Tehran continues brazen interference in Iraq’s politics as prime minister-designate falters

Trump warns Tehran against “sneak” attack as US deploys Patriot missile defence systems
Sunday 05/04/2020
Prime Minister-designate Adnan al-Zurfi (C) meets with the ambassadors of the P5 countries of the United Nations Security Council in Baghdad, March 25, amid the coronavirus pandemic. (AFP)
In the middle. Prime Minister-designate Adnan al-Zurfi (C) meets with the ambassadors of the P5 countries of the United Nations Security Council in Baghdad, March 25, amid the coronavirus pandemic. (AFP)

LONDON - Tehran continued its policy of brazen interference in Iraqi affairs at a time when Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Adnan al-Zurfi is running against the clock to form a new government.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement on April 1 claiming to speak on behalf of Baghdad, warning against the deployment of two Patriot missile systems in the country.

The statement claimed that the US deployment runs “counter to the official position of the Iraqi government, parliament and people” and explicitly called on the United States to halt “warmongering during the coronavirus outbreak.”

US forces, the statement added, should “respect the wishes of the Iraqi people and government and leave the country.”

Iraq’s parliament did call for the general withdrawal of all foreign troops from Iraqi soil on January 5, in response to the killing of powerful Iranian Quds Force commander Major-General Qassem Soleimani and Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in early January. However, it was a non-binding resolution and a US withdrawal has not been formally requested by Iraqi President Barham Salih.

Observers questioned why Iran’s Foreign Ministry was making statements on behalf of a foreign and nominally independent country.

Speaking a few days earlier, Iraqi caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi had warned against any “offensive military action without the approval of the Iraqi government” but did not specifically mention the Patriot deployment.

The Patriot missile system is regarded as a primarily defensive system and is the US principal anti-missile missile system.

The US deployment of the Patriot missile defence system to Iraqi bases comes in response to reported threats from Iran to target coalition bases in Iraq, something that it did in the past in response to the killing of Soleimani.

“Iran or its proxies are planning a sneak attack on US troops and/or assets in Iraq,” Trump tweeted on the same day. “If this happens, Iran will pay a very heavy price indeed.”

The Pentagon confirmed that ground-based air defences in Iraq were being set up in order “to protect Iraqi, coalition and US service members from a variety of air threats.”

Speaking at a later White House briefing, Trump confirmed that US intelligence had credible information about a threat. “We’re just saying, ‘Don’t do it. Don’t do it.’ It would be a very bad thing for them if they did,” Trump warned.

Trump’s comments coincided with a visit to Baghdad by new head of Iran’s Quds Force, Esmail Ghaani, in what many viewed as a clear indication that Tehran aimed to continue the legacy of Soleimani’s interference in Iraq’s domestic affairs.

Ghaani was believed to be visiting Baghdad to discuss the political situation in Iraq where Prime Minister-designate Adnan al-Zurfi continues to face challenges to securing the confidence of the country’s powerful Iran-backed Shia political blocs.

According to local media, Zurfi has met with Iraq’s four main Shia political leaders: Hadi al-Amiri of the Fatah alliance; Ammar al-Hakim of the National Wisdom Movement; Nuri al-Maliki of the State of Law coalition; and Muqtada al-Sadr of the Sairoon alliance.

The Fatah alliance, which is affiliated with the Iran-backed PMU, and the State of Law coalition appear most against Zurfi’s candidacy, continuing to view it as “unconstitutional” and demanding its withdrawal.

Speaking during his visit to Baghdad, Ghaani said Iran opposed any prime ministerial candidate who is critical of Iran, something that many viewed as a tacit criticism of Zurfi.

Iraq’s prime minister-designate is viewed by many as being too close to the United States and no friend of Iran. Zurfi, famously, lived in exile in the United States and was directly appointed as governor of Najaf by the US post-war administration.

However, he appears to be trying to woo Iraq’s Shia political blocs, all of which have ties to neighbouring Iran, in the understanding that he cannot form a government without their backing.

In recent days, he has tweeted calling for an easing of international sanctions on Iran during the coronavirus pandemic, as well as explicitly stating that the PMU is an “Iraqi military institution.”

Zurfi has also said he would prioritise de-escalating US-Iran tensions as “the conflict between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran has negative repercussions on the political, economic and security situation in Iraq.”

While many observers have praised Zurfi’s intentions, it would be extremely challenging to secure both Washington’s and Tehran’s backing at the same time and Zurfi’s April 17 deadline to form a cabinet is fast approaching.