Iran’s regime is concerned about the direction the Iraqi government is taking and the repercussions this shift might have on Tehran’s influence in Baghdad.
Two major issues particularly worry the Iranian authorities. First, the theocratic establishment is uneasy and dissatisfied with some of the policies that Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has been pursuing.
Since top political figures, rather than governmental organizations, play an important role in dictating Iraq’s politics, Tehran has always attempted to control and influence high-level officials within the Arab state. But Al-Kadhimi this month enraged Iran when he paid a visit to the US and met President Donald Trump.
After the meeting, the US and Iraq “reaffirmed their commitment to a robust and productive bilateral relationship.” A joint statement said officials took part in separate sessions covering “economics, energy, health and environment, political and diplomatic issues, security and counterterrorism, and education and cultural relations.”
The visit was considered a major blow to the ruling clerics of Iran because it was only in January that the US killed its top general, Qassem Soleimani, and several Iraqi Shiite militia leaders in Iraq under a direct order from Trump. Iran is still searching for ways to retaliate, as it is not satisfied with the missile attacks it launched on US targets in Iraq in the days following Soleimani’s death. In a meeting with Iraqi leaders last month, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei once again brought the issue to the attention of the authorities, stating: “The US’s crime in assassinating general Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis is an example of the US’s presence. They killed your guest in your home, and they blatantly confessed to this crime. This is not a trivial matter.” Khamenei again warned that retaliation was on the way, saying: “The Islamic Republic of Iran will never forget the martyrdom of Hajj Qassem Soleimani and will definitely strike a reciprocal blow to the US.”
The Iranian regime has long spread the false narrative that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Quds Force have been saving the Iraqi government from collapse. As a result, Iraqi politicians must take Iran’s side. For example, the Asr Iran news site wrote to Al-Kadhimi last week: “If it was not for Iran, there would not be a prime minister named Mustafa Al-Kadhimi in Baghdad. Instead a caliph named (former ISIS leader) Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi would be ruling the country.”
But it is worth noting that Iran has been exploiting Iraq in order to skirt US sanctions, strengthen its Shiite militia groups, and profit from the Iraqi market. Iran’s exports to Iraq increased 37 percent to about $13 billion in 2019, according to the Head of the Iran-Iraq Joint Chamber of Commerce Yahya Ale Eshaq. And Iran has reportedly discussed with the Iraqi government a plan to boost Tehran’s exports to its neighbor to $20 billion.
The Iranian regime was also expecting that Al-Kadhimi would quickly expel US forces from the country, since the Iraqi parliament voted in favor of such a move after the killing of Soleimani. Kayhan newspaper, whose editor-in-chief is appointed by Khamenei, expressed the regime’s fury by writing: “The Prime Minister of Iraq, ignoring the resolution of the parliament and the anti-American feelings of the people of his country, claimed that Iraq needs the United States.”
The second issue that is concerning Iran is related to the Iraqi public’s increasing resentment toward the regime and its interference in the country’s domestic affairs. Protests against Tehran started in October 2019, when people shouted slogans and some even burned down the Iranian consulate in Najaf. Last week, following the reported assassinations of several human and social rights activists, protesters stormed buildings linked to the Iranian regime’s proxy groups in the southern cities of Iraq.
Nevertheless, while the Iranian regime is facing some obstacles in Iraq, its influence there remains intact. The bilateral agreement between Al-Kadhimi and the US does not mean that the prime minister is entirely against Iran. In fact, before visiting Washington, Al-Kadhimi’s first foreign visit was to Tehran. He also told the US ambassador to Baghdad that “Iraq will not be a ground for settling accounts and launching attacks on any neighboring or friendly country.” Al-Kadhimi is more likely performing a balancing act between Iran and the US, rather than fundamentally shifting Baghdad’s policy against Tehran.
Furthermore, Iran wields significant influence in Iraq through its network of Shiite militia groups, which pose a threat to any official who dares to significantly undermine Iran’s role in Iraq. Through its influence in the Iraqi government, the Iranian regime has pushed the state into recognizing these militias — including the conglomerate known as the Iran Militia in Iraq and Syria (IMIS)— as legitimate groups, incorporating them into the state apparatuses and making the Iraqi government allocate wages and ammunition for them.
Overall, the Iranian regime still exerts significant influence in Iraq and this trend will likely continue as long as the ruling clerics remain in power.