Iran’s three-pronged approach in Iraq

Iran’s goal is to reimpose dialogue with Washington, even if it must be done through its Iraqi tools and at the expense of Iraq’s interests.
Sunday 12/05/2019
Expanding influence. Iraqi-Iranian military commander of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (L) arrives to attend a conference in Baghdad., April 24. (DPA)
Expanding influence. Iraqi-Iranian military commander of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (L) arrives to attend a conference in Baghdad., April 24. (DPA)

The National Iranian Oil Company announced the opening of an office in Iraq to facilitate cooperation in the oil sector and the transfer of engineering and technical services to Iraq.

This announcement came right after the beginning of the second phase of the US sanctions on Iran. The United States has said it wants to reduce Iranian oil exports to zero.

While Iraqi legal circles confirm that the opening of the office does not in itself constitute a challenge to the sanctions, as long as it keeps to an advisory role and does not import Iranian oil, some Iraqi parliamentary sources expressed concern about the repercussions of the US sanctions in pushing Tehran towards dangerous activities that could harm Iraq.

Iran’s influence in Iraq should not be underestimated and the Iranian regime has begun using that influence to reduce the effects of the US sanctions by transferring political and economic burdens to Iraq.

Tehran is preparing to “invade” many domains in Iraq. The first, of course, is oil.

What worries the Iraqi political elite is that Iran, whose oil minister has questioned the ability of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to compensate the global market to cover any shortage of Iranian oil, would prevent Iraq from increasing its oil exports. In fact, Tehran will aim at reducing Iraqi oil exports from 4 million barrels per day (bpd) to 3 million bpd or less. It could do that by tasking its agents and proxies in Iraq with sabotaging oil refining and transporting activities.

The second area in which Iran could do damage in Iraq is not new but has lately taken a great deal of priority and seriousness in Tehran’s policies in Iraq — party politics.

Iran has split some Shia parties. It has encouraged the spawning of militia groups and party splinters in the Sadrist movement, such as the exit of the extremist group Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and others with Iranian backing.

Tehran confiscated control of the Supreme Council and pushed it to rebel against the leadership of Ammar al-Hakim, who left the council and founded the Wisdom Movement.

Tehran also infiltrated Arab and Sunni groups and divided their ranks by backing small Sunni parties, which are represented in parliament and government. Iran is reorganising the leadership of the Iraqi Dawa Party to be in line with its interests.

A prominent person in the strategy is Tariq Najm, a mysterious figure who had been away from the Dawa Party for years but who suddenly emerged as a party leader.

Najm, who carried out an Iranian plan to remove Nuri al-Maliki as prime minister, even though he was chief-of-staff for Maliki from 2006-10, is seeking to control the Dawa Party through Iranian support and planning. If he succeeds, the party and its decisions will fall under full Iranian hegemony.

Najm does not show much enthusiasm for Dawa Party’s activities. He does, however, show a great deal of determination to control the party. He has portrayed himself as being close to all party leaders but is, in fact, working to remove them all.

A third area in Iran’s attempt to consolidate influence in Iraq is the military council project. Through its tools and proxies in Iraq, Iran is pushing for the creation of the council to destabilise the army.

Iran already controls Al-Hashed al-Shaabi — the so-called People’s Mobilisation Forces. Even though it has legitimised their existence by law, the militias have not been able to take over the role of the army in the country.

The army is credited with liberating Iraq from the Islamic State and remains the one Iraqi institution that Tehran has not infiltrated. The army’s immunity was a reason for al-Quds commander Qassem Soleimani’s anger and that of other leaders of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps with former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

Abadi thwarted all efforts to have pro-Iranian militias infiltrate the Iraqi military leadership. He also rejected the military council project, knowing that the aim of it was to introduce partisan and sectarian quotas and politics into the military establishment.

Hence, pressure exerted by the Iranian leadership on Iraq to pass a law establishing a military council at the head of the Iraqi Army was to have the council populated by generals appointed by Iran-affiliated parliamentary blocs. That way, Tehran is the effective decision maker in the Iraqi military. However, Iran is far from reaching that goal.

In its confrontation with Washington, Tehran is trying to control three key domains in Iraq: oil, the Dawa Party and the army. Iran’s goal is not to start a war with the United States but to create an embarrassing Iraqi reality for Washington.

Tehran has completed much of the groundwork. It has restored its relationship with the Kurds, infiltrated the Sunni environment and is trying to win over the Shias through control of the Dawa Party. When this work is completed, Iraqi leaders who have shown independence from Iranian influence will be marginalised.

Iran’s goal is to reimpose dialogue with Washington, even if it must be done through its Iraqi tools and at the expense of Iraq’s interests.

Meanwhile, Muqtada al-Sadr suffers from confusion and fragmentation reigning over his position. This was demonstrated in his demand that the leaders of Bahrain and Syria resign at a time when he seems unable to take a clear Iraqi stance on Iranian developments.

Despite it all, there is serious resistance in Iraq to the Iranian project of weakening and entrapping Baghdad in the quagmire of the Iranian crisis. Abadi and Hakim form a nucleus of resistance that has found support in Najaf and from Iraqi personalities who understand that going along with the Iranian project spells political, security and economic problems for Iraq.