Is Iran's Influence in Iraq Waning?
Getting caught between a rock and a hard place
is an unenviable situation for a politician. A tragic case in modern times was
of Hafizullah Amin, the Cold War era Afghan communist politician who tried to
reduce his country's dependence on the former Soviet Union.The predicament of
the present Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has some similarities.
Kadhimi's political dexterity lies in his ability to find his limits and his
prudence from going too far.
Kadhimi has strong affiliations with the US and British
intelligence dating back to his years in exile, which continued to be nurtured
during his 4-year stint as spy chief in Baghdad, which ended in May when the
pro-US Iraqi president Barham Salih, a Kurdish politician, nominated him as
Kadhimi continues to receive political,
security, intelligence, and logistical support from Washington. Kadhimi also
enjoys personal rapport with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The strong American backing did help Kadhimi to
secure the job of prime minister in May, but essentially, he emerged as a
compromise candidate of warring Iraqi political blocs who settled for him as
interim arrangement until parliamentary elections take place in coming
Through last year, Washington shrewdly fuelled
chaotic street protests in Iraq by exploiting the people's disenchantment with
the corruption and venalities of the established political blocs and widespread
social and economic discontent. This put the Shi'ite political blocs and Tehran
on the back foot and in turn created conditions for Kadhimi's transition as
The big question is how Kadhimi figured as chief
of Iraqi intelligence when the US assassinated the head of Iran's Quds Force
Qassem Soleimani and the deputy chief of Tehran-backed deputy chief of Popular
Mobilisation Committee at Baghdad airport on 3rd January in drone attacks
ordered by President Trump.
Beyond doubt, the US had prior tip-off about
Soleimani's arrival in Baghdad. The Iraqi militia factions have accused Kadhimi
of complicity and claim to have compelling evidence. At any rate, the US
expects Kadhimi to crack the whip on the Iran-backed militia forces in Iraq.
Equally, Washington encourages Kadhimi to reduce Iraq's economic dependency on
Iran and instead seek help and investments from the GCC countries.
Kadhimi is moving in this direction. On June 26,
Kadhimi ordered a raid on the headquarters of one of the prominent Iran-backed
militia factions south of Baghdad - Kata'ib Hezbollah, whom US officials have
accused of firing rockets at bases hosting US troops. Thereby, he displayed his
intention to be 'tough' on the Iran-backed militia groups.
On July 19, an Iraqi ministerial
delegation arrived in Riyadh headed by Finance Minister Ali Allawi
and comprising the ministers of oil, planning, electricity, agriculture, and
culture, amongst others. Saudi Arabia has expressed willingness to help
The bottom line is that the US hopes to
consolidate a long-term military presence in Iraq and counts on Kadhimi to
overcome the resistance to the American occupation from the Iraqi political
blocs, popular opinion and, of course the Iran-backed militia groups. But the
paradox here is that Washington bets on Kadhimi who lacks a political base to
perform as a 'strongman'.
How come Tehran acquiesced with Kadhimi's
elevation as Iraq's prime minister? The US analysts' narrative is that Iran's
influence in Iraq is on the wane in the recent months after the murder of
Soleimani who used to handle Tehran's security dossier in Iraq. The Iraqi
parliament's confirmation of Kadhimi's appointment has been touted as a sign of
Tehran's loss of clout in Baghdad.
However, this narrative reflects a self-serving
American mindset - 'You are either with us, or against us'. Whereas, Iran's
regional strategies in Iraq are not one-dimensional. True, Kadhimi couldn't
possibly have been an ideal Iranian candidate for Iraqi prime ministership.
Tehran apparently had no intimate history with him. Possibly, Tehran also knew
about Kadhimi's well-established connections with the American and British
But having said that, the fact of the matter is
that Tehran never really worked to instal a proxy in power in Baghdad in all
these years since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Iran's focus is on Iraq's
stability and security, as evident from the alacrity with which it rushed to
act as a provider of security when the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)
launched its stunning offensive on Mosul and Tikrit in June 2014. Iran worked
in tandem with the US in its anti-ISIS campaign.
The point is, Tehran views Iraq through the
prism of its own national security. Tehran had the means to block Kadhimi's
appointment on the floor of the parliament but it chose not to. For, Kadhimi
kept lines of communication open to Tehran too, and Iran drew appropriate
conclusions from the American experience in Iraq that creating a puppet in
Baghdad is an exercise in futility and can only be counterproductive.
Tehran preferred to cast its net wide in the
Iraqi society and create organic relationships - not only among the Shia
majority but also among Sunnis and Kurds - which explain the spread of its
influence, ensuring that no security threats emanate from Iraqi soil as in the
Second, make no mistake, Iraq all along served
as a buffer for Iran - a turf where the Americans would get a better
understanding of Tehran's motivations and potentials to be a factor of regional
stability. Third, Tehran sees interesting potentials in Kadhimi being a 'balancer' in Iran-Saudi relations.
Indeed, below the radar, the regional security
situation is radically transforming. Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif
visited Moscow last week during which he "delivered an important message (from
President Rouhani) to President Putin," and held "extensive talks" with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on bilateral cooperation as well as
regional and global coordination.
Two days later, Putin discussed Iran's nuclear
program in a phone conversation with President Trump. The influential Tehran
Times newspaper since estimated
in a lengthy resume that "Putin hasn't
said how he intends to save the Iran nuclear deal. But his nascent efforts
highlight a possible revival of diplomatic initiatives between Iran and the
U.S., ahead of the expiration of the UN arms embargo on Iran in October."
Against this backdrop, Kadhimi's visit to Iran
last week, his first as prime minister, marks a defining moment. Kadhimi's refrain while in Tehran has been that "Iraq would
not allow any threat to Iran coming from its territory." Iran's Supreme Leader
Ali Khamenei was rather explicit when he told Kadhimi that the Popular
Mobilisation Units (which Iran supports) are a "great blessing for Iraq, and
they should be safeguarded."
discourse against the US' regional policies all but signalled to Kadhimi that Tehran's support for his
government is predicated on the belief that he will not act as a surrogate of
Washington. To be sure, Kadhimi has come under pressure to reshape Iraq's
strategic partnership with the US.
Kadhimi has two choices - seek a complete
withdrawal of US troops from Iraq (or at least significant drawdown), or
alternatively, expect the wrath of the Iraqi political system. The choice that
Kadhimi makes will determine his own political future. The recent
killing of an expert of
the Iraqi security establishment suggests that the tide that brought him to
power is turning.