US Military Experts: Iranian Influence in Iraq is Big Concern

“Iranian influence with the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs)” in Iraq “is a very serious concern for the [US] administration,” as Matthew McInnis explained, in response to a question from Kurdistan24.

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan24) – “Iranian influence with the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs)” in Iraq “is a very serious concern for the [US] administration,” as Matthew McInnis explained, in response to a question from Kurdistan24.

McInnis spoke Tuesday at an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) panel on “The Future of Iranian Power in the Middle East.” A long-time Defense Department analyst, McInnis is currently a resident fellow at AEI, where he has just published a study, “The Future of Iran’s Security Policy.”

“The Iraqi population does not like the current degree of Iranian influence in their security forces” and would welcome US assistance in curtailing it, McInnis said.

"We should be putting a lot of our energy into addressing the challenge that the PMUs (or Hashd al Shaabi) pose," McInnis advised, as it has “tremendous potential” to undermine stability in Iraq and “recreate the environment for the next version” of the Islamic State (IS.)

Indeed, the following day, on Wednesday, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of the US-led coalition fighting IS, visited Erbil, where he met with Kurdish President Masoud Barzani.

Both sides expressed their concern about the PMUs, whose recent movements in and around Mosul, violate the tripartite agreement among the US, the Kurdistan Region, and Iraq.

"It constitutes a threat to security and stability in the liberated areas of Nineveh province,” according to a press statement from the office of the President of the Kurdistan Region.

Fred Kagan, a former professor of military history at the US Military Academy at West Point, and now Director of AEI’s Critical Threats Project, described in very strong terms the challenges posed by Iran’s activities in Iraq.

“Iraq is more thoroughly integrated into the regional Iranian security system” than it has ever been as an independent country,” he warned.

“There are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of Iraqis fighting in Syria under the command of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), as part of the axis of resistance.”

Kagan noted there are “Iranian-controlled” PMUs “that are not responsive” to the Iraqi Prime Minister, and they enjoy an “unprecedented level” of autonomy.

“Some of the leaders of the Shiite death squads, who contributed so much to the sectarian warfare in 2007,” he continued, “are now in prominent ministries within the Iraqi government.”

Kagan criticized the US for having been “myopically focused” on the fight against IS to the point that it failed to think seriously about how to address these problems. He is quite concerned about the “sectarian stabilization” in Iraq after IS’ defeat.

Iran’s cultivation and exploitation of the PMUs in Iraq are typical of its general style of war and of how it gains influence in other countries.

Iran’s conventional military is weak, McInnis explained. So Tehran operates through proxies—of which Lebanese Hizbollah is the premier example. Iran favors “asymmetric warfare,” that is: unconventional conflicts that do not involve what Westerners generally understand as war - namely, the clash of regular armed forces.

Vice Admiral (Ret.) Mark Fox, Deputy Commander of CENTCOM before his retirement last year, seconded that view. He explained that from a naval perspective, the Iranians “are very much focused on the asymmetric. They like mines. They like small boats.”

“They are masters,” Fox said, “at keeping things just at or just below the boiling point.”

Lt. Gen. Thomas J. Trask Vice Commander, Headquarters US Special Operations Command, suggested that Iran was likely to continue to focus its military efforts on its network of proxies, which reach into Africa, South America, and even Europe.

One of McInnis’ main goals in writing the monograph, he said, was to explain how the Iranian leadership approaches security issues so that the US can deal more effectively with it.

He described two obstacles to such an understanding. One is the common view that Iran is “too opaque” and too difficult to understand. The other, McInnis characterized as “the mad mullah problem”: i.e. Iran’s leadership is a group of irrational religious fanatics.

However, as McInnis’ work illustrates, if one makes an effort to understand Tehran’s decision-making on its own terms, there is a quite rational relationship of ends and means.

Furthermore, even the ideological dimension of Iran’s security policy, which seems the most irrational, serves a purpose that Americans can well understand. At this point, Tehran’s self-imposed, visceral antagonism to the US and Israel appears to many as stale and worn.

Indeed, the Iranian people do not really share that ideological perspective, McInnis said. However, “It is what keeps this elite cohort in power,” and they are not ready to give it up.

“The ideology is what keeps this certain elite cohort in power, and they’re not ready to give it up.”


Editing by G.H. Renaud