Iraq in the eye of the gathering storm
BEIRUT - In the uncertain aftermath of the Iran nuclear agreement, what happens next in Iraq will determine how events in the Middle East unfold. The betting is that Tehran will use its windfall billions from the lifting of sanctions to build up its growing proxy army in Iraq to contain the Islamic State (ISIS) and establish a heavily pro-Iranian regime in Baghdad to bolster its widening conflict with the long-dominant Sunnis for control of the region.
Iran is already the decisive player in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and it will undoubtedly do all it can to increase its power and influence in a country – and an old enemy – that it has long wanted defanged and safely trussed up within its orbit.
This infuriates and alarms the Sunni powers, led by Saudi Arabia, Iraq’s southern neighbour, that have long feared Iranian encroachment and believe that has been made easier by the July 14th agreement.
Saudi Arabia’s uncharacteristic military response to what it views as Iranian encirclement through Yemen suggests that Riyadh and its allies can be expected to contemplate boosting armed and financial support to their proxies in Iraq and elsewhere. This will only exacerbate the ever-widening sectarian conflict now sweeping the region.
The Saudis’ offensive campaign against Yemen’s Houthi rebels and their allies, the kingdom’s most sustained military action since its support for the royalists in Yemen’s first civil war in the 1960s when the main enemy was Nasser’s Egypt, has had a toxic impact on the predominantly Sunni region.
Indeed, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi condemned the Saudis’ action and asked rhetorically if Riyadh also had its eye on Iraq, a development that is not so far-fetched as it once may have sounded in a region undergoing tumultuous change.
In Iraq, it is the Iranian-controlled Shia militias of the Hashd al-Shaabi – Popular Mobilisation Units, or PMUs – that have the leading role in containing ISIS, while Baghdad seeks to rebuild the dysfunctional Iraqi Army so humiliated by the jihadists in the Mosul blitzkrieg in June 2014 to the point that it can’t mount a credible offensive.
“Control of Iraq is the necessary condition for Iran projecting force in the Middle East, whereas lack of control or, worse, control of Iraq by another outside power, would constitute a direct threat,” the US global security consultancy Stratfor observed.
It went on to conclude that “the conflict in Iraq and, to a less extent, in Syria will be the central issues that define the region. Iran will seek to empower its Shia allies in Iraq, and its ability to meaningfully project influence beyond proxies in the region will depend on its success.
“The Saudis and Egyptians will empower Iraqi Sunnis in the region to counter Iran’s allies. They may also flirt with increasing support to Kurdish factions, in part to provide an Arab counterweight to Iran’s relatively close ties with Kurdish groups.”
Michael Knights, a seasoned Iraq expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, observed that Baghdad “stands at a political threshold, its army weakened and reliant on the PMUs that are deeply distrusted by the Sunni tribes.
Boosting funds to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) after the nuclear agreement is likely to “trigger an unprecedented intensification of influence-buying in Iraq”, he said.
This would be done through the vast network of agents and sympathizers covertly built up over the last two decades by such far-seeing Iranian leaders as Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s elite al-Quds Force, the Guards’ foreign operations wing.
“Iran proxies will also seek to exploit their prominent war role to dominate Iraq’s provincial elections in 2017 and parliamentary election in 2018,” Knights noted. “If successful, they could overturn the political order, surpassing Shia moderates and technocrats such as Prime Minister al-Abadi.”
Knights observed that in the 2010 parliamentary polls, US Vice-President Joe Biden, who has had special responsibility for Iraq in the Obama administration, estimated that Tehran shelled out $100 million to bolster its allies in Iraq – and that was when sanctions were in place.
“An infusion of cash into Iran’s influence-building efforts – including subsidised electricity to Iraq border provinces, influence-peddling among Shia bureaucrats and leaders, and pilgrimage-related investments – could be the nail in the coffin for moderates seeking to retain Iraq’s strategic independence in the face of already-severe Iranian pressure,” Knights said.
“It was Iran alone that successfully exploited Iraq’s deepening cleavages and was both willing and capable of playing the long game,” observed Muath al Wari, a Middle East analyst based in Washington. “And to the victor, naturally go the spoils.”