Iraqis have been speaking out against Iran’s interference in the country, demanding sovereignty. Four Iraqi factions, dubbed The Shrine Hashd, stated that “Foreign intervention is dangerous”, whilst not explicitly stating Iran itself, it is the only external power to have a firm grip on the nation’s institutions. Perhaps most surprising is that Iraq’s top clerics like Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, a Shiite cleric, called on the Iraqi government to demobilize and disband the pro-Iran Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) as well as other Iran-associated militia groups in the country.
Over the past several years, pro-Iran groups have gained traction, expanding their political and social power, sparking instability in the fragile nation. Now, as Iran is bogged down by the coronavirus and struggling financially, it is unable to fund its proxies and destabilizing agendas, creating the perfect opportunity for the Iraqi government to rid itself of Iran’s destructive policies. If the Iraqi government acts swiftly to demobilize these entities, it will be able to dismantle Iran’s extensive state power in the country, allowing Iraq to reassert control over its domestic affairs sustainably.
One of Iran’s primary foreign policy goals is to expand its influence in the Middle East by embedding itself in the domestic affairs of its neighbors. When the Islamic State insurgency was at its peak in 2014, Iran took advantage of Iraq’s vulnerability, taking hold of the country’s internal affairs. Iran has primarily established its influence in Iraq via its proxy, Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iraqi Shia paramilitary organization that forms the backbone of the PMU. Today, the organization controls a significant portion of Iraq’s political, cultural, and economic life, while managing the PMU’s internal security unit. Indeed, western intelligence reports indicate that Iran has been helping its proxy develop precision-guided missiles within its territory in Iraq.
The cooperation between the two groups has proven to be disastrous. With Kata’ib Hezbollah’s support, the PMU has been able to institute a sub-state in Iraq that in many ways operates as an alternative to the legitimate government. Over the past few years, Kata’ib Hezbollah has assumed control over vast amounts of agricultural land in the south of Baghdad and on the Iraqi border with Syria. It manages the operations of these territories, and reporting indicates that the group prevents formal Iraqi government officials from accessing it.
Through Kata’ib Hezbollah, Iran has been able to infiltrate the highest levels of the Iraqi government. Leaked cables have revealed that Iranian intelligence officers established themselves at cabinet and military leadership levels in Iraq. While the growing influence of the group has benefitted Iran, it has had catastrophic consequences for the Iraqi people, preventing Iraq from reaching its full potential.
The threat posed by Iran has not gone unnoticed by Iraqis. In October 2019, tens of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets in anti-government protests that were heavily laden with anti-Iran sentiments. Although the protests were primarily peaceful, Reuters reported that Iran-backed militia snipers were surveilling the protests last October. Despite growing frustration towards Iranian influence in the country, Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has failed to take action. In doing so, he may be missing out on the prime opportunity to eradicate Iranian influence in the country.
Iran is grappling with a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. The country’s economy, already vulnerable from economic sanctions, is facing significant downturn due to the virus. If Kadhimi acts now, he could help re-establish integrity and legitimacy across Iraq. Kadhimi would also likely find support from the international community, as both the United States and the United Arab Emirates have designated Kata’ib Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and share aligned foreign policy objectives when it comes to Iran.
Indeed, the far-reaching role of Iran in a vulnerable country’s affairs is not a unique story in the Middle East. In Lebanon, for example, Hezbollah, with the financial and military support of Iran, has been able to embed itself in the country’s internal affairs. The group has accrued significant political power and influence, and this has had numerous negative consequences, and the country’s economic, political, and social life has suffered significantly. In Lebanon, Hezbollah and Iran have entrenched themselves so deeply in domestic affairs, that disentangling them has proven particularly challenging. The experiences of countries such as Lebanon should serve as an example of why Kadhimi needs to act before it is too late.
Iran’s long-standing influence in Iraq, via Kata’ib Hezbollah, has damaged the country’s economy, undermined societal morale and progress, and hindered the country’s stability and prosperity. Today, Kata’ib Hezbollah has assumed significant control over decision making in Iraq, and it is the most dangerous alternative to legitimate state power in the country. The Iraqi government must take advantage of the tenuous state of domestic affairs in Iran to reassert itself as the authority and eradicate Iranian influence. If it fails to strike when the iron is hot, Iran will embed itself in Iraq’s domestic affairs for years to come, continuing down its destructive path.