Is Iran losing steam in Iraq?

Salah Nasrawi , Tuesday 2 Aug 2022

There are growing signs that Iran is showing weak spots in its influence in Iraq, though decoupling may be the last thing on its leaders’ minds.

Is Iran losing steam in Iraq
Supporters of a political alliance of Iran-backed groups attempt to storm government areas in the Green Zone in Baghdad (photo: AP)


For nearly two decades Iran has been consolidating its influence in Iraq, if not outright capturing the neighbouring country, by exploiting the turmoil triggered by the US-led invasion in 2003 and the fall of the Saddam regime.

To make its inroads into Iraq, Iran has pursued a fundamental political goal: to unite the country’s Shia groups and help empower the co-religious community by translating their demographic weight into political influence.

In addition to its political presence, the Islamic Republic has also used Iraq as a platform to expand its influence throughout the region and to forge ahead in building a favourable political and regional security order.

But in order to gauge Iran’s present influence in Iraq, its footprint on Iraq’s lingering political impasse has to be considered and how the Islamic Republic is positioning itself, as it always has, as an influential external power-broker in forming governments in post-invasion Iraq.

This month marks the longest post-election deadlock in Iraq as infighting among Shia groups in particular has prevented agreement on a new prime minister and hampered efforts to form a new government following the October parliamentary elections.

The bloc of cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr was the largest vote-getter in the elections, winning some 73 seats in the 329-member assembly. But Al-Sadr refused to forge an alliance with rival Shia factions in order to create a majority bloc that would allow them to form a government as they did in all previous parliaments.

Meanwhile, Al-Sadr failed to create an alliance with Iraq’s Sunni groups and Kurdish parties that would have given him the two-thirds majority required to pick a new president for Iraq, an important step before the prime minister can be nominated.

In a surprise move, Al-Sadr withdrew his bloc from parliament and announced that he was exiting talks on forming a government. Instead, he mobilised his supporters, who stormed the parliament to prevent his rivals from convening and endorsing their candidate Mohamed Shayyah Al-Sudani as the new prime minister.

In response, his Shia opponents in the Iran-backed parties known as the Coordination Framework alliance reiterated their nomination of Al-Sudani and held their own rally in Baghdad on Friday signalling their readiness to take the dispute to the streets.

Al-Sadr’s followers retaliated on Saturday by storming the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, reoccupying the parliament, and declaring an open-ended sit-in until a set of demands are met including writing a new constitution and dissolving Iraq’s judiciary which they accuse of bias.

The Coordination Framework staged tit-for-tat protests outside the Green Zone in a show of strength and defiance, further escalating the Shia-Shia power struggle.

While the standoff has deepened the divide between the Shia groups and plunged Iraq into one of its worst crises since 2003, it has also underlined Iran’s shrinking leverage over its long-time allies and threatened its influence in the battered country.

Iran has gone a long way towards consolidating its influence in Iraq to the extent that the connections between the two countries have become so intertwined that it would now be impossible to fully separate Iraq and Iran.

Through allied Shia politicians and paramilitary groups in Iraq, Iran has emerged as the dominant force in the country, expanding its influence and its role beyond the political and security realms to commercial, business, and cultural ties.

Many Iraqis have been outraged at what they see as encroachment on their sovereignty by a former enemy that shares a 1,400 km border with their country and have accused the Islamic Republic of turning Iraq into a client state.

The turning point in the anti-Iran sentiment came with the 2019 uprising in the mostly Shia-dominated provinces of Iraq that called for an overhaul of the political system established after the collapse of the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein.

Yet, the uprising was also about the rise of Iraqi nationalism, demonstrated by the protesters’ demands to end the hegemony of the Islamic Republic in their country and its interference in its domestic politics.

It is hard to imagine the circumstances under which Tehran could have escaped the political impact of the overwhelmingly anti-Iranian sentiments and the increasing calls by the protesters to free Iraq from Iranian hegemony.

Even     Al-Sadr, who once sought refuge in Iran fleeing US threats of arrest, emerged after the uprising as a nationalist leader resisting Iran’s influence in Iraq.

Iranian leaders and the country’s media were quick to condemn the uprising as a foreign conspiracy and to label the protesters as the stooges of Iran’s main foes, the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.

Iran’s Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei even urged the Iraqi authorities to give “priority to dealing with the riots and the instability,” which was widely seen as giving the green light to Iran-backed militias in Iraq to smash the protests.

Iran has also turned to online campaigning in Arabic, English, and Farsi to discredit the Iraqi protesters and to paint them as disruptive. Some of the posts have appeared with hashtags such as “we will not leave Iraq,” “Iraq and Iran won’t be separated,” and “Iraq won’t be burned.”

One of the major consequences of the uprising has been the waning influence of Iran in Iraq, however, especially after a US-directed drone attack killed Qassem Suleimani in January 2020. He was Iran’s point man in Iraq who worked as the “lynchpin” to bring the country’s Shia forces together.

Despite making hectic efforts with Shia groups and other Iraqi factions, Suleimani’s successor Esmail Qaani has repeatedly failed to make headway in coordinating Iran’s proxies in the country and shoring up Iran’s influence in Iraq.

A series of developments since Suleimani’s killing has showed that Iran’s network of influence in Iraq has weakened, largely because Qaani has not been able to fill in the gaps left in the absence of his predecessor.

In the latest elections in October 2021, the Iran-backed groups that have dominated Iraqi politics since Saddam’s fall lost significant ground for the first time in years when Al-Sadr’s followers dominated the poll.

Leaked conversations among Shia leaders have suggested that Iranian-aligned Iraqi Shia groups have been asserting a degree of independence from Iran and sometimes even showing signs of disobeying Tehran.

Audio recordings by Al-Maliki leaked last month showed the increasing mistrust by Iraqi Shia factions of Iran and their complaints about Iran’s mishandling of the internal Shia rift in Iraq and its failure to push the groups into line and resolve the disputes among them.

All these actions and this rhetoric raise questions about whether Iran has been backed into a corner, as its mission to take control of Iraq has been challenged by the country’s worst crisis since it became enmeshed in its western neighbour.   

Iran’s activities in Iraq have been under the radar of key Middle Eastern powers, which want to see if the Islamic regime succeeds in taking over Iraq and transforming it into a satellite state under its influence.

Iran’s regional foes have hoped that a new regime in Baghdad led by a converted Al-Sadr in alliance with the Kurds and Sunni Arabs would reduce Tehran’s influence in Iraq and challenge its power in the region.

But there are still few indications that Iran has “strategically” lost in Iraq or that it is ready to concede that its influence in the neighbouring country is swayed by “geopolitical winds” or rising Iraqi nationalism.

Instead, many signs suggest that Iran still maintains enormous assets in Iraq, and after a tactical setback caused by Qaani’s weakness Tehran is once again consolidating its control over key areas of Iraq’s feeble politics including power-broking

To many observers, the latest standoff shows that the pro-Iran camp in Iraq’s Shia community is still powerful enough to outmanoeuvre Al-Sadr and even use Iran’s influence to corner the powerful cleric as the government crisis drags on.

Reports that Iran has succeeded in convincing the leaders of the self-ruled Kurdistan Region of Iraq to end their dispute over the election of a new president of the country that would then pave the way for ending the government stalemate suggests a major win for Tehran.

This is why the betting that Iran’s influence in Iraq is in decline based on Al-Sadr’s ability to block the parliament’s sessions may be far-fetched or wishful thinking. All that can be assumed, at least for now, is that it seems unlikely Iran will change its calculations in Iraq and let its determination to influence politics in the country diminish.   

*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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