In Iraq, Tehran plays with fire

Once ablaze, fire does not distinguish between the US and Iranian consulates.
Sunday 16/09/2018
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi during a session of the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad, on September 3.                                                                           (Reuters)
Complex dynamics. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi during a session of the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad, on September 3. (Reuters)

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s September 10 visit to Basra came after an increasingly tense security situation in the southern Iraqi city. Violent protests claimed at least 15 lives, the airport in Basra, which houses the US Consulate, was targeted by a rocket attack and government offices and political parties’ headquarters were set ablaze by protesters.

Abadi’s visit may have served a purpose, that of boosting his chances of securing a second term as prime minister. That it seems uncertain is because of the complex dynamics of Iraqi politics but also because of the machinations of Tehran. Iran prefers to maintain Iraq in a permanent state of crisis, which provides Tehran with the opportunity to exert influence in Iraq and gives it leverage over the United States.

Iran, however, is literally playing with fire. Tehran’s consulate in Basra was among the torched buildings.

It was a diverse group of protesters that attacked the consulate. Some shouted “Iran out” as they stormed the building and set it alight. Western journalists said the attackers complained that Iraqi Shia militias “run rampant in Basra, kidnapping and extorting money from their opponents and creating an atmosphere of fear.”

The group that attacked the consulate is suspected of having burned the offices of the Iran-funded Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Badr Organisation militias a few days before.

Some protesters expressed frustration with the dysfunctional government in Baghdad. They demanded jobs and basic public services such as electricity and access to clean drinking water. The Iraqi Health Ministry admitted that more than 6,000 people in Basra have been sickened by contaminated water. The protesters set fire to the Basra headquarters of the provincial government, which they accuse of abandoning the city to its own devices.

On September 11, Iraj Masjedi, Iran’s ambassador to Baghdad, opened a new consulate in Basra. Masjedi happens to be a former senior officer of al-Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. He can be said to be partially to blame for the fire that devoured the old consulate building.

On September 4, 2011, when Masjedi was in charge of the Iraq portfolio for al-Quds Force, he said in an interview with Strategic Review monthly: “The political authority in Iraq is moving in a direction parallel to the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

In an interview with Fars News, also published September 4, 2011, Masjedi described Iran as “the most influential stream in Iraq’s political issues.”

Masjedi and al-Quds Force only managed to gain this degree of influence by keeping Iraq in a permanent state of crisis. In such circumstances, Tehran found it easier to exert influence over Iraqi authorities, coerce allies and even opponents to pursue a path parallel with Tehran’s interests. Thus, Tehran gained leverage in its dealings with the United States.

With influence, however, come responsibility and blame. Iran appears to have pushed its luck a bit too far in Iraq. The Iraqi public — both Sunnis and Shias — is blaming Tehran for the shortcomings of Iraqi governance. These failures range from a dysfunctional government in Baghdad to contaminated water and electricity shortages.

Masjedi and other commanders of al-Quds Force thought they could control and contain the permanent crisis in Iraq. Now, they must watch the flames engulf Iran’s consulate in Basra. Once ablaze, fire does not distinguish between the US and Iranian consulates.