A look at Iraq's long border with Iran explains why influence in Baghdad tips decidedly in Tehran's favor. Winding through Shiite-majority territory, the borderland is a terrain in which Iran has ample military and political influence. Though varyingly a foe, ally or competitor of Iraq, Iran has used the power vacuum created by Saddam Hussein's demise to build up a firm network of political and military ties in the country. It has always been Iran's strategy to create Iraqi Shiite militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, to mirror its own forces to maintain and broaden Iran's sway in Iraq. So far, building an Iraqi equivalent to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has been out of reach, but Iranian sources in favor of the idea have been speaking of it more frequently.
Iran's influence in the Middle East starts with the money and military support it gives to the region's militias, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq; Hamas in Gaza; and the Hirak Southern Resistance movement in Yemen. These militias are a source of anxiety for Iran's rivals in the region, primarily Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Following reports and images of the IRGC's Quds Force commander, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, convening with Iraqi military leaders in Fallujah, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said May 31 that "sending Iranian Shiite armed units to Iraq or their training [in Iraq] is unacceptable." Even in Iraq, Kurds and Sunnis are alarmed by the influence these groups give Iran in Baghdad's politics, primarily through the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq party, led by Ammar al-Hakim and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Iran Looks for a Greater Opening
In light of the political upheaval in Baghdad, Iran sees an opportunity to increase its already visible influence in Iraq by building up a more reliable network of military and political assets. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's representative in Khuzestan — the Iranian province bordering Iraq with the most Shiite overlap across the border — said May 5 that Iran wanted to expand Shiite mobilization and support in Iraq. An Iranian lawmaker also outlined on May 17 how Iran will give guidance to shape a revolutionary guard corps in Iraq in the style of Iran's IRGC. His statement, particularly about the Khorasani Brigades being at the heart of the envisioned Iraqi revolutionary guard, echoed those of a Khorasani commander who asked in March why the Popular Mobilization Forces cannot be more like Iran's IRGC.
But Iraq is not Iran, and the IRGC cannot be easily replicated. The IRGC was formed in 1978 as a well-trained counter to Iran's standing army, the Artesh. It was formalized after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 to protect holy sites and safeguard the position of the new government, at first domestically and then internationally. Its identity was further forged in the 1980s in the course of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, when the IRGC sought to export the revolution's ideology while taking Iraqi territory. Finally, the guiding philosophy of the IRGC is predicated on demonizing the United States as Iran's greatest enemy. The history is so embedded in the IRGC that even after Iran signed the nuclear deal with the West, beginning a slow rapprochement that reconfigured Iranian foreign policy, the force's mission remains the same, with threats to Iran taking on new precedence.
Though Shiite militias throughout Iraq already have political heft, with many Popular Mobilization Forces funded and trained by Iran, actually modeling at least one of them after the IRGC's hierarchical structure would formalize it as a political and military force in the country. It would also give Iran even more clout in Baghdad, something Tehran desperately wants. This desire is especially strong as the political situation deteriorates in Iraq between proponents of economic reform and those who benefit from the existing system, according to Stratfor sources. The Khorasani Brigades, which were formed in 2013, would be a leading candidate to emulate the IRGC.
One factor that enabled militias to gain prominence in Iraq also limits Iran's ability to set up a formal militia in the country: Baghdad's political stalemate. Iraqi politics are already factional, but Kurds and Sunnis would work specifically to prevent a more visible and unified Iranian-supported force in the country. Conflict with other militias, such as Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr's Saraya al-Salam, would be an issue as well. Al-Sadr has recently been more inclined to take at least some orders from Iran, but his support is far from reliable.
Thus, conflict with political blocs and militias less inclined to support Iran's plans is to be expected in Baghdad. This will be true particularly in regard to another factor preventing Iran from creating a more influential security force in Iraq: the campaign against the Islamic State. When the Islamic State began taking territory in Iraq, domestic Kurdish and Sunni factions grudgingly cooperated with Iranian-funded Shiite militias to fight the common enemy. That shared cause will last only as long the Islamic State holds Fallujah, Mosul and other key pieces of territory in Iraq where offensives are underway. Opponents of IRGC-like militias may soon refocus their efforts on thwarting Iran's aims.
Kurdish governance in Iraqi Kurdistan is also a complication for the Iranians. Iran is dealing with its own low-level Kurdish insurgency in the northwest that could flare up if it upsets Iraqi Kurds by seeking more of a stabilizing and controlling hand in Iraq. In its first true challenge in the months just after the Islamic Revolution, the IRGC put down a Kurdish rebellion. So Iran will have to continue to balance nationalist sentiment and the general Sunni distrust for growing Iranian influence in Iraq. Understandably, Tehran's efforts will not lead to tangible plans any time soon.
Iran has long been involved in Iraq, and recent instability in Baghdad has created a larger opening for Tehran to try to exert its power. Because two of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam are located in southern Iraq, Iran has long viewed portions of the area as its own historical heritage, and most of Iran's oil wealth cuts close to the Iraqi border. With the battle to wrest Fallujah from the Islamic State in full swing, Baghdad is observing sectarian cooperation and strife with an eye to what could happen next. And so is Iran.