Iranian general is Iraq’s kingmaker and arbiter
Since a dispute arose in Kirkuk over raising the Kurdish flag alongside the Iraqi national flag, many actors have weighed in.
The Kurds, backed by Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani, insist that it was a democratic choice voted in by the Kirkuk Provincial Council. Kirkuk’s native Arab and Turkmen councillors say that the motion was “unconstitutional” and boycotted the vote. The government in Baghdad denounced the move as provocative, with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi calling it seditious.
Arguably, however, few of these voices have a sufficient level of independence to make decisions on their own and must refer any major issue or dispute back to one major regional power — Iran.
Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander of al-Quds Force General Qassem Soleimani has been shuttling between Erbil, Kirkuk and Baghdad recently to stamp out the escalating war of words.
Iran has been heavily intertwined in Iraqi politics since before former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein took power. Many of those in positions of influence in Iraq today once opposed the Ba’athist regime, which deemed them to be saboteurs, and sought refuge in Iran. Though these actors have since inverted that power pyramid and taken the top spot, their connections to Iran and the assistance that Tehran rendered to them are undeniable and cannot be thrown back in the faces of the mullahs.
Take Kirkuk as a prime example. The motion to raise the Kurdish flag was initiated by councillors loyal to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which, alongside Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), is one of the main parties representing the separatist Kurdish movement in Iraq. At varying points, both the KDP and the PUK received extensive Iranian backing, particularly the latter, which was backed by Tehran during the Kurdish civil war that started in 1994 and lasted for three years.
As such, is it any surprise that Soleimani is hosted by high-level officials belonging to all the Kurdish factions? After all, many of them, especially the members of the PUK, owe them a debt that Tehran will make sure that they can never repay. The extent of the enigmatic Soleimani’s influence — and by extension the ayatollahs in Iran — is so pervasive and concrete that he can move across Iraq fluidly and without impediment, being welcomed in different cities by various political parties.
One would be forgiven for thinking that Soleimani was a diplomat, not a military officer. One would also be forgiven for holding onto and believing the common — and not inaccurate — perception that Iraq was a sovereign state only insofar as Iran allowed it to be.
However, Iran’s grip appears to have its limits, even among its coreligionists. On several occasions, firebrand Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr took an openly divergent political stance to Iran, which backed him and his Mahdi Army during the US occupation of Iraq.
Rather than simply adopting Tehran’s discourse and policies, Sadr denounced Syrian President Bashar Assad for using chemical weapons against the Syrian people in the Khan Sheikhoun attack, which led to a US cruise missile response against the airbase from where the chemical attack was allegedly launched. The Shia leader went a step further, calling on Assad to step down.
Iran has not openly chastised Sadr. In the past, he often found himself summoned to one of Iran’s major religious centres of learning in Qom to “complete his religious studies.” One gets the distinct impression that he is called back for an ear-pulling, yet his rebellions against the Iranian party line appear to continue.
Although there are occasional signs of dissent, Tehran is still Iraq’s foremost kingmaker and political arbiter and that is likely to remain the case if no other power challenge it for influence.