Iran tells Abadi who is in charge
BAGHDAD - Days after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced reforms to increase anti-corruption oversight and improve living conditions for Iraqis, an urgent message came from the leadership next door in Tehran.
Iran’s August 23rd message, delivered verbally by a top envoy, discouraged Abadi from taking action against his predecessor, Nuri al-Maliki, a pro-Iranian politician whose cabinet was widely accused of corruption.
Five days earlier, the same envoy travelled to Iraq’s northern Kurdish region with a message to the area’s leader, Masoud Barzani. It reaffirmed Tehran’s support for Barzani’s quest to extend his term for a fifth time as president of the autonomous Kurdish areas. That term had expired August 20th.
The Iranian moves, leaked to The Arab Weekly by three senior Iraqi officials, underlined the extent of Tehran’s behind-the-scenes tampering in Iraqi affairs.
Since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Tehran has worked to support the county’s significant Shia Muslim majority, one of the largest outside Iran. Under Saddam, Iraqi Shias were treated as second-class citizens with many prosecuted or killed.
A Sunni Muslim who doubted the intentions of his rival Shia neighbour to the north, Saddam fought an eight-year war against Iran that started in 1980 and left both nations deeply scarred. Estimates put the death tolls at 500,000 in Iraq and 750,000 in Iran.
Economically, Iraq provided a lifeline for Iran, which came under crippling international sanctions when its nuclear programme became public in 2002. Annual Iranian exports to Iraq grew from $50 million in 2002 to $12 billion in 2014 and are projected at $22 billion this year, according to Iraqi Trade Ministry figures.
Besides the business viability, Iraq-based Shia shrines revered by the Iranians are an appealing religious attraction.
However, the formation of the first Shia-led government in Iraq in 2006 headed by Maliki gave a boost to Iran’s regional influence, which engulfed parts of Lebanon and Syria, a long-time Iranian vassal. That alarmed Sunni-dominated Arab states, particularly in the oil-rich Gulf, which were already leery of a bigger neighbour acquiring nuclear technology that surpasses their defence capabilities.
“The Persian empire is reborn,” warned Iraqi political analyst Mutaz Tahan.
“It’s got one foot out of the grave and is now piling one brick on the other to start where it left off 2,500 years ago,” he said. “This is happening as the world is watching and America is rejoicing a nuclear deal with Iran.
“But history is vengeful towards the ignorant.”
The Iranian message to Abadi was delivered at a meeting of the political office of the Iraqi Shia National Alliance, according to the three Iraqi officials, who requested anonymity citing the sensitivity of their information. The alliance comprises top officials and clerics from Iraq’s Shia-dominated government.
Surprised that the envoy, Major- General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite al-Quds Force, was at a meeting usually limited to Iraqi leaders, Abadi’s guarded congeniality quickly disappeared, though he listened attentively, the officials said in separate interviews.
“The guest spoke unfavourably of the premier’s moves, indicating that Iran was unhappy with his steps,” one of the officials said. But Soleimani stressed that the core of the message was that Iran “wanted to ensure that Maliki would not face trial”. Maliki was present.
The official quoted Soleimani as saying that if Maliki was indicted, “the Shia model of governance will be at stake”.
An enraged Abadi rebuffed the suggestion, the official said. Instead of addressing the allegations, Abadi told Soleimani that he saw the Iranian request as “meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs”, which Iraq “strongly rejects”.
Soleimani stormed out of the meeting room “angry” but without reacting to Abadi’s boldness, the official said. He said those at the gathering, who are used to a temperate prime minister, were also puzzled.
Few details from the meeting emerged to the public, some of whom are also growing increasingly irked by Iran’s influence. In a mid-August demonstration demanding improved public services in the northern Shia-dominated holy city of Karbala, protesters chanted anti-Iranian slogans.
“Iran go out, Iraq is a free country,” they chanted angrily.
Tahan said the sentiment was explicable since many Iraqis blame Iran’s support for Maliki as the main reason that kept him in office for two successive terms until Abadi replaced him in August 2014. Maliki’s cabinet is accused of having squandered the country’s oil wealth, enervated public services and that the army under Maliki’s direct command caved in to the invading Islamic State (ISIS) militants, allowing them to capture more territory across Iraq.
However, Tahan warned against underestimating Iran’s influence in Iraq, which was carefully nurtured over the years. “No matter what it is, their word is above all,” he said.
Iraqis say their Shia militias have strong links to Iran, where some of them were trained. And so do some Shia clerics. Pro-Iranian politicians and militias control Iraq’s air and sea ports.
They are also in charge of the passport office and even more vital public institutions such as the Interior Ministry, intelligence, police and army.