As proxy warfare in region continues, Iraq falls even deeper into Iran’s pocket

Prolonged warfare advances Iran’s interests at a reduced cost by delegating the task of fighting abroad to diverse Shia recruits.
Sunday 18/03/2018
An Iranian pilgrim flashes his passport while passing through a border crossing in the Iraqi city of Basra. (AFP)
Showing their colours. An Iranian pilgrim flashes his passport while passing through a border crossing in the Iraqi city of Basra. (AFP)

As the United States strips back aerial and financial commitments in Iraq, Iran settles more firmly into its hegemonic seat — straddling five countries in the Middle East. “The single most enduring threat,” as US Secretary of Defence James Mattis described, “to stability and peace.”

Baghdad has proven itself a wilful adherent to Tehran’s hegemony, whose influence in the corridors of Iraq’s Interior Ministry remains an enduring security challenge for the United States. Having lost its military edge to Iran-backed proxy forces, America’s hardened stance, as national security adviser H.R. McMaster expressed at the Munich Conference, suggests restyled priorities.

Resuscitating Iraq’s foundering political process no longer informs the United States’ Iraq policy alone. Pushing back against Iran and its racketeering activities is also a consideration.

In an effort to sink the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) underworld, McMaster bluntly cautioned NATO members against sustained business dealings with IRGC front companies and subsidiaries. “You might as well cut the IRGC a check and say, ‘Please use this to commit more murder across the Middle East,’” McMaster said.

The toughened stance, coupled with moves to sanction IRGC partners, is a measure of the United States’ strategy for reversing Iranian gains. This would mean untangling the complicated web of hostile actors that Iran backs and whose institutionalisation in Iraq has granted armed forces political and electoral rights against Iraq’s constitution. Untying the knot may prove harder than their eradication on the battlefield.

“If you cross the Euphrates River and attempt to take an oilfield from the United States, we’re going to kill hundreds of you,” US Representative Adam Kinzinger said at a panel discussion hosted by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Here one recalls the audacious deployment of Iranian forces to Iraq’s Al-Fakkah oil field, where they raised Iran’s flag on December 17 before accepting a plea from Baghdad for it to come down days later. There have been demonstrations in numerous Iraqi cities against Iran’s repeated border violations and against a power that thrives off confrontations but claims peaceful means.

At the time, Iraqi PM Ahmad al-Alwani urged the United States to intervene but, a month later, Iran withdrew without US involvement, having performed a dress rehearsal of its confrontational might and greed for a slice of Iraq’s oil-encrusted cake.

Prolonged warfare advances Iran’s interests at a reduced cost by delegating the task of fighting abroad to diverse Shia recruits. Iran considers these proxy forces indigenous fighters impassioned by faith and martyrdom but forgets that their deployment occurs in unfamiliar geographic terrains, as was the case in Iraq’s Mosul.

Since Tehran announced victory against the Islamic State last December, the same forces are cementing influence across territories they are not welcomed to and generally feared in.

Military defeat of Iran’s belligerence will require greater hard power. Yet the Pentagon’s recent abandonment of nation-building speaks to irreconcilable proclivities in Iraq. Even if US President Donald Trump pushes back harder than previous administrations, the stubborn attachments of Iraqi militias to their patron — as well as Iran’s proxy forces propping up the Syrian regime — risks compromising the United States’ changing regional policy.

A memorandum of agreement, signed in February between Iraq’s Ministry of Defence and Iran, promised enhanced military cooperation and the continued supply of weapons, ammunition, armour and artillery, as it projects more of its power via Baghdad. This is not the first agreement of its kind but an increasing model that has upgraded the reputation of Iranian encroachment from illegitimate to official.

Similar to that accord was one signed in July 2017 boosting Tehran’s military and defence cooperation to extinguish the flame of terror on Iraqi soil.

As Iran establishes formal avenues to claw back its losses, the United States’ once enduring alliance with Iraqi figures it parachuted into power is crumbling.

Iran has scored highly in convincing Iraq’s ministers to side with Tehran against Washington, whose occupational legacy lives on in the Iraqi consciousness, regardless of sect. Iraqis supporting the Iraqi-Iranian romance fell deep into Iran’s pocket when their request for arms during the US invasion was used to test their allegiance, with their patron curious to learn how far militias were willing to go.

Winning is how Tehran views the infusion of its political and military strategy but the result in Iraq screams dependency and servitude.

Recent data from the Pentagon indicate that 8,892 soldiers remain present but have since ramped down. Comparatively, the existence of hundreds of foreign fighters Iran funnels is unquantifiable in absence of reliable data. Without an American boots-on-the-ground presence, the permanence of their presence is unbeatable.

Prolonged proxy warfare is one of several tools Iran uses to preserve the governments it helped forge in Damascus and Baghdad; a strategy that the United States may choose to focus its energies on. Its effectiveness will depend on how far America is willing to punish Iraqi officials and military commanders conspiring with Iran against the national interest of the Iraqi people. “The policy failures which empowered the forces it now seeks to obliterate” is something Iraqis will remember for years to come.

The endgame appears noble but Iran’s calculations are informed by its preference to exploit regional turmoil and mobilise disenfranchised youth to satisfy its thirst for lasting hegemony.