Last month Ali Akbar Velayati, a top aide to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made a surprise visit to the Iraqi capital Baghdad for talks with Iraq’s Shia leaders on what the official Iranian media called “Muslim rapprochement.”
However, Velayati, a former Iranian foreign minister who serves as a senior adviser to Khamenei on international affairs, infuriated many Iraqis when he violated diplomatic niceties and set out Tehran’s criteria for those allowed to contest Iraq’s next parliamentary elections scheduled for 12 May.
Velayati told his Iraqi hosts that the “Islamic Awakening [Iran’s proxies] will not allow communists and liberals to be in government” in Iraq, suggesting that the Islamic-oriented groups currently in power remain the only “alternatives” for Iraqi voters.
The comments were hardly surprising since many Iranian officials and religious leaders brag about their increasing influence in Iraq and in some other Middle Eastern nations.
However, Velayati’s undiplomatic language, which was clearly aimed at influencing Iraq’s elections, surpassed by far what many Iraqis see as the bar of insolent interference into their country’s internal affairs.
Shia Iran gained political influence in Iraq following the US-led invasion in 2003, when Tehran seized upon the security vacuum and the US confusion to develop closer ties with Iraq’s newly empowered Shia groups.
Iran is Iraq’s third-largest trading partner, with its exports to the country amounting to $6.1 billion in 2017.
Velayati’s remarks came after the Sadrists, followers of Iraqi Shia religious leader Muqtada Al-Sadr, announced that they were forming a joint list with the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) to contest Iraq’s elections.
Velayati’s tactless intervention, however, was not unprecedented. Iranian officials have repeatedly implied that Iraq is another prestige project for Iranian influence in the Middle East and similar in this respect to Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.
In October, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was quoted as saying that “no decisive actions can be taken in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, North Africa or the Gulf region without Iran’s consent.”
Last week, Hassan Rahimpour Azghadi, a member of Iran’s Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, an official body, was quoted by an Iranian TV channel as saying that it was Tehran “which had hanged” former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
“Saddam was hanged and executed by our guys, not the Americans. America wanted to keep him alive. The forces of the Islamic Revolution executed Saddam,’’ Azghadi said in footage broadcast by Afak TV.
The remarks provoked a backlash in Iraq, with angry politicians and social media commentators accusing Tehran of insulting Iraqis and raising concerns about Iran’s role in Iraq’s domestic politics.
Secretary of the Iraqi Communist Party Raed Fahmi, whose supporters were the target of Velayati’s statement, was quick to condemn the Iranian official’s remarks as “interference” in Iraqi “constitutional affairs.”
The leader of the Sunni bloc in the Iraqi parliament Ahmed Al-Missari blasted the remarks as showing “absolute disregard for the will of the Iraqi people”. He warned that Iran was using its proxies in Iraq “to forge the elections” in favour of its followers.
National Coalition bloc MP Abdul-Karim Abtan said that Iraqis “do not take orders” from Velayati. “We are Iraqis, and our national project is Iraqi,” Abtan told the Saudi-owned Al-Hadath television channel.
In a show of frustration and indignation, many Shia politicians in Iraq also joined the chorus of condemnation of Iran.
Shia political activist Izzat Shabandar denounced Tehran for “embarrassing” its Iraqi “allies.” Karim Al-Nouri, a spokesman for an influential Shia militia, also said the Iranian officials’ statements “are harmful to Iran’s allies”.
In a rare official protest, an Iraqi government spokesman lashed out at the Iranian provocations.
“Iraq is grateful to the Islamic Republic and other countries for their support in the war against terrorism, but naturally we reject any talk about controlling Iraq by any country,” Ahmed Mahjoub, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Baghdad, said.
For much of the last 15 years, nothing has reshaped Iraq more than the Iranian presence in the country. Throughout these years, Iran has tightened its grip on Iraq and managed not only to redraw the country’s political landscape, but also to project its ascent into military, economic and cultural affairs.
With general elections looming in Iraq, Iran seems to be gearing itself up to influence the result of the ballot in a bid to maintain the control of its Shia political allies over the new parliament in Iraq.
Iran has played a key role behind the scenes in influencing Iraq’s elections since 2005, and it has been the kingmaker in forming all the country’s governments. On this occasion, however, Velayati’s warning to the Iraqi electorate seems to be designed to affect the voting itself.
Clearly, Iran’s target is the alliance which Al-Sadr has formed with the Communists and other smaller secularist blocs that are expected to receive broad support from disgruntled Shia voters.
The Al-Sadr-led alliance and the secularists are running on an anti-sectarian and anti-corruption platform, and they are also trying to reach out to Iraq’s Sunni Arab voters, many of whom feel disfranchised by the Shia ruling blocs.
While the Islamic regime in Iran disdains leftists and secularist groups, Tehran’s relationship with Al-Sadr has been uneasy, and it was complicated recently after the cleric’s warming relations with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s traditional Arab Sunni nemesis.
Iran also fears that Saudi Arabia, which already wields enormous influence with Sunni groups and tribes in Iraq, may even try to lure more Shia political factions in the country to its camp.
Stratfor, the world’s leading geopolitical intelligence platform, disclosed last week that Saudi Arabia had offered funding to a major Shia group in Iraq led by cleric Ammar Al-Hakim.
The platform, which is believed to have close connections with the world’s intelligence agencies, said the Sunni powerhouse had offered $10 million in support to the Iraqi Shia TV station Al-Forat, which is owned by the Al-Hakim Group.
Stratfor said that in its quest to counter Iranian influence in Iraq, Saudi Arabia was hoping to use its financial clout to turn the tide on a different sort of battlefield with Iran. It said that other Gulf Sunni governments were also funnelling money and aid to parties in Iraq in an effort to undermine the Iranian influence in the country.
In its bid to counter Iran’s growing influence in Iraq, Riyadh restored diplomatic relations with Baghdad in 2015 after a 25-year hiatus. It had severed diplomatic ties and closed its Baghdad mission after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
Since then, senior Iraqi and Saudi officials have exchanged visits, paving the way for closer relationships and cooperation in trade and investment. Riyadh has recently pledged $1.5 billion of financial support for reconstruction efforts in Iraq after the war to defeat the Islamic State (IS) terror group ended.
Over the weekend, a delegation of Saudi media figures made a high-profile appearance in Baghdad and held talks with senior Iraqi officials, including President Fouad Masoum and Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi.
On Wednesday, Iraqi and Saudi Arabian football teams played on Iraqi soil for the first time in 38 years. The friendly match was held in the southern Iraqi port city of Basra, which is a hub for Iranian political, economic and cultural interests.
Iraqi Minister of Youth and Sports Abdul-Hussein Abtan, a senior member of Al-Hakim’s faction and a top candidate on the group’s list in the next elections, was the brain behind the event.
To prepare for the match, a campaign was launched on social media called “Greens – It [Basra] is Your Home,” green being the Saudi team’s colour. Simultaneously, a counter-campaign seemed to have been organised by pro-Iran activists to oppose plans to open a Saudi consulate in the city.
In many respects, the ongoing conflict between the two regional rivals represents the culmination of the struggle to redefine spheres of influence in post-IS Iraq.
Not every Iraqi is happy that his country has become a playground for competing regional influence, but some believe the rivalry could be a game-changer that could strengthen the Iraqis’ national resolve and accelerate shifts in power and reshape the political landscape.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly