Leaked Documents Show Iran’s Influence over Iraq

It has long been known that Iran exerts significant power and possesses long reach in its neighbouring countries.

After the deposition of Saddam Hussein, and the subsequent withdrawal of the United States in 2011, Iran’s influence in Iraq became dominant.

Documents, authenticated, translated and released by The New York Times and The Intercept, show the apparatus of Iranian influence with new and concerning clarity.

A conclusion of the leaks is that Iran used the end of America’s occupation and, later, the cover of the war against the Islamic State (ISIS) to advance a project of regional control, which included domination of Iraq.

In pursuit of that project, politicians were turned, American assets were ‘flipped’, and organisations favourable to Iran’s cause became more and more central to the running of the Iraqi state.

Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force, features heavily in the documents. He makes trips to Baghdad to rally supportive politicians, and attempts to keep the Iranian-dominated Iraq together, in Tehran’s interest.

When Iraqi Kurdistan voted to declare independence in 2017, it was Suleimani who, in support of Iraq remaining whole and entire, travelled to the city of Sulaimaniya and threatened to burn the Kurdish region to the ground if the Kurdish parties did not stand down.

Kurdish forces unsuccessfully resisted the central government’s seizure of territory, including the emblematic city of Kirkuk, which followed. But more than this bid for regional independence, recent protests against Iranian interference in Iraq’s politics have shaken Tehran’s influence and its confidence.

Protesters decry the Iraqi government’s failure to confront endemic social issues, and vocally oppose Iranian domination of Iraq’s politics, institutions, and many of the militias which dominate the country.

In Lebanon, another country where an Iranian proxy – Hezbollah – dominates local politics, protests against government dysfunction have made the work of external powers within Lebanese politics more difficult.

Protests are also ongoing in Iran itself, mainly against economic woes, but with a subtext that includes condemning the cost Iran incurs in attempting to maintain and expand this regional dominance.

Phillip Smyth, Soref fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said: ‘I think all of these protests are threatening to the Iranians.

‘They view the protests as being created by the United States, an effort to strike back at Iranian “successes” in attacking our regional allies such as Saudi Arabia, and also their efforts against the Israelis’, he said.

In Iraq, protesters have been met with shocking violence,which observers blame on Iran’s heavy-handed response to this threat to its influence.

The Iranian authorities ‘are moving very, very quickly to try and quash some of this, just as they were trying to do in Iraq’, Smyth said.

In Iraq, ‘they [Iranian leaders] are willing to use a very heavy hand, and not really care about the consequences, and I don’t think that’s done them very well. Who knows if they have learned from that?’

Iranian influence in Iraqi institutions is pervasive and deep. Many of the militias which serve as Iranian proxies saw their numbers and influence swell when the Iraqi state openly called for popular, militia mobilisation during the darkest days of its fight against the Islamic State in 2014, when it seemed possible that Baghdad might fall.

After the moment of peril passed, the militias fought many of the state’s battles against ISIS and latterly against Kurdish independence. Later, in 2016, Iraq’s web of militias was legalised, and in 2018, Hadi al-Amiri and his pro-Iranian Fatah Alliance, which drew much of its support from the militias, performed well in parliamentary elections.

Departments of the Iraqi government are discussed in terms of which militia or external group holds the monopoly. One of the militias involved in this departmental manoeuvring is the Badr Organisation, al-Amiri’s group, a militia of long standing, with extremely close links to the Iranian state.

Iraq’s prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, draws much of his support from the Iraq’s Revolutionary Guards. In him, Iran has great influence. ‘The Iranians have a sweet deal’, Smyth said.

‘It really comes down to how many parallel levels of control can they maintain? It’s possible you could argue that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew. But I don’t think they would be willing to lose everything they’ve gained. They feel they’ve gained it through a lot of hard effort.’

Even Abdul-Mahdi resigned rather than continue to brutalise protesters; if the militias which operate openly within the Iraqi military were dissolved; and if Suleimani ceased his routine trips to Baghdad, Iran’s influence in Iraq would still be very great. In the militias, Iran has a pre-made parallel state akin to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Iran can only be unwilling to surrender this apparatus, no matter how unpopular it is, and no matter how many aspects of its network are exposed in investigations by foreign newspapers.

This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.

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