Since the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq in 2011, Iran has been able to exert powerful influence over its majority-Shia Arab neighbor. This became especially apparent in the years following ISIS’ rapid territorial gains in Iraq in 2014. Today, Tehran funds and trains Shia militia in Iraq, enjoys close trade links with Baghdad, and exerts extensive influence over the political system. The Cipher Brief’s Fritz Lodge spoke with the Director of the IranObserved project, Ahmad Majidyar, to find out how deep this influence goes and what the United States can do about it.
The Cipher Brief: How deep is Iranian influence over the Iraqi government, and what are Tehran’s primary objectives in the country?
Ahmad Majidyar: Iran has emerged the main victor in post-Saddam Iraq. Iranian influence permeates all Iraqi political and military institutions, and Iran’s Quds Force Commander, Qassem Soleimani, commands a powerful network of Iraqi Shiite militia groups that are not entirely accountable to the Baghdad government.
After the 2003 invasion, Tehran’s key objective in Iraq was to speed up the withdrawal of U.S. troops and expand its influence through sponsoring militant proxies and supporting Iraqi Shiite politicians close to Tehran.
The 2011 U.S. withdrawal from Iraq presented both opportunities and challenges for Iran. On the one hand, Iran’s desire to expel U.S. forces from its western neighbor materialized, but it also resulted in the emergence of ISIS, which captured more than a third of Iraqi territory and threatened to undo all Iranian gains in post-Saddam Iraq. Tehran, however, skillfully transformed the threat into an opportunity. Soleimani played an active role in remobilizing Shiite militia groups to take on ISIS. And Iranian-supported groups within the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) today control large swaths of territory in strategic provinces and wield significant influence over Iraqi politics.
Iran pursues several key objectives in Iraq. First, Iran wants a Shiite-dominated, friendly government in Baghdad that no longer poses a security threat to the Islamic Republic. A friendly Iraq provides Iran an important ally in the region. Second, Tehran wants to use Iraqi soil as a base to project influence in the region and as part of its “axis of resistance” against the United States, Israel, and other regional rivals.
While Iran and the United States have been de facto allies in the war against ISIS over the past year, with the common enemy on the verge of collapse, Iran and its proxies now aim to ensure that the U.S. doesn’t keep a military presence in post-ISIS Iraq. When Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was in Tehran in May, Khamenei specifically asked him for two things: to evict the U.S. forces from Iraq and not to dissolve the PMF.
TCB: What factors have contributed to Iran’s strong and growing presence in Iraq since the 2003 invasion and what are the primary methods that the Islamic Republic uses to maintain and extend its influence, for example, PMF funding and training, intelligence collection in the Iraqi government and parliament, etc.?
Majidyar: Since 2003, Tehran has used a combination of soft power and hard power strategies to expand its influence in Iraq.
Tehran’s support for armed groups in Iraq predates the U.S. invasion. In the 1980s, the Islamic Republic funded and trained several Iraqi Shiite groups such as the Badr Corps to fight the Saddam regime. After the fall of Saddam, Iran doubled down on sponsoring predominantly Shiite militia forces in Iraq to wage a proxy war against the Untied States.
Tehran has also played an active part in shaping Iraqi politics after Saddam, utilizing its long-standing ties with Iraqi Shiite religious and political groups. Iran has also cultivated ties with Iraqi Sunni Arab political parties as well as some Kurdish groups – effectively making Tehran a major powerbroker in Iraqi politics.
At present, Iran plans to play a major role in Iraqi reconstruction and use its trade ties with Iraq to minimize the impact of U.S. sanctions. Iran exported about $5 billion worth of goods to Iraq last year, and the volume of bilateral trade is expected to increase significantly after the ouster of ISIS.
Having said that, it is important not to overstate Iranian influence over Iraq or Iraqi Shiites. The Iraqi Shiite community is diverse, and only a very small number of Iraqi Shiites follow Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for religious and political guidance. Iraqi Shiites have historically sided with Iraqi nationalism rather than sectarian solidarity with Iran.
TCB: Is the Abadi government able – and willing – to resist Tehran on key policy issues?
Majidyar: Since the Iraqi security and political situation remains very fragile, it would be unrealistic to expect the government in Baghdad to take aggressive measures to counter Iranian influence in the country at this point. The Abadi government has already resisted Tehran and its proxies on some key policy issues recently. For example, Baghdad did not allow PMF groups to take part in the Mosul operation, and Abadi rejected demands from Iranian-backed PMF units that the U.S. military play no role in anti-ISIS operations in western Mosul and elsewhere.
Chaos and instability has allowed Iran to gain a foothold in Iraq. But the more Iraq becomes stable and self-reliant, the less Iranian influence over the country will be.
TCB: If the Trump Administration is interested in countering Iranian influence in Iraq, what concrete steps will it need to take?
Majidyar: Driving Iran out of Iraq is not feasible. But the Trump Administration can help reduce Iranian influence in Iraq by keeping a long-term military presence in Iraq, playing an active role in Iraq’s post-ISIS rebuilding process, empowering Iraqi nationalists, including Shiites, to counter Iran’s influence, and strengthening Iraqi government and non-government institutions.
Iranian leaders and PMF commanders are currently pressing the Baghdad government not to disband or weaken the paramilitary forces after the ouster of ISIS. That will pose the biggest challenge to post-ISIS reconciliation efforts in Iraq and further consolidate Iran’s influence in Iraq at the expense of Iraqi sovereignty and stability as well as U.S. national security interests. Thus, the U.S. should work with the Baghdad government to fully integrate PMF units into the Iraqi security forces and gradually disband units that are controlled by Iran.