Iran envoy pick is strong message for Iraq
The appointment of Brigadier-General Iraj Masjedi as Iran’s ambassador to Iraq is a significant development.
On the face of it, Masjedi’s appointment fits into a 14-year pattern of Iran posting senior figures of the expeditionary al-Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to its Baghdad embassy.
Both Masjedi’s predecessor, Hassan Danayifar, and Iran’s first ambassador to post-2003 Iraq, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, were senior figures in al-Quds Force, the highly regarded overseas special forces division of the IRGC.
There are, however, subtle yet important differences. Compared to his predecessors, the new ambassador is very senior in the IRGC hierarchy and boasts superior connections to the highest levels of defence, security and strategic decision making in Tehran.
From this perspective, Masjedi’s appointment is designed to send a strong message to key stakeholders and interested parties in Iraq, notably the Iraqi political establishment, the Americans and the Saudis.
Iran’s embassy in Baghdad is unique as it is under the full control of the IRGC.
The IRGC achieved notable success on two fronts. First, over time the IRGC organised Iraq’s long-beleaguered Shia community at dizzyingly complex political, security and military levels.
Second, it neutralised the threat from the People’s Mujahideen of Iran, an armed Iranian opposition group formerly based in Iraq, and through a mix of military pressure and political lobbying secured the group’s expulsion from Iraq last September.
In view of Iran’s increasingly secure position in Iraq it may have been expected that the IRGC would scale back its activities in the country and, at minimum, agree to share the embassy with Iran’s Foreign Ministry. Masjedi’s appointment ends that speculation.
Three core factors have influenced the IRGC’s decision to intensify its role in Iraq; The continuing conflict in neighbouring Syria, the battle with the Islamic State (ISIS) inside Iraq and uncertainty over the new American administration’s intentions towards Iraq.
Of paramount concern to the IRGC high command is the critical military and security requirement of consolidating Iraq as Iran’s strategic depth. To achieve this goal the IRGC-controlled embassy in Baghdad needs to conduct successful outreach to all major players in Iraq’s fractured political system.
While Iran has good ties with the Shia groups inside and outside government, the situation is less than satisfactory in relation to the Iraqi Kurds and the country’s proud Arab-Sunni community.
In respect of the Kurds, Masjedi is a good choice as ambassador since he has ties with Iraqi Kurdish leaders stretching back to the Iran-Iraq war and is widely thought to be trusted by them. Indeed, pro-Kurdish media have been generally supportive of Masjedi’s appointment.
It remains to be seen whether Masjedi can alter Iran’s security-orientated approach to the Arab-Sunni community, which, for more than a decade, has centred on containing its potential threat to the Shia-dominated establishment.
Above all, Masjedi’s key preoccupation will be to decipher American intentions with a view to making appropriate responses and adjustments. US influence in Iraq has been in decline for five years but this may change if the Trump administration intensifies military activity, ostensibly to fight ISIS.
If this scenario turns to reality then the IRGC and their new ambassador in Baghdad will be anxious to ensure that a heavier US footprint in Iraq does not upset the Islamic Republic’s sensitive outreach programmes to Iraqi political, security and paramilitary groups.