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