Iran finds no choice but to live with Abadi, lower profile

Sunday 17/04/2016
Less visible

LONDON - Iran’s influence in the affairs of Iraq is extensive but not with­out limits, as the latest turmoil over Baghdad’s proposed po­litical reforms has shown.
With a variety of power centres within the majority Shia communi­ty at odds over Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s anti-corruption strategy, Tehran appears to have opted to support, for the time be­ing, the man they green-lighted for the premiership 18 months ago.
That’s despite Abadi failing to prove quite as malleable as his pre­decessor, Nuri al-Maliki, whose term in office was marked by cor­ruption and favouritism and ended after the collapse of Iraqi forces in the face of the 2014 Islamic State (ISIS) invasion.
Abadi has leaned heavily on sup­port from Tehran as he sought to rebuild the military to confront the jihadist threat. The Iranians have provided equipment and strategic expertise, including special forces on the ground, although the de­ployment of such military “advis­ers” to Iraq was only officially con­firmed in March.
In addition, Tehran is closely linked to predominantly Shia mili­tias, directed by the Islamic Revo­lutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), that make up the Hashd al-Shaabi, the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). The volunteers have proved more active in confronting ISIS than regular units but their ma­jority Shia component has drawn accusations of sectarian violence against Sunnis.
The worry is that the militias, modelled on the IRGC, have the potential to dominate Iraq on Iran’s behalf.
Politically, however, the Shia community and its various leader­ships have proved less monolithic than Tehran might have hoped or its opponents might have feared. There have been tensions over Ma­liki’s attempts to continue to play a central and often divisive role. The Shia street has been at odds with a Shia plutocracy attempting to pre­serve its interests, while the Iraqi Shia clergy centred in Najaf have not always been preaching from the same page as their fellow di­vines in Qom.
Abadi has used these anomalies to pursue a course that has allowed him, despite a strategic depend­ence on the Iranians, to resist Teh­ran’s controlling instincts.
The first calls for Abadi to act against widespread corruption came from Grand Ayatollah Ali al- Sistani, regarded by many Shias inside and outside Iraq as their supreme religious guide. It was also Sistani who chastised Iran for meddling in Iraqi affairs in 2015 when he questioned the role of the IRGC’s Quds Force commander General Qassem Soleimani, who had increasingly adopted the per­sona of an unofficial viceroy.
Abadi reportedly fell out with Soleimani after the Iranian criti­cised his reform plans. With the support of Sistani, Abadi presum­ably felt he could afford to snub him.
The grand ayatollah has since retreated to his more characteris­tic silence on public affairs, while Muqtada al-Sadr, a more junior cleric but a powerful voice on the streets, has been organising mass anti-corruption protests that took his supporters to the gates of the Green Zone, the heavily fortified government enclave in Baghdad.
Abadi credited Sadr with the idea of establishing a cabinet of tech­nocrats to replace one in which ministries are shared among Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. That, combined with a plan to sweep away those lower down the government peck­ing order, threatened the interests of people at the top in every fac­tion. Hence the political resistance that greeted the plan.
The crisis left Tehran, however, with little choice but to continue supporting Abadi. Any attempt to intervene more forcibly, let alone to reinstall Maliki, would face a backlash from at least that part of the Shia community that wants re­form and resents Iranian interfer­ence.
Soleimani is now a less visible presence in Iraq. In an event on home soil in March, he said Iran’s main duty was to defend all Mus­lims. He denied claims of Iranian “adventurism” in the region.
Iran, and its ruling clergy, may have decided it is a better bet to cooperate with, rather than dic­tate to, whoever holds the reins in Baghdad. Soleimani himself was dispatched to see representatives of Maliki, reportedly to tell them Iran stood by the status quo.
US Vice-President Joe Biden un­derscored Washington’s support for Abadi’s reforms in a phone call to the prime minister that followed a parliamentary manoeuvre by Ma­liki to have him replaced.
“Both the Americans and the Iranians wanted to avoid Abadi getting unseated,” Sajad Jiyad, an adviser to the prime minister, told Reuters.
Iran appears to have resolved that its interests for now are best served by propping up a government that has the best chance of confronting the twin challenges facing Iraq — pursuing the war against ISIS and ensuring a measure of political and economic stability via reforms.
Tehran may not always get exact­ly what it wants but, given its con­tinuing influence, proximity and religious ties, Iran remains a player that can not be written out easily of the Iraqi script.