Iraq as a ‘client state’ of Iran
7 Mar 2018|

Iraq is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections in May. At least 28 Iraqi political parties associated with paramilitaries that fought Islamic State (IS) have registered to run candidates. Many of these parties, like their ‘parent’ militias, have close ties to Tehran.

Most of these militias formed after IS captured Mosul. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s senior Shiite cleric, issued a fatwa proclaiming that fighting against IS was ‘a sacred defence’. Those who died would be revered as ‘martyrs’.

The fatwa led to the formation of the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF)), which attracted around 60,000 fighters organised into some 60 units. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei directs at least 44 of these 60 Shia paramilitaries; others are under the authority of Sistani or are affiliated with Moqtada al-Sadr. These fighters played a central role in countering IS in Fallujah, Ramadi and Baiji. Many in Iraq believe the PMFs probably ‘saved’ Baghdad from IS.

To understand why Iran is determined to see a sympathetic government in Baghdad, it’s important to recall two key events that took place soon after the Iranian Revolution began in 1979, and which have come to define Iranian national security considerations.

First, the US government attempted to free the 53 diplomats who had been taken hostage in November 1979 after students had overrun the US embassy in Tehran. In April 1980, as diplomatic negotiations continued to secure their release, Washington sent a military force into Iran in a failed attempt to free the hostages. Iran has come to see Operation Eagle Claw as typifying American perfidy.

Second, within months of the revolution, Saddam Hussein launched an all-out war against Iran. Between 300,000 and 1 million Iranians died in the eight-year conflict.

These experiences have instilled in Iran’s ruling elite (many of whom were alive during the war) a sense that Iran is always under threat. One Iranian strategy to ensure its security has been the development and support of proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Taliban in Afghanistan , Shia militias in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen. These entities promote Iranian national interests by engaging Iran’s enemies, whether they are Israelis, Americans or Saudis.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Tehran held the view that a pro-US administration in Baghdad was unacceptable. Iran fears encirclement by the Americans. It already shares a 920-kilometre border with Afghanistan and a 960-kilometre border with Pakistan, both American allies.

Now the regime wants a pro-Tehran government in Baghdad. That would give Iran a safe western border, allow it to influence oil prices (Iraq has the world’s fifth-largest proven oil reserves with 140 billion barrels), and enable Tehran to continue to challenge Saudi dominance in the region.

In the early 2000s, Tehran preferred that both Iraq and Afghanistan should remain in a state of manageable chaos that kept the Americans occupied and unable to focus on Iran. Thus, from the moment that the Americans took charge of rebuilding Iraq, the Iranians sought ways to bleed the Americans dry, primarily through their campaign in Anbar province.

Iran’s growing influence in Iraq became clear in 2008 when David Petraeus, then-commander of US Central Command, received a text message from Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite al-Quds Force. The message read:

General Petraeus, you should know that I, Qassem Suleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan. And indeed, the ambassador in Baghdad is a Quds Force member. The individual who’s going to replace him is a Quds Force member.

The message highlighted the brazenness of Suleimani and of Iran when it came to dealing with Iraq. And it illustrates why Iraq’s former national security minister, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, later noted that nothing got done in Iraq without the approval of Suleimani.

Following the 2010 parliamentary elections, when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was struggling to form a government, a group of Iraqi parliamentarians went to Qom to celebrate the Eid al Fitr holiday. They met with Suleimani, who then persuaded Moqtada al-Sadr to support Maliki. In return, Maliki agreed to work towards removing US forces from Iraq.

Seven years later, Iran’s influence across Iraq remains obvious. With the rise and fall of IS, Tehran has another opportunity to shape political developments in Iraq. This is bound to concern Iran’s neighbours, particularly the Saudis, who appear determined to stop Iran’s growing influence in the region.