Iraq Is Not an Iranian Vassal State

These days, Tehran is having trouble getting what it wants from its neighbor—a development Washington can encourage by backing off.

An Iraqi policeman stands guard at a border crossing between Iran and Iraq near the southern Iraqi city of Basra on Feb 26, 2007.
An Iraqi policeman stands guard at a border crossing between Iran and Iraq near the southern Iraqi city of Basra on Feb 26, 2007. Essam al-Sudani/AFP/Getty Images

It almost goes without saying these days that Iran dominates its western neighbor. On April 27, for example, Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed tweeted that Iran’s regime “controls” Iraq. Now-U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton once compared Tehran’s grip on Iraq to the Soviet Union’s stranglehold over Eastern Europe during the late 1940s. And while she was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley assailed Iran last September for working to “build an Iraqi government that is under the control of the Iranian regime.”

Yes, Iran wields significant influence in Iraq. It is the country’s third-largest trade partner, at approximately $12 billion annually. In the 2018 elections, Iran loyalists in the Fatah Alliance won 48 of the seats—14.6 percent—in Iraq’s parliament, making it the second-largest bloc in the legislature. And Iran has armed Shiite militias, which have cornered parts of the Iraqi economy and are responsible for security in some regions even after the territorial defeat of the Islamic State.

However, the limits of Iranian interference are quickly becoming clear.

In late 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump made an unannounced visit to Iraq’s Al Asad Air Base. Seeing this as disrespecting Baghdad’s sovereignty, Fatah lawmakers protested the move by intensifying their efforts to expel the 5,200 remaining U.S. troops from the country. They had the backing of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who later called on Iraq to evict the United States “as soon as possible.”

But despite Iran and Fatah’s demands, legislation to actually kick out the U.S. troops has stalled. Sunni and Kurdish parties have refused to back the bill, and without at least some of them, it is unlikely to pass. In March, Mohammed al-Halbousi, the speaker of Iraq’s parliament, even traveled to Washington to reaffirm Iraq’s appreciation for the U.S. military presence. And in late April, Iraqi President Barham Salih met with U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who lost both of her legs fighting in Iraq, to “honor her sacrifice.”

The next day, a senior Fatah official admitted that the effort to oust U.S. troops was going nowhere. “I do not think there is a real desire from the political blocs to remove the foreign forces from Iraq,” Fatah’s Naseem Abdullah said, “especially as many alliances have one stance in the media, while revealing a different position behind the scenes.”

Also pointing to resistance to Iranian influence is the ongoing battle over staffing a critical interior ministry post in the Iraqi cabinet. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has struggled to finalize his cabinet for approximately eight months.

Fatah has repeatedly pushed for Falih al-Fayyadh—currently the chairman of the Popular Mobilization Forces, a coalition of mainly Iran-backed Shiite paramilitaries—as interior minister. Abdul Mahdi nominated him in December, but his approval was blocked by lawmakers in the Sadr alliance, which under the leadership of the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has fashioned itself as a nationalist movement fighting both U.S. and Iranian influence. “Our decision is Iraqi” chanted the Sadr-allied parliamentarians—an apparent dig at Fayyadh, who met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani earlier this year.

In March, Fatah withdrew Fayyadh as its pick for interior minister, and the position remains unfilled. The saga demonstrates the powerlessness of Iran’s Iraqi allies to ramrod their favored pick into the cabinet.

Another sign of Iraqi independence is that a visit to Baghdad by Rouhani in March was followed the next month with a trip to Saudi Arabia by Abdul Mahdi and a delegation of 12 ministers. During the tour, the Iraqi government signed 13 agreements with Riyadh. The same month, Saudi Arabia reopened a Baghdad consulate—for the first time in nearly 30 years.

Iran, of course, is not pleased. In a meeting with Abdul Mahdi, Khamenei accused Saudi Arabia of supporting the Islamic State. And last year, a senior advisor to the supreme leader warned, “We will not allow liberals and communists to govern Iraq,” a dig against Sadr after the Iraqi cleric held a landmark meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2017 and advocated for a less lopsided relationship with Tehran. But that has not deterred the Iraqi premier from establishing closer ties with Riyadh.

Finally, there’s the Iraqi public to think of. An Iraqi poll published in the Washington Post showed a 41-percentage-point decline in Iraqi Shiite favorability toward Iran between 2015 and the fall of 2018. Furthermore, amid rampant electricity outages and some 100,00 cases of people poisoned by polluted last summer, Iraqis broke into protest, furious at the central government for neglecting its citizens. Some protesters apparently blamed Iran as well. In addition to burning down an office of the Iran-backed militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Iraqis in Basra stormed the Iranian consulate, smashing furniture before setting the building on fire. The torching of an Iranian diplomatic facility in one of Iraq’s most important Shiite cities was a clear sign of the limits of Iran’s reach.

To claim that Iran single-handedly dominates Iraq ignores the competing influences of multiple global powers, including the United States. Turkey also maintains considerable influence in Iraq with some 10 military bases. It has launched hundreds of airstrikes in the Kurdish region.

Despite Tehran’s considerable influence in Baghdad, its ambitions in Iraq have repeatedly been thwarted. As a compromise candidate between Sadr and Fatah, Abdul Mahdi is no Iran stooge; his reluctance to advance legislation to expel U.S. forces highlights his understanding that Baghdad must preserve friendly ties with many competing powers.

The Trump administration’s exaggeration of Iranian domination over Iraq—part of a bid to pressure Abdul Mahdi to cut energy ties with his country’s eastern neighbor and put further pressure on Tehran—is dangerous. It jeopardizes Iraq’s security and undermines those Iraqi factions looking to establish a more even-handed relationship with Tehran.

Aaron Magid is an Iraq analyst at Tesla Government. A former Amman, Jordan-based journalist, his articles have appeared in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and Al-Monitor.  Twitter: @AaronMagid

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