It has long been known that Iran exerts significant power and possesses long reach in its neighbouring countries. After the deposition of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and the subsequent withdrawal of the United States in 2011, Iran’s influence in Iraq became dominant.
Documents, authenticated, translated and released by the New York Times and the Intercept, show the apparatus of Iranian influence with new and concerning clarity.
A conclusion of the leaks is that Iran used the end of the US occupation and, later, the cover of the war against the Islamic State (ISIS) to advance a project of regional control, which included domination of Iraq.
In pursuit of that project, politicians were turned, US assets were “flipped” and organisations favourable to Iran’s cause became more central to running the Iraqi state.
Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ al-Quds Force, features heavily in the documents. He makes trips to Baghdad to rally supportive politicians and attempts to keep the Iranian-dominated Iraq together, in Tehran’s interest.
When Iraqi Kurdistan voted to declare independence in 2017, it was Soleimani who, in support of Iraq remaining whole and entire, travelled to Sulaymaniyah and threatened to burn the Kurdish region to the ground if the Kurdish parties did not stand down.
Kurdish forces unsuccessfully resisted the central government’s seizure of territory, including the emblematic city of Kirkuk, which followed. More than this bid for regional independence, recent protests against Iranian interference in Iraq’s politics have shaken Tehran’s influence and its confidence.
Protesters decry the Iraqi government’s failure to confront endemic social issues and vocally oppose Iranian domination of Iraq’s politics, institutions and many of the militias which dominate the country.
In Lebanon, another country where an Iranian proxy — Hezbollah — dominates local politics, protests against government dysfunction made the work of external powers within Lebanese politics more difficult.
Protests are ongoing in Iran, mainly against economic woes but with a subtext that includes condemning the cost Iran incurs in attempting to maintain and expand this regional dominance.
Phillip Smyth, Soref fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said: “I think all of these protests are threatening to the Iranians.
“They view the protests as being created by the United States, an effort to strike back at Iranian ‘successes’ in attacking our regional allies such as Saudi Arabia and also their efforts against the Israelis.”
In Iraq, protesters have been met with shocking violence, which observers blame on Iran’s heavy-handed response to this threat to its influence.
Iranian authorities “are moving very, very quickly to try to quash some of this, just as they were trying to do in Iraq,” Smyth said.
In Iraq, “they [Iranian leaders] are willing to use a very heavy hand and not really care about the consequences and I don’t think that’s done them very well. Who knows if they have learned from that?”
Iranian influence in Iraqi institutions is pervasive and deep. Many of the militias that serve as Iranian proxies saw their numbers and influence swell when the Iraqi state openly called for popular, militia mobilisation during the darkest days of its fight against ISIS in 2014, when it seemed possible that Baghdad might fall.
After the moment of peril passed, the militias fought many of the state’s battles against ISIS and latter against Kurdish independence. In 2016, Iraq’s web of militias was legalised and, in 2018, Hadi al-Amiri and his pro-Iranian Fatah Alliance, which drew much of its support from the militias, performed well in parliamentary elections.
Departments of the Iraqi government are discussed in terms of which militia or external group holds the monopoly. One of the militias involved in this departmental manoeuvring is the Badr Organisation, Amiri’s group, a militia of long standing, with extremely close links to the Iranian state.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi draws much of his support from Iraq’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In him, Iran has great influence. “The Iranians have a sweet deal,” Smyth said.
“It really comes down to how many parallel levels of control can they maintain? It’s possible you could argue that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew but I don’t think they would be willing to lose everything they’ve gained. They feel they’ve gained it through a lot of hard effort.”
Even if Abdul-Mahdi resigned rather than continue to brutalise protesters, if the militias that operate openly within the Iraqi military were dissolved and if Soleimani ceased his routine trips to Baghdad, Iran’s influence in Iraq would be very great. In the militias, Iran has a pre-made parallel state akin to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Iran can only be unwilling to surrender this apparatus, no matter how unpopular it is, and no matter how many aspects of its network are exposed in investigations by foreign newspapers.
Source » thearabweekly