based on the premise that the world has plotted against Iran. It believes that extremists near its borders, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s and 2000s and IS in Iraq today, are not outcomes of the dissolution of authoritarian secular regimes, failed states, wars, and other multifaceted problems. Instead, according to the narrative, these violent forces have conspired to topple the Islamic Republic after spreading chaos to other Muslim countries with support from Saudi Arabia and other GCC states at every step.
Although Iranian officials affirm that their country’s military action in Iraq and Syria is not geared toward expanding Tehran’s regional clout but instead toward promoting regional security and protecting Iran and its neighbors from global terrorists, there are undeniable geopolitical interests driving the country’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Iraq. Based on Tehran’s pursuit of logistical links between Iran’s capital city and Lebanon’s Mediterranean coast via a host of its Shi’ite proxies, chiefly the Popular Mobilization Units that work closely with the Iraqi army and Lebanese Hezbollah, Mosul’s future matters immensely for the Islamic Republic and its strategies for countering security threats as well as asserting greater leverage throughout the Levant and greater Middle East.
An important factor shaping Iraq’s future will be the extent to which the central government in Baghdad can improve its relationship with Iraq’s Sunni minority in al-Anbar province and build trust that was entirely absent at the time of the caliphate’s meteoric ascension to power just over three years ago. Doubtless, the Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias’ human rights violations waged in their fight against IS bode poorly for the prospects of national Iraqi unity under the Shi’ite-led government’s authority in the future. Failure to hold such militias accountable may well create the breeding grounds for an IS 2.0 to regain territory in Iraq’s Sunni-majority western territory in the future.
Facing new pressures from its neighbors and the Trump administration, the Iraqi government must not only take on the domestic challenges of resolving the issues in Mosul that enabled IS to seize control of the city and other swathes of Iraqi territory in 2014, but also navigate the region’s volatile geopolitical order as outsiders compete for influence over the country’s future now that attention is shifting away from the fight against the caliphate. In reality, Iran essentially has free rein in much of Iraq now that many of Tehran’s militant proxies have consolidated their positions of power. It remains unclear how Washington and Riyadh will be able to meaningfully change this reality.
Photo: Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman