Facing strong pressures at home and abroad, Iran makes tactical retreat in Iraq

An official in Iran-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq, likened Kadhimi’s accession to “being forced to … eat a carcass”.
Friday 29/05/2020
Protesters hold a banner with Arabic that reads, “Iran out, U.S. out, Baghdad is free” in Baghdad, last January. (AP)
Protesters hold a banner with Arabic that reads, “Iran out, U.S. out, Baghdad is free” in Baghdad, last January. (AP)

BAGHDAD--Experts believe changing dynamics and mounting pressures have forced Iran in recent weeks to adopt less confrontational tactics to achieve its aims in Iraq.

Some of Iran’s officials admit to the temporary need for retreat. “Sometimes you need to step back, observe and plan based on realities on the ground,” a senior Iranian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.

Some Iraqi officials attribute Iran’s more flexible stance to the pressure from US sanctions, the devastating spread of the coronavirus at home and the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the IRGC Quds Force chief, last January. Others point to awareness of Iraqis’ growing resentment of Iranian encroachment as expressed in demonstrations in Baghdad and other cities.

Senior Iranian officials say they have helped break the Iraqi political deadlock that prevented the selection of a prime minister for the purpose of calming down the situation.

The thinking in Tehran was that further turmoil would be used by the US to justify the presence of the nearly 5,000 American troops stationed in Iraq much longer. “We want the Americans to leave the region. If there is chaos in Iraq … Americans will use it as an excuse to extend their stay,” an Iranian diplomat told Reuters.

Although Iranian officials claim to have steered away from the methods of raw force used in the past by the IRGC’s Al Quds Force chief Qassem Solaimani, Iraqi experts say only circumstances have changed. Tehran’s emissaries to Iraq still have links to the IRGC and continue to wield influence over many political and paramilitary groups.

The most tangible outcome of Iran’s new approach has been the approval by parliament this month of the nomination of new prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, a former intelligence chief viewed suspiciously by some groups allied to Iran for his ties to the United States.

Iraq had suffered deep political turmoil after former Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, whom Iran supported, resigned in November in the face of mass protests against economic hardship and an allegedly corrupt ruling elite.

In March, Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s national security council, made an official visit, meeting with President Barham Salih.

“After Shamkhani’s visit, things went more smoothly,” an Iraqi official said. “Iran showed it was willing to work with some respect for Iraqi sovereignty, and to let Iraq choose its cabinet.”

Kadhimi emerged as the frontrunner for premier, even though some Iran-backed militias continued to oppose him.

One militia publicly suggested he was involved in Soleimani’s killing in Baghdad in his role as head of Iraq’s intelligence service, which was set up by the Americans after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein.

Hours before a parliamentary vote on Kadhimi’s cabinet, Iranian Foreign Ministry official Hassan Danaifar and current Iraq envoy Iraj Masjedi convinced party and paramilitary chiefs to support Kadhimi.

Iranians and their proxies in Iraq were realistic enough to understand that with public opinion mood in turning against Tehran, a less accommodating stance could have meant stark humiliation. “The message from the Iranian delegation was clear – Kadhimi is the only choice left to maintain some stability in Iraq and save face,” said a militia official close to Iraq’s influential Badr Organisation who was briefed on the meeting.

A lawmaker from the Dawa party that dominated Iraq’s government until 2018 said some of the groups in Iraq allied to Iran distrusted Kadhimi for his perceived closeness to Tehran’s arch-enemy, Washington.

So even though Danaifar and Masjedi did enough to win the votes needed to install Kadhimi, some militia say they still feel suspicion and bitterness.

The Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah group, which levelled the accusation over Soleimani, said there had been “great pressure” from Tehran to approve Kadhimi.

An official in Iran-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Jawad al-Tulaibawi, likened Kadhimi’s accession to “being forced to … eat a carcass”.

When Kadhimi became prime minister, the United States granted Iraq a four-month extension to a sanctions waiver that allows Baghdad to import Iranian energy – an economic lifeline for Iran.

Washington has said that the concession was aimed at supporting the new government.

A Western diplomat said Tehran appeared to want to lower military tension with the United States “for now”, but its expansionism across the wider region, where it has allies in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, did not indicate an overall cooling of tensions.

The growing power of hardliners in the Iranian parliament and the provocative posturing of the Islamic Guards’ leaders point to a mere tactical stance by Iran in front of strong pressures at home and abroad.