Iran’s covert operations inside Iraq, carried out by its proxy militia groups, have faced setbacks this year after the Iraqi protests late last fall which flared up in response to deteriorating socio-economic conditions. The protests revealed deep frustration with Iran, according to intelligence reports. Iran quelled the protests, demanded that US troops withdraw from Iraq, and directed an attack targeting the US embassy in Baghdad.
Iran’s operations were regularly backed by local militia groups in Iraq such as the Kata’ib Hezbollah and the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), considered to be loyal to the late Iranian Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani. He cultivated relations with Shia militias, local agents, Iraqi politicians, and had a say in who was appointed to important cabinet posts in Baghdad.
The United States’ targeted assassination of Soleimani in Baghdad in early January dented Iran’s unscathed position in Iraq, as seen in Iran’s limited missile response to his killing.
Iraqi President Barham Salih has walked a tightrope trying to preserve balanced ties with Washington and Tehran. By undertaking this balancing act, Salih has hoped to prevent both countries from approaching the brink of war inside Iraq.
The United States has targeted pro-Iranian Shia political parties inside Iraq. A tight US sanctions regime against Iran has restricted the flow of cash from Tehran to Iraqi Shia militias. In addition, this has resulted in Iraq becoming more dependent on Washington and the Arab Gulf states for financial support. In April, Washington agreed to briefly waive sanctions to provide Iraq with a one-month extension to import energy from Iran.
An escalation in US-led strikes targeting Iranian-backed military strongholds in Iraq also pushed Iraq’s clerical Shia leaders to relinquish support for the caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi who was a close ally of Iran.
These Shia clerics seem to be parting ways with Iran. The followers of the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr want all foreign troops to withdraw from Iraq. This position compromises the unity of the Shia parties that Iran has depended on to prolong its influence inside Iraq. While Sadr occasionally calls for the full withdrawal of US forces, he and most other Iraqi Shia clerics generally agree that only a gradual US withdrawal is advisable, which has led only to a modest downsizing of US forces in Iraq.
A diplomatic visit to Iraq by Iran’s Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani in March, followed by a visit by the new Quds Force Commander Esmail Qaani in May, failed to unify Iraq’s fractured Shia political leadership on the issue of US troop withdrawal.
Washington has demanded that Iraqis must do more to counter Iran’s influence in the country. They responded by forcing the formation of a national government in Baghdad. It took six months for Iraq’s Parliament to confirm Mustafa al-Kadhimi as the new prime minister of Iraq. Al-Kadhimi is considered to be close to Washington.
Since Kadhimi assumed office in May, Iranian-backed commanders have been assassinated or arrested in Iraq, and their military strongholds hit by US strikes. Under Kadhimi’s premiership, militia groups close to Iran are also being arrested for staging attacks on the US embassy in Baghdad.
Iran sees Kadhimi as a polarizing figure who has already displayed his brinkmanship, and Tehran may want to rebuild a strategic balance of power among various Iraqi groups to contain the Iraqi prime minister.
The July assassination of Iraqi journalist Hisham al-Hashimi, an expert on Iranian-backed armed groups, increased tensions between Tehran and Baghdad. Kadhimi is expected to respond to the killing. Tehran condemned the attack, but is concerned that Hashimi’s death will lead to retaliation against its allies.
A resurgence in Iraqi nationalism in recent months, especially after al-Hashimi’s assassination, will limit Iran’s influence.
Moving forward, Iran’s best bet is for a quick US troop withdrawal. Militia groups close to Iran continue to sabotage US strongholds in Iraq in order to force US troops out. This past week they attacked US military supply convoys in Diwaniyah province. The Iraqi Hezbollah group has also declared its readiness to force US troops to withdraw from Iraq.
A quick US withdrawal from Iraq could lead to future disagreements between Tehran and Baghdad. While some Iraqi Parliament members continue to call for a full US withdrawal, many other politicians in Baghdad including Kadhimi want Iranian-backed Shia militias to disarm first.
American withdrawal plans have cast a shadow of doubt over Iraq’s future. Iran’s influence over Shia militias has led to mounting Iraqi resentment against it and Tehran continues to ignore calls for its meddling in Iraqi affairs to end. This growing anti-Iran public opinion is in spite of ongoing Iranian propaganda campaigns to show that it still has support inside Iraq.