Shortly after the Iraqi parliament voted to endorse Mustafa Al-Kadhimi as the country’s new prime minister after midnight on 6 May, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo picked up the phone to congratulate the former chief spy on taking the new post.
Pompeo also joyfully broke the news to Al-Kadhimi of Washington’s decision to grant Iraq a 120-day sanctions waiver enabling the country to import gas and electricity from Iran to meet its dire power needs.
That was welcome news for the many who thought that Iraq would need the world’s support to leave its government deadlock behind and for others who feared that Iran was exploiting the political turmoil to consolidate its power in Iraq.
To many Iraq watchers in the US media and think-tanks, Pompeo’s gesture was an indication of support for the new Iraqi premier after hiccups in US-Iraqi relations caused by Al-Kadhimi’s predecessor Adil Abdul-Mahdi and his pro-Iran policies.
Some observers may even have assumed that Al-Kadhimi’s success in forming a new government could amount to a foreign policy victory for the US Trump administration over Iran amid a continued US-Iran standoff.
But these rosy assessments are without foundation. Contrary to such beliefs, Iran’s influence in Iraq may be increasingly challenged, but the Islamic Republic is still a dominant power in Iraq and the American ability to cause Iran’s influence in Iraq to wane is still in question.
What is obvious is that Iraq’s new government will be entangled in the US-Iran conflict and that there will be a lot of questions as to whether it will be able to chart its way to avoid being caught in the crossfire.
In order to put things in perspective, one needs to assess the balance of power and influence between the US and Iran in Iraq and how that could impact Al-Kadhimi’s government and its ability to insulate the country from regional turmoil.
Nearly ten years after it pulled most of its combat troops out from Iraq following the 2003 invasion, the United States still maintains a powerful military and a leading political role in Iraq’s institutions.
Iraq hosts a massive US force, with the official number of US troops in the country estimated at up to 5,000. They are deployed in military bases around the country with contingents of tanks, warplanes and military equipment.
After fighting the Islamic State (IS) group along with the Iraqi armed forces in the 2014-2017 war to expel the militants from Iraqi territory, the Americans have continued their mission which they have seen as ostensibly to prevent the group’s resurgence.
Their counterterrorism mission has also included training the Iraqi armed forces and providing them with badly needed intelligence in deterring future attacks.
Yet, US military power in Iraq is about much more than the number of troops and equipment it has in the country and corresponds to the influence it can exercise in the fields of command, control and communication over Iraq’s military.
Today, the United States maintains a remarkable political and diplomatic influence in Iraq with an unequaled network of domestic, regional and international partners.
With its numerous assets permanently or temporarily deployed to various spheres and sectors in the country, its advantages surpass Iraq’s ability to disengage without paying a heavy political price.
A closer look at the work of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) and other UN agencies and organisations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) whose help for Iraq is indispensable shows that US support for Iraq is unmatched by other international players.
In addition, the United States has the edge in influencing Iraq’s economy through the power its oil companies can exercise in both production and marketing, thus impacting sales of the commodity.
Washington can also play a role in shaping Iraq’s financial and monitory systems through its control of US-run petro-dollar mechanisms as well as its ability to engage the international finance institutions that are engaged with Iraq in providing loans and guarantees.
Moreover, the United States enjoys tremendous political influence among different Iraqi communities, political elites and social strata. It has maintained a strategic friendship with the Kurds in the north, and more recently it has consolidated ties with Sunni political leaders either directly or via its Arab Sunni allies.
Washington has also been able to reach out to large segments of the Shia community by making friends and influencing people in political, social, tribal and business elites, exploiting their needs to balance Iran’s influence.
It has dedicated enormous resources to build on its strengths of soft power in order to promote its interests in Iraq. Much of this soft power rests on thousands of people working in the bureaucracy, security forces, business community and civil society in Iraq.
Another source of American soft power can be found in members of the Iraqi community in the United States who are connected to US interest groups, think-tanks, the media and the academy and who network with political leaders and institutions in Iraq.
Reports and rumours have long suggested that activists among these expatriates have been involved in efforts to form previous Iraqi governments and probably this new one too.
However, this power should not be misunderstood. The United States does not have the upper hand in Iraq, or at least not yet. Iran also has significant political, security, economic and cultural assets in Iraq that it can mobilise to sabotage US efforts to win back Iraq.
In a sense, Iraq has become a pilot project for Iran’s attempts at regional hegemony. For 17 years, the Islamic Republic has had a free hand to experiment in Iraq on how to spread its influence in the region.
Since the fall of the regime of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iran has been deeply immersed in its western neighbour’s affairs such that it is now being seen as the dominant force in Iraq.
Tehran has employed a variety of outrageous stratagems and canny tactics to consolidate its political, economic, religious, security and cultural interests in Iraq.
Over all these years, Iran has expanded its influence in Iraq, and it has effectively had free rein across the key institutions of the state, security forces, political leadership and civil society.
Soon after Saddam’s ouster, Iran began asserting itself in Iraq, using aggressive tactics and proxy groups to pave the way to trying to turn Iraq into its sphere of influence.
Through allied Iraqi Shia politicians and paramilitary groups and a range of anti-Saddam opposition groups it had hosted, Iran emerged as the dominant force after the US-led invasion.
Beyond its political and security efforts, perhaps the most visible consequences of Iran’s influence have been its commercial, business and investment ties to Iraq.
Iraq is now a major consumer of Iranian goods, as trade between the two countries reached $16 billion in 2019 and there are plans to boost bilateral trade to $20 billion. Tehran is also a major energy and power supplier to Iraq, with plans for the construction of a railroad network linking Iran and Iraq with Syria.
Iran’s influence peaked after the rapid advance across Iraq by the IS terrorist group, which threw the country into chaos and led Baghdad to seek Tehran’s help to kick the group out of Iraqi cities.
In its attempts to play a non-zero-sum game with Washington, Tehran turned its support to Iraq in fighting IS in order to gain greater influence in the war-torn nation and advance the rise of its proxy Shia militias and turn them into a political force.
In addition to its hard-power geopolitical, military, security and economic instruments, the Islamic Republic has also utilised religious, social and cultural ties as important soft-power tools to intervene in Iraq.
If the election of Al-Kadhimi now somehow shifts the balance of power and reshapes the strategic environment in the country, with the new prime minister starting to clip Iran’s wings in his country, Iran will likely start to lose some of its influence and probably its supremacy in Iraq.
Hit by the raging coronavirus pandemic, US sanctions and cheap oil, Iran may now be much weaker than it was and less able to play the same game with the United States. There are increasing signs that its proxies in Iraq are losing ground, and many of them are facing an uncertain future.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has signaled that the Islamic Republic may be ready for a compromise with the United States, which he has always dismissed as the “Great Satan.”
“Imam Hassan acted in such a way that genuine Islam, which couldn’t continue to be a government, moved on to be a great revolutionary movement,” Khamenei tweeted on 9 May.
He was referring to the Shias’ second revered imam, who ceded the caliphate to a contender without a fight in a 7th-century peace treaty that many historians saw as a surrender but that the Shias have defended as a necessary protection of their faith and their lives.
“Due to his actions, Islam remained a religion that is against oppression and is uncompromising, undistorted and genuine,” Khamenei wrote.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly