- The Iraqi prime minister will continue to pursue reforms to loosen Iran's grip on his country.
- A growing number of regional rivals will seek to challenge Iran's position as the dominant foreign influence in Iraq.
- Iran's powerful proxies and considerable clout in the Iraqi parliament will continue to cement its presence in Iraq for the foreseeable future.
Iraq, a historical crossroad between major empires to the east and west, is once again caught in the middle of a battle among regional powers looking to protect their own interests. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iran has maintained its dominant foreign influence in Iraq, a status quo that was only reinforced after the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011.
Now, however, Iran's standing may not be so assured. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has pushed through several reforms that have increasingly challenged Iran's role in the country, creating an opening for other states in the region to make a play for greater leverage in Iraq. But Iran will not back down without a fight. Tehran will use every tool it has, including proxy forces, to guard its interests in Iraq.
Iran's Rivals Close In
Widespread discontent with Iraqi governance has created the opening needed to enact significant change in the country. Al-Abadi, with the support of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has taken advantage of that opening to implement several key reforms that have politically distanced Iraq from its overbearing neighbor. Iran, alarmed by the turn of events in a country that has long served as the linchpin for Tehran's projection of power in the Middle East, has begun to push back against the reforms that Iraqi leaders are now pursuing.
Sensing an opportunity to enhance their own influence in Iraq, Gulf Cooperation Council members led by Saudi Arabia have taken steps to curry favor with the al-Abadi government. After 25 years of diplomatic absence, Saudi Arabia will open an embassy in Baghdad and a consulate in Arbil on Sept. 24, after the conclusion of the Eid al-Adha holiday. Other Gulf states are not far behind; on Sept. 11, Qatar selected its future ambassador to Iraq.
Several of the GCC states, including Saudi Arabia, may try to raise their standing in Iraq by offering to mediate talks between Baghdad and Iraq's Sunni tribes. Qatar, for instance, hosted a large group of Iraqi lawmakers earlier this month in what it called an "Iraqi reconciliation initiative." The Iraqi government and the Gulf Cooperation Council also share the goal of limiting Iran's influence in Iraq while undermining the Islamic State's power in the region. Because plunging oil prices have exacerbated Iraq's fiscal crisis, delaying security forces' paychecks, rich Gulf states could ingratiate themselves with Baghdad through loans or grants, including the $500 million of aid that the Gulf Cooperation Council has already allocated for Iraqi refugees.
Other regional powers like Turkey and Jordan have also begun to show an interest in improving their ties with Iraq. Turkey's relationship with President Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Regional Government is deteriorating. Ankara has also resumed a military campaign against the Kurdistan Workers' Party and strained its economic arrangement with Arbil, boosting Turkey's interest in expanding cooperation with Iraq further. Ankara is already courting several Iraqi officials, including former Iraqi vice presidents Usama al-Nujayfi and Iyad Allawi during their recent visits to Turkey. Meanwhile Jordan, facing a growing Islamic State threat on its borders, is seeking greater security coordination with Iraq to combat the militant group's spread. Stratfor sources indicate that Jordan has increased its cooperation to counter Islamic State encroachment on Iraqi-held posts on the two countries' shared border.
Internal and External Threats
Many of these would-be challengers have strategic interests that directly conflict with those of Iran, a fact that has only increased Tehran's concern over al-Abadi's recent reforms. Iran has already demonstrated its willingness to push back against the Iraqi prime minister and its regional rivals to prevent its position in Iraq from being undermined. Tehran has several tools it can use to protect its influence, including the considerable military aid it continues to offer Baghdad in its fight against the Islamic State. However, its primary weapon will remain its wide array of Shiite militia proxies.
Currently, the biggest threat to Shiite militias in Iraq, especially those that are operating as Iran's intermediaries, is al-Abadi's National Guard Law. The prime minister proposed the law in late 2014 to encourage greater inclusiveness by offering Sunni communities a way to increase their participation in — and control over — security matters as Iraq confronted the Islamic State. Since then, the National Guard Law has evolved into a broader mechanism that promotes the inclusion of both Sunni tribes and Shiite militias, including the Popular Mobilization Units, within a National Guard framework that connects directly to a central command and control system in Baghdad.
The National Guard Law threatens the autonomy and independence of the Iranian-backed Shiite militias housed in the Popular Mobilization Units. Iran, concerned that it may lose its clout with the militias if the law is passed, naturally opposes it. Meanwhile, Iraq's Kurdish factions continue to resist any move by Baghdad to further centralize power, especially in security and military fields. Faced with considerable opposition, al-Abadi has had difficulty moving forward with his proposal.
Of greater concern to al-Abadi's government is Iran's effectiveness in mobilizing its militia proxies, most notably Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, to oppose the prime minister's initiatives and bolster Iran's sway. The militias, led by Kataib Hezbollah, have waged a media campaign depicting the National Guard Law as part of a broader conspiracy among the Islamic State, Baath Party and the United States. With the Iraqi army committed to battles against the Islamic State elsewhere, the militias have enjoyed substantial freedom in Baghdad and have not hesitated to use force to press their demands. For instance, Shiite militias allegedly kidnapped the deputy minister of justice and a director of investigations in eastern Baghdad on Sept. 8.
Such actions convinced Iraq's Council of Representatives to remove the proposal from consideration on Sept. 7, a day before it was to vote on the law's passage. The militias' active resistance to the National Guard Law has empowered some lawmakers to oppose it as well. As a result, a new initiative spearheaded by these lawmakers has emerged that would greatly water down the proposal, specifically targeting articles granting Baghdad greater control over Shiite militias.
Iran's militia proxies have also struck at Turkey, likely at Tehran's behest. On Sept. 2, gunmen kidnapped 18 Turkish construction workers in Baghdad. Five masked gunmen, suspected to belong to Kataib Hezbollah, later appeared in a video wearing black, under a banner bearing a familiar Shiite slogan and the title "death squad." In the video, the kidnapped Turks read a list of demands that included the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Iraq, the halt of oil purchases from the Kurdistan Regional Government and the end of the siege on the Syrian Shiite towns of al-Fuah and Kefraya. Iraqi forces have since raided the Baghdad headquarters of Kataib Hezbollah, but they did not find the Turkish hostages. Because it is unlikely that Shiite militias with close links to Iran would carry out such an operation without Tehran's approval, the kidnapping points to a greater willingness on Iran's part to use its Iraqi proxies to block its regional rivals from gaining influence in Iraq.
Despite the stiff resistance al-Abadi has encountered, it is unlikely that he will back down on his reform efforts anytime soon. Meanwhile, regional heavyweights will continue to jockey for power as countries that have been locked out of Iraq look to fill the void created by Iran's waning influence. Iran, for its part, will encounter a growing number of challenges to its position as the dominant foreign force in Iraq. Still, with its powerful proxies and considerable clout in Iraq's parliament, Iran will maintain a strong presence for the foreseeable future.
Lead Analyst: Omar Lamrani