Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif recently visited Baghdad during the second leg of his regional tour and met Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kazemi, President Barham Salih, Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein, and several other Iraqi political leaders to discuss bilateral issues. Zarif’s recent visit comes amid important regional and domestic developments and Iran’s ongoing efforts to influence Iraq’s political and security conditions through its militias and political proxies.
Iran’s recent actions indicate its desire to uphold its influence in Iraq especially as Baghdad is seeking to diversify its economic ties and investment opportunities with other regional countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Iraq has been dependent on Iran for several items that are critical for developing its industry and infrastructure, and this has limited its economic prospects because of tight US sanctions on Tehran. Last year, Iran slashed gas exports to Iraq citing unpaid bills which resulted in major cities like Baghdad facing power shortages. The Kazemi government has taken certain measures to limit Tehran’s influence and interference in the country. Kazemi has been eager to impose the writ of the state in order to control Iranian-backed militias and clamp down on their rampant aggression. Last year, upon strict orders from Kazemi, Iran’s Quds Force Commander Esmail Qaani had to obtain an official visa from Iraq’s Foreign Ministry prior to visiting Baghdad. This was unprecedented as Iranian commanders have frequently visited Iraq without obtaining an official visa. Several Iraqi politicians resent Iran’s interference and the new Iraqi moves are largely seen as an Iraqi attempt to push back against Iran’s mischievous involvement in Iraq’s domestic affairs.
Iran’s evolving approach towards the developments inside Iraq reflects how Tehran intends to counter US influence and exploit the country’s instability. US-Iran tensions intensified after the killing of General Qassem Soleimani last year and Iranian-backed militias have repeatedly called on the United States to withdraw its remaining 2,500 troops in Iraq for rocket attacks to cease. Last year, Iraq’s Parliament voted 170-0 to expel US troops in Iraq with the help of Shiite majority political blocs like the Fateh Alliance and the State of Law Coalition. Iran’s Quds Force and the IRGC have played an active role in supporting local militias which have impeded the process of restoring security in the country. Iran continues to support its proxies in Iraq and several reports indicate that Iran has supplied ballistic missiles and weapons to groups like the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Kata’ib Hezbollah, and Saraya al-Jihad. Furthermore, earlier this year, pro-Iranian militias drove openly in central Baghdad denouncing the US presence in Iraq and threatened to cut off the Iraqi prime minister’s ear. Responding to the open threat, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kazemi asked Iran to rein in its militias in the country and warned that he would “announce clearly who backs these groups.” On the one hand, Iran is trying to present a responsible regional approach by participating in the Vienna talks, while on the other hand it continues to support its proxies in Iraq to attack US troops. Against this backdrop, Zarif’s visit aimed to secure Iran’s interests rather than pave the way for serious political reform and put an end to Iraq’s internal instability. Pro-Iranian political blocs like the State of Law Coalition and the Fateh Alliance opposed the national dialogue initiated by Kazemi which intended to unite rival factions in Iraq’s Parliament in order to achieve common understandings on how to stabilize the government, national institutions and the country. The Fateh Alliance said, “it is useless to hold a national dialogue before achieving full sovereignty and the exit of foreign forces.” Iran now faces a serious challenge from the Kazemi government which looks to develop more balanced relationships with all regional powers and the West, unlike previous Iraqi governments.
The October Revolution had shaken Iran’s influence in Iraq and pro-Iranian political blocs now face several challenges amid strong anti-Iranian sentiments that were evident throughout the long haul of protests in Iraq. Since Iran understands that it is difficult to achieve a favorable political outcome in Iraq considering the present circumstances, it will likely continue to push its proxies in the country to threaten domestic security and use its political clout to ensure political crises and deadlocks continue to taint the country’s political landscape.