Iran and the Biden Administration: The Future of Iraq’s Militias

ByFarouq Yousif

Iran has always viewed Iraq as a battlefield in its potential war with the United States. To prepare for this war, Iran has expanded the scope of its militias, whose presence on the ground overwhelmed the military institution represented by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The PMF is no longer in need of recognition as  it is now embedded within the Iraqi state and has become part of it.  Meanwhile, the smaller militias, which are affiliated with the PMF but are not recognized by the Iraqi government, have been mushrooming and have become excessive in number.   The new force known as the Mobilization of Holy Shrines is competing with the PMF in its Shiite sectarian allegiance but has not challenged the finances it receives from the Iraqi government, i.e., the Mobilization of Holy Shrines is competing with the PMF only in its proximity to the Najaf marjaya and therefore  poses a limited threat. The Iraqi government is cautious about directly confronting the official factions of the PMF, after the clash which was about to erupt following the Iraqi government arresting members belonging to Kata’ib Hezbollah. These members were released later. Iran’s passiveness and silence in response to the arrests indicate a significant turning point in Tehran’s position, which shifts from rigidity to flexibility when it comes to dominating Iraqi politics.

A few months earlier, the Iranian government was optimistic, betting that if Trump lost the US presidential elections, the new US administration would lift the sanctions on Tehran. However, now that Joe Biden is the President-elect, Tehran is cautiously optimistic but at the same time hesitant about returning to the old nuclear deal.

 Iran hopes that Biden will grant it an opportunity like the one that was granted to it under Obama’s presidency, when Biden served as vice president — to effect geopolitical change in the Middle East. Biden knows well that Iran was given the green light to expand its influence in Iraq, to serve Washington’s goals, which have become ambiguous today. The region has witnessed many changes; the situation is not the same as during Obama’s presidency. Iran has deployed numerous proxy militias that operate in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Now it hopes that Biden will grant it the same opportunity to further strengthen its militia presence in the region. The United States had betted on its military supremacy; however, after its withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, it was unlikely that Washington would launch a war in the Middle East. Iran exploited the withdrawal of US troops to expand its influence.  Further, Iran has become a threat to US interests in the region and Israel has not been in complete agreement with Washington in relation to the existence of militias in Iraq, whether the ones operating officially under the PMF or the unofficial Iranian-backed ones, which report directly to Iran without passing through Iraqi government channels. Yet, Israel and the United States are still collaborating to protect their interests.

 Upon the signing of a potential truce between the United States and Iran in Iraq, Washington should adopt a neutral position towards the activities of pro-Iranian militias and avoid provoking them which might instigate them to launch attacks against US sites such as against the US embassy; its surroundings; US-Iraqi joint military bases; and sites that were targeted in the past.   Israel, on the other hand, can carry out its ambiguous operations inside Iran and Iraq without any redlines. 

Iraq, therefore, is a critical point of disagreement between Tehran on the one hand and Washington and Tel Aviv on the other hand. The latter have not formed a unified position in relation to thwarting Iran’s role in Iraq.  There is no doubt that Israeli operations are not carried out within just one region that Iran fully controls, whereas the United States has been forced to be cautious to safeguard Iraq from turning into a battlefield in its potential war with Iran: a significant goal in Iran’s strategy of dominance. In spite of the Israeli strikes on its sites in Syria, Tehran rules out the possibility that Tel Aviv would launch further attacks against its sites in the region, i.e., beyond its deployments in Syria.  

The Trump administration attempted to weaken Iran’s dominating grip on Iraq, but it was too late. This failure was due to the emergence of new militias in Iraq which no longer need Iranian logistical or back-up support. The PMF’s guaranteed protection encouraged many unemployed young men to unilaterally form militias with a sectarian name to prove their sectarian allegiance.   Arming has never been a problem in a country like Iraq, which has become an arms depot.   And financing is secured through looting which continues unchecked as Iraqi security forces fear confrontation with any militia, whether closely or loosely linked to the PMF.

The militias in Iraq prospered unprecedentedly during Trump’s presidency.  All of these armed groups competed with one another to prove their loyalty to Iran; consequently, the Iraqi state has been unable to secure the country.   Iraq’s security forces cannot operate without a clear signal from the PMF regarding which militia is recognized or not.  Usually, the PMF expels those militias which over-compete with it in reaping gains. Amid this chaos, Iran is rest assured that the US plan to mitigate its influence in the region will be fruitless as long as Iraq witnesses maximum turmoil; the chaos has penetrated the Iraqi government and it cannot restore the Iraqi state’s prestige.  

The Obama administration’s complacent policies led to the aforementioned ramifications.   Iraq was abandoned, allowing Iran to dominate it without much difficulty. Therefore, Iran is willing to wait for the Biden administration and incur any cost, considering the expected benefits. However, things may go against the Iranian will because Biden is not running a third Obama term and the US vision towards Iraq has changed due to the Israeli presence.

Nevertheless, Iraq will continue to suffer in a deep quagmire of chaos as long as sectarian militarization dominates life in the country.  It will not be easy to uproot it unless the United States crafts a strong program to save the Iraqi state from the absolute dominance of the PMF.

Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

Farouq Yousif
Farouq Yousif
Iraqi researcher and writer