Since the beginning of October, Iraq has been convulsed by protests. The causes of the demonstrations are various and have been exacerbated by extreme repression. But one consistent complaint of those on the streets is Iranian control over Iraq’s government, and the seeming capture of Iraqi society by Iranian interests.
The evidence for this influence exists in abundance.
Qassem Suleimani – head of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force and de facto leader of Iran’s constellation of proxies across the Middle East – is a frequent guest in Baghdad and a fixture of events. His journeys to Iraq invariably reassert the long arm of Iranian influence.
Militias which claim loyalty to Iran have openly operated in Iraq for years, and the goodwill a number of leading Iraqi politicians exhibit towards Iran goes above and beyond the norms of close international friendships.
But new documents, uncovered and published by the New York Times and The Intercept, make Iran’s infiltration of Iraq’s governing institutions even more explicit.
The Intercept’s write-up notes how the documents ‘offer a detailed portrait of just how aggressively Tehran has worked to embed itself into Iraqi affairs’, and feature a starring role for Suleimani.
No man can be prime minister of Iraq without Iranian support, The Intercept states, and the incumbent Adil Abdul-Mahdi developed a ‘special relationship’ with Iran while in exile, and later, after the fall of Saddam.
The die was cast, to some minds, when the pro-Iranian Nouri al-Maliki was allowed to continue his long premiership despite his lack of a popular mandate in 2010.
Other politicians have also fallen into Iran’s orbit. Iran’s embassies are full, the documents suggest, of men from the Revolutionary Guards for whom ‘[c]ultivating Iraqi officials was a key part of their job’ – something that ‘was made easier by the alliances many Iraqi leaders forged with Iran when they belonged to opposition groups fighting Saddam’.
But more than securing relationships with politicians Iran can ‘trust with its eyes closed’, in a revealing comment from Gheis Ghoreishi, Iran has also developed a network of agents within the country to compensate for the vacuum left by Iraq’s former occupiers.
When America vacated the scene in 2011, ‘Iran moved quickly to add former CIA informants to its payroll’. Needless to say, all this activity was as much about keeping tabs on the Americans as understanding the way the Iraqi state functioned.
Understanding the Iraqi state is one thing; keeping it on the rails is another. This is something Iran undertook, knowing a more stable Iraqi economy would be to its benefit.
Iran’s power rests in part upon some of the militias which dominate Iraqi politics. In the chaos of the war against the Islamic State (IS) in 2014, general mobilisation was accompanied by the institutionalisation of armed militias, many of them openly sectarian, many of them openly favourable to Iranian interests. When these militias were legalised in 2016, and later included in recent reorganisation of Iraq’s military, the game appeared to have been won.
Iran’s success in becoming the most powerful man in town has been repeatedly proven. But it remains deeply unpopular. The Iranian consulate in the holy city of Karbala was recently torched by protesters, while Iranian-supporting political parties, which made gains in 2018’s parliamentary election, now contend with heavy popular disapproval.
The fact that Iran’s networks of influence are so powerful Iraq casts the country’s extreme political dysfunction in a new light. If Iraq’s political sphere has been overtaken with foreign interference, the failure of Iraq’s politicians to solve endemic social issues seems both more explicable and less excusable. It appears the country is not being run in its own interest, but rather in favour of the interests of another.
Recent, shocking violence used against Iraqi protesters has been attributed to Iran’s influence and determination to maintain its position.
According to the documents, Iraq was also used as a springboard for Iran’s other regional projects, and favoured Iraqi politicians assisted in supplying the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria with arms.
But the overtness of Iran’s project in Iraq has had consequence for both countries. Iran and its agents became unpopular as Iraq’s economy and society continued to struggle, and its politics remained sclerotic.
Per The Intercept, these complaints were worsened by the actions of Iran’s operatives within Iraq: ‘The [Iranian] intelligence ministry feared that Iran’s gains in Iraq were being squandered because Iraqis so resented the Shia militias and the Quds Force that sponsored them.’
With Iraq’s politics in torpor, it’s unsurprising that popular protests continue in Iraq, and now in Iran itself, where over 100 have been killed in just three days of demonstrations.
It is clear that Iran’s model will never satisfy the people of Iraq, and in reality serves as a focal point for local, popular resistance to a succession of unpopular governments. Sixteen years after the American invasion of Iraq, and eight years after the US withdrawal, Iraq’s people deserve, finally, to govern themselves.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.