The recent takeover of Kirkuk by the Iranian-backed Shia Hashd al-Shaabi militias and Iraqi army illustrates that Iran is now calling the shots for every important decision made in Iraq. The entire operation and withdrawal of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) Peshmerga without resistance to advancing Iraqi forces was planned by Iran Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani. The extent to which the Iraqi Prime Minister’s office was involved in this episode remains unclear, but one thing is certain: decisions were made in Tehran which Baghdad followed.
Geopolitical observers are now criticizing Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi for being too quick to resort to force against Kurds at the behest of Iran rather than engaging in talks with Erbil which helped Baghdad in the fight against the Islamic State (IS).
There are several ways Iran gains from this current crisis. Not only does the conflict undermine Kurdish unity, but it also boosts the role of Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq and makes them look like guardians of national unity rather than sectarianism. But, Iraq is at a loss as it has sparked anger between the Federal Government and its sizeable Kurdish minority.
The fall of Kirkuk showcases the extent to which Iraq today is an Iranian-controlled territory. And, it demonstrates the currently unparalleled efficacy of the Iranian methods of revolutionary and political warfare, as used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) throughout the Arab world to promote Iran’s geopolitical interests. Iran’s influence in Iraq is not just ascendant, but diverse extending to almost every walk of life. Let’s examine the various areas where Iran is dominating the Iraqi arena.
Politics: During Saddam Hussein’s rule, Iran granted asylum to several Iraqi opposition parties. Part of Tehran’s ability to greatly affect the Iraqi political theatre today is linked to the fact the individuals comprising a signiﬁcant portion of the Iraqi political map formerly resided in Iran. Politically, Iran has many allies in Iraq’s Parliament who can help secure its goals. Even the most senior Iraqi cabinet officials take instructions from Iran’s leadership.
Military: Tehran has been the principal backer of the mainly Shia Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), who were formed to fight IS and are now formally absorbed into the Iraqi military. The IRGC’s overseas arm, the Quds Force, provides the bulk of logistical support and advice to the PMF. In turn, Iran uses the PMF to exert its military leverage over the Iraqi government to wrestle power on behalf of Tehran, much as Hezbollah did in Lebanon.
Economy: Trade between these two nations is primarily unidirectional in favor of Iran. Years of sanctions and internal conflicts have rendered Iraq dependent on Iranian imports. The only place outside Iran where the Iranian currency (the rial) is used as a medium of exchange in southern Iraq. Iran is dumping cheap, subsidized food products and consumer goods into Iraqi markets and is undercutting its neighbor’s agricultural and manufacturing sectors.
Natural Resources: Iran’s damming and diversion of the rivers feeding the Shatt al-Arab waterway has dramatically undermined the Iraqi agricultural sector in the south and hindered efforts to revive Iraq’s marshlands. Iran has withheld water flows from the Kalal River, which flows into Wasit Province, and of the Karun and Karkha rivers, which flow into Basra Province.
Religion: Iran has been pursuing a long-term strategy to expand its religious authority in Iraq in many ways. First, by using financial and political leverages to ensure the primacy of clerics trained in the Iranian seminary of Qom—and loyal to the Iranian ideology—over clerics trained in the relatively non-political tradition of the Najaf seminary. Then, by reconstructing the Shia shrines in Iraq, and, consequently, taking control of their management in the long run. Finally, by taking control of the pilgrimage observances in Iraq’s shrine cities, notably the Arbaeen procession which attracts millions of devotees every year in Karbala.
Despite this significant degree of Iranian influence in Iraq, there is still a ray of hope. Abadi has the potential to be pulled out of Iran’s control and act as an independent figure. This is especially true on some occasions where he has stood up in the face of Iran’s pressures. But, Abadi’s government officials must prove their allegiance to the Iraqi people and not to the Iranian regime. The Iraqi judiciary is also under Tehran’s influence. An example was when the country’s Supreme Court last October blocked Abadi’s reform package. Efforts have to be made to clean the judiciary and make it independent. The current Iraqi leadership should also try hard to bridge the gulf with its Sunni and Kurdish minorities by establishing an equal method of governance across the country. Not all Iraqi Shias are pro-Iranian puppets. In fact, many are fervidly nationalistic; something Prime Minister Abadi can tap into to combat further sectarian division.
Manish Rai is a columnist for the Middle-East and Af-Pak region and Editor of the geo-political news agency ViewsAround.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kurdistan 24.
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany