Iran is currently focusing on the Iraqi elections, the culmination of a tumultuous interim period that has brought grassroots uprisings and intense friction between the government and pro-Iranian militias in Iraq.
The latter reached a peak with the detention of Qasim Muslih, a commander of the Hashd Al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), on charges of killing political activists. The charges were subsequently dismissed due to lack of evidence, but his arrest triggered demonstrations and unrest among PMF militias, raising the spectre of an open clash between them and government forces.
At one point, Iraqi Defence Minister Jumaa Inad added fuel to the fire when he dismissed the part the PMF had played in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) terror group. “Whoever believes that counterterrorism operations against IS would not have been completed without the PMF is wrong,” he said, adding that the army could defeat terrorism on its own.
This was a direct affront to the prestige of the PMF, which claims it was responsible for the victory over IS in Iraq.
The intervention of prominent Shia leaders, such as Ammar Al-Hakim, prevented the situation from spiralling out of control, helping to restore calm and reaffirming the preeminence of the state.
However, the sudden visit to Iraq by Ismail Qaani, commander of the Al-Quds Force of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), ostensibly as a peacemaker in the flare-up between the PMF and the Iraqi army, sparked suspicions that Iran was trying to form underground pro-Iranian militias because Tehran would no longer openly be able to rely on PMF contingents, even if they would continue to serve a logistics role.
According to Iraqi sources, the influence of the rapprochement between Iran and the US could be felt in the restoration of calm between the PMF and the Iraqi army. They believe that progress in the Vienna talks on the Iranian nuclear programme will have a positive impact on other regional issues and point to the visit by a delegation from the sultan of Oman to the Yemeni capital Sanaa timed to coincide with the visit by UN Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths.
Such developments are indicative of a significant shift in Iranian policy towards the regional questions in which Iran is directly or indirectly involved.
Since 9 April, Saudi and Iranian intelligence officials have held a series of talks on regional issues. According to Iraqi President Barham Salih, in a discussion hosted by the Beirut Institute think tank, the officials have made progress on the Yemeni question.
He did not go into the substance of the talks or how many rounds have been held, but he stressed that they were “ongoing and important.” On 10 May, Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh issued positive remarks on the talks in a press conference.
He said the participants were discussing bilateral and regional issues but gave no indication of progress, saying, “let’s wait and see.” At the end of May, Saudi Crown-Prince Mohamed Bin Salman made the most encouraging remarks so far. He said that he was “optimistic about the prospects for forging excellent relations with Iran.”
Still, not everything may be progressing smoothly. An Iraqi political source close to the Iraqi president told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Iranian Foreign Ministry had approached Iraq in the hope that it would help advance the rapprochement with Riyadh. However, he suspected that the IRGC, which oversees Iranian affairs in Iraq, may not share the same outlook.
He added that although Baghdad has hosted two rounds of the Saudi-Iranian talks Qaani had not addressed the issue directly during his visit to Iraq. He made it clear that his focus was on restoring calm to the domestic front in Iraq.
On the other hand, according to Iraqi sources Qaani did mention matters related to the Iraqi elections. Of particular concern was the electoral alliance forged between Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada Al-Sadr and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader Masoud Barzani against the backdrop of the tensions between the latter and Tehran after 2018.
This discord increased with the referendum on Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence. Sadr had been a key peacemaker between Barzani and Iraqi governments since the period in power of former Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki. However, Tehran wants to avert a change in the electoral map in which the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) Party, the KDP’s main rival, has a stab at placing one of its own in the president’s seat in Baghdad.
If the Iraqi experience says anything, it is that domestic politics are difficult to predict and always bring surprises. Seething tensions may erupt, as occurred between the PMF and the army, or there could be political assassinations and consequent confusion.
What we can say is that this is the first test of the grassroots movement in the political process and that the secularist political parties taking part in the elections are perhaps too idealistic in their ambitions to end the political hegemony of the Islamist parties with all their power, influence, money and indoctrinated supporters.
The secularist forces have strength to draw on among the educated and urban middle classes, but ultimately the militias will do what they can to prevent them from gaining ground in the political arena because of the threat their modernist discourse poses to the extremist religious-affiliated parties and their militias.
For the moment at least, it appears that Iraq has averted a political crisis that might have severely shaken its fragile stability largely due to the fact that the main players are investing their energies into the campaigns and electoral politics.
But the instruments of violence still abound, and there lurks the possibility that a militia will opt for a recourse to armed force, especially given the lack of clarity surrounding the nature of the agreement struck between the government and the PMF and the extent to which all sides will remain committed to it.
Another thing that the Iraqi experience tells us is that contradictions can coexist without going too far in opposite directions, as can be seen in the run-up to the elections. The situation is fraught, but a certain balance has been struck between Tehran, the PMF and the government, each side factoring in the difficult challenges they faced during the interim phase.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly