WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) – Returning to the US from Bahrain after a week-long trip that included Oman and Afghanistan, US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis charged on Thursday that Iran backed a host of destabilizing activities throughout the region, including in Iraq.
Iran is “mucking around in Iraq’s elections,” Mattis told journalists accompanying him.
Vice President Mike Pence also complained of Iranian interference in the Iraqi elections, slated to be held in May, in a phone call Thursday with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. It was the first such official communication between the two leaders and seemed to signal a heightened US concern over Iran’s influence in Iraq.
Michael Pregent, an expert on Iraq at the Hudson Institute, tweeted that the biggest issue for Washington was Iraq’s newly-formed Fatah (Victory) Party.
The Fatah Party has close ties to the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The party is led by Hadi al-Ameri, who heads the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which are dominated by Iranian-backed militias, formed after the Islamic State’s (IS) 2014 assault on Iraq.
It is easy to see how the Fatah Party, along with the PMF, will come to play a role in Iraq, similar to that of Hizbollah in Lebanon.
Ameri has ties to the Iranians going back over twenty years—to the 1980s and the Iran-Iraq war, when he fought on Iran’s behalf against the Baathist regime in Baghdad.
Mattis explained that Iran was using money “to sway candidates, to sway votes” in the Iraqi elections. “It’s not an insignificant amount of money, and we think it’s highly unhelpful.”
Although Mattis named no names, it is likely that he had Ameri and the Fatah Party in mind, although he might also have been thinking of Nuri al-Maliki. The US supported Maliki after Iraq’s 2005 elections, but turned against him nine years later, when his increasing sectarianism and neglect of Iraq’s Sunni Arab community came to be seen as a major cause of IS’ rise in Iraq.
The Defense Secretary also complained of Iran’s support for terrorism in Bahrain, noting that the US was working with the small kingdom to interdict outside support, including explosives, for terrorism there.
Mattis identified western Afghanistan, which shares a border with Iran, as another target of Tehran’s destabilizing activities. Although the Taliban are Sunni extremists, it has long been reported that they receive support from Iran.
He also criticized Iranian support for the Syrian regime, which was instrumental, along with Russia’s intervention, in preventing the fall of Bashar al-Assad.
The Bab el-Mandeb—the narrow, strategic waters between Yemen in the east, and Djibouti and Eritrea in the west—serves “as the Aberdeen Proving Ground for the Iranian military,” Mattis said.
The Iranians use the waterway to test “their mines [and] their explosive boats,” along with radars, missiles, and anti-ship cruise missiles, he explained.
And that is in addition to Iran’s arming the Houthi rebels in Yemen, including with ballistic missiles, which they fire sporadically at Saudi Arabia.
Although Mattis did not visit Riyadh on this trip, the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, will be in Washington on Monday. Presumably, these issues will also arise in Salman’s discussions here.