Iran has vital stakes in Iraq’s vassalage

The more painful the economic battle against Iran becomes, the more it will rely on its parallel state in Iraq.
Sunday 03/02/2019
Increased capacities. Iraqi Shia demonstrators wave Iranian flags in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, last September. (AFP)
Increased capacities. Iraqi Shia demonstrators wave Iranian flags in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, last September. (AFP)

The Iraqi political reality is confusing because of accumulated problems, especially those related to living conditions and security. Parents and millions of widows live in a state of despair and fatigue.

The four governments that preceded the current one in Iraq had either created more crises or were unable to resolve inherited ones. The internal cause for this failure was the dominance of sectarian Islamic parties over governments and their protection of the corrupt.

The external cause was the Iranian regime’s control of all details pertaining to the political, economic and social aspects of life in Iraq, with the voluntary and compulsory acquiescence of the Iraqi governments. That Iranian hegemony has caused great harm to the Iraqis.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi seems keen on turning things around but solving the crises seems beyond his motivation and personal abilities even if he enlists the help of political colleagues who do not belong to Islamic parties. These parties — and Iran behind them — lurk in the shadows, waiting for the opportunity to pounce on Abdul-Mahdi and his government.

Unfortunately, regardless of what Abdul-Mahdi wants to change, he is forced to import oil products and electricity from Iran and the latter is growing greedier and more ferocious and entrenched through its military agents planted in Iraq.

Abdul-Mahdi knows that Iran denied Haider al-Abadi a second term because of his neutral position towards US sanctions on Tehran. That problem has become more acute for the current government because the Trump administration aims to strangle Iran economically.

Iraq is going to be the main battlefield for the US-Iran confrontation. Political and military preparations, such as the transfer and stockpiling of Iranian ballistic missiles in Iraq, increase the tensions. These missiles might target Iraq’s Arab neighbours who are friendly with the United States.

Tehran has strengthened its political influence in Iraq by transferring the fighting capabilities of its agents from their positions in the popular militias to the political scene. That transfer has had an unprecedented effect on parliament and the government.

Pro-Iranian militias and factions have benefited from an impressive array of political and legal shields and can silence any Iraqi voice that dares criticise them or complains about being harmed by their actions. These forces loyal to Tehran could determine Iraqi political decisions without having to concede even a small portion of political power to Shia factions that won the latest elections.

Iran had feared losing its political influence in Iraq and rushed to strengthen its shadow government with the military might of the militias, which has become comparable to that of the Iraqi Army. Expect an influx of Iranian funds to various ministries, accompanied by huge fanfare from pro-Iranian media.

Tehran has also increased the capacities of its proxy militias so they can control oil-production centres in southern Iraq and remove the monopoly of illegal oil-exporting operations from traditional Shia parties.

The pro-Iranian militias’ power and control extend to economic and military domains just like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps does in Iran.

The Iraqis may differ among themselves on the political project that will control them but they will not tolerate being blatantly and viciously enslaved by an external force, whether the United States or Iran.

This is why the new Iranian game seeks to turn its political hegemony in Iraq into programmes implemented by its agents and proxies. Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani prepared the field by settling the sectarian differences with the Sunni Arabs. The trick was to include in the circle of power new Sunni faces from among those who were eagerly seeking political positions to protect and develop their commercial interests in Iraq or from among those who showed loyalty to both Tehran and Washington.

In any case, the militias have woven their webs in all of Iraq’s provinces, including Sunni Arab ones and the southern ones, and have infiltrated the country’s military, security and intelligence command centres.

After these logistical arrangements to build a parallel state, Tehran will not allow any attempt to break the isolation of Iraq from its Arab environment because it believes this will reduce its hegemony over the country.

For this reason, we do not rule out collision between Iran and Abdul-Mahdi if the latter persists in pursuing a policy of openness on the Arab world in the hope of enlisting Arab aid to overcome infrastructure and urban crises in provinces liberated from the Islamic State and ease Iran’s stranglehold on Iraqi trade and energy. Tehran knows that Arab offers to help the Iraqi people are genuine.

Given these considerations, Abdul-Mahdi should expect rough seas ahead. His soft approach might not prevent a clash with Tehran if it finds him adamant about implementing programmes for change. In that case, the Iranian backlash will be delivered by the parallel state.

The next battle for this new state inside Iraq will be on political, media and military fronts. It will ostensibly target US interests and mobilise parliament to end the security agreement with Washington.

Once that’s done, direct clashes with US forces in Iraq become possible, even though pro-Iranian militias and factions would never dare such suicidal moves themselves.

The hidden agenda, however, is to block any political inclination or initiative on the part of the government of Abdul-Mahdi towards breaking the isolation of Iraq.

The coming days will be bleak for Iran considering the real prospects of curbing its influence in Syria and of losing its Venezuelan ally, Nicolas Maduro. The more painful the economic battle against it becomes, the more it will rely on its parallel state in Iraq. However, this alleged parallel state will crumble inside Iraq once Iran’s economic and political power collapses.