Analysis |

Iraq's Leadership Is Finally Setting Limits on Iranian Intervention

All of a sudden, Iran's Quds Force chief needs a visa to enter Iraq, while PM Kadhimi is taking aim at Iran-leaning officials. Still, everyone knows real change only comes to those who wait

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
 Gen. Esmail Ghaani speaks in a meeting at the shrine of the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini just outside Tehran, Iran. May 24, 2017
Gen. Esmail Ghaani, Quds Force, suddenly needed a visaCredit: Hossein Zohrevand/AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

General Esmail Ghaani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force, and successor to Qassem Soleimani, had a surprise at the beginning of June. He was required to obtain an official entry permit from the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs to enter the country along with a delegation he was leading. That would never have happened to Soleimani, who came and went as he saw fit, without approval or a visa and sometimes even without an invitation.

But when Mustafa al-Kadhimi took over as prime minister of Iraq in May, he ruled that every person entering Iraq, including VIPs, will need a visa. This was not the only signal that Iranian involvement in Iraq would be facing a new government willing to reconsider the boundaries of Iranian influence in the country. Shortly after al-Kadhimi was appointed, he began a campaign to weaken the clout of Iran’s supporters. He removed a long list of senior officers and officials from their posts, including national security adviser Falih al-Fayyadh, who had served for about a decade, and also heads the Shi’ite militias that Iran supports and funds – on top of the budget they receive from the Iraqi government.

Al-Kadhimi explained the move by saying he intends from now on to appoint officers to posts that will be limited to five year terms and who will be evaluated according to the quality of their work. But beyond that formal explanation, it seems that al-Kadhimi is trying to get rid of most of the high-ranking activists who are considered to be supporters of Iran.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi waits for delegations at the prime minister's office in Baghdad, Iraq, May 14, 2020.Credit: Iraqi Prime Minister Media Office/Handout via REUTERS

For the Shi’ite militias, to which attacks on American targets inside Iraq and Saudi objectives have been attributed, this is not the only bad news. In April, during his first visit to Iraq, Ghaani met with the commanders of the militias and gave them a silver ring, a symbol of Shi’ite brotherhood. But not only did he not bring the usual cash injection, he didn't even make a financial commitment. He spelled out that henceforth the militias would have to rely on the Iraqi government's budget, from which they receive about $2 billion a year.

The explanation for these cuts may lie in the words of Hamid Hosseini, the spokesman for the Iranian oil export company, who told an Iranian business website in an interview that the Iraqi banks froze billions of dollars deposited with them at the demand of the United States.

Since Soleimani’s killing, the structure of the militias has also begun to deteriorate, with some leaving the united command framework and switching to serve under the orders of the Iraqi religious leader Ali al-Sistani. Meanwhile, those loyal to Iran have begun developing alternative sources of funding for themselves, such as collecting fees at random checkpoints and stealing property.

According to reports in Iraq, the commanders of the pro-Iranian militias have not been particularly impressed by Ghaani. He is still not acquainted with the Iraqi political and military arenas, and he does not speak Arabic: His meetings with them are held through an interpreter. Soleimani’s Iraqi partner, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was killed along with Soleimani in the American attack in January, planned to transform the militias into a highly skilled, trained and professional military force. He also wanted them to take control of civilian sectors, following the example of the Revolutionary Guards in Iran. To do so, he even established an engineering unit of the militias that undertook road-building projects, and later planned to form more civilian units that could take control of the oil industry. His death halted these projects and left the militias dangling, divided and without a charismatic leader who could unite their ranks.

While they were still digesting the news of the funding cutbacks, last Thursday forces from the Iraqi anti-terrorism unit raided the headquarters of the Iraqi Hezbollah Brigades (Kata’ib Hezbollah), one of the large militias Iran established in Iraq. They arrested a dozen militants and collected weapons and missiles, which according to Iraqi intelligence were intended to be used in attacks on American targets in the Green Zone in Baghdad, where government offices, embassies and U.S. military headquarters are located.

This was the first time a raid of such scope was carried out against one of the important Iranian strongholds in Iraq. In December, after the U.S. air force attacked a base of the Hezbollah Brigades near Baghdad, thousands came out to protest against the Americans and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad was attacked. This time no demonstration ensued against the raid against the same militia. Soldiers from the militia did travel to the Green Zone in an armed convoy and demanded the release of the prisoners – but security forces made them retreat.

These moves do not necessarily demonstrate a strategic change in Iraqi policy toward Iran. Al-Kadhimi, who was appointed with the support of both the U.S. and Iran – support that he set as a condition for his agreement to serve as prime minister – needs to find a balance between Iranian involvement on one hand, Iraq’s dependence on the U.S. on the other, as well as political forces inside Iraq. Three weeks ago, the strategic dialogue between Iraq and the U.S. on the withdrawal of American military forces from Iraq began. The U.S. made it clear, once again, that it does not intend to keep forces in Iraq, nor does it intend to establish permanent military bases in the country. However, the two sides couldn’t agree on a timetable for the beginning of the withdrawal, or a date for its completion. The only point of agreement for now is that talks will continue in July.

The American withdrawal from Iraq is a demand dictated by the Iraqi parliament and is supported by the protest movements, which stirred up the Iraqi public and caused the downfall of the previous prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi. Al-Kadhimi personally promised to bring about the withdrawal of American troops, but he understands Iraq’s need to receive monetary and military aid from the United States and the American support for the loans Iraq will need from international institutions. At the same time, Iraq imports about 40 percent of what it needs from Iran, buys electricity from the country. It is also obligated to continue to preserve close relations with the regime to guarantee its existence and ability to pay salaries to employees and rebuild manufacturing sectors to provide jobs for the millions of people.

A supporter of Iraq's Hezbollah brigades attends the funeral of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad's Green Zone, January 4, 2020.Credit: Ahmad AL-RUBAYE / AFP

Constraining the power and operations of the Shi’ite militias is necessary to satisfy Washington and prevent a repeat of the attacks by the Americans on militia bases – and to guarantee the supply of weapons and training the Iraqi army needs. Stability in Iraq and the American withdrawal are also in Iran’s interest, and Iran could well be showing restraint over al-Kadhimi’s actions against the Shi’ite militias because in return, they expect that this will lead to the withdrawal of American forces, which will widen the window for Iranian involvement in the end.

Each one of the parties involved understands the balance of interests and the rules of the game, as well as their limitations, quite well. If al-Kadhimi wants to carry out a strategic move against Iran, he will need to wait until the next general election and win them with a large majority. Until a date is set for the elections and until a new election law is agreed upon, Iraq will continue to be run like a sled pulled by wolves from rival packs.

Click the alert icon to follow topics: