Many of Iraq’s pro-Iran militias were encouraged with Joe Biden’s election as president of the United States and the ensuing Democratic control of both houses of Congress. This in fact dovetailed with the Iranian leadership’s thinking on the matter because of a perceived openness among members of Biden’s team on Iran, many having served earlier in the Barack Obama Administration. This was obviously a welcome development in Tehran after the Trump Administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against the Islamic Republic aggravated the decline of its economy. In response to that campaign, Iran began to increase its uranium enrichment to pressure European states as well as challenge American interests in Iraq through Iran-backed militias that attacked American targets in Baghdad, especially the American embassy, and military bases in the country’s north.
To be sure, the beginning of Biden’s term coincided with a deterioration of security in Iraq, partly because the American president became quickly occupied with fighting the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the American economy following the failure of the previous administration in addressing the dual challenges. Iran was in a hurry to force the United States to reenter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, from which Trump withdrew in 2018. The Islamic Republic was looking for a quick way to restart negotiations with the United States that could ease its economic problems, which have become more difficult at the same time that Iraq approached its own state of economic collapse. In other words, Iran was ready to use its friendly militias in Iraq to levy more pressure on the United States to force it to return to negotiations.
Iran’s Interference in Iraq
Iran’s role and interference in Iraqi affairs is evident. It is true that other states also play a role and interfere in Iraq, such as the United States and other NATO countries, including Turkey. But these have official agreements with the Iraqi government. For example, Turkey has signed a security accord with Baghdad to safeguard its southern border against attacks from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which controls swathes of Iraqi territory such as the Qandil Mountains and the Sinjar area that it occupied after the defeat of the Islamic State in northwestern Iraq. In fact, there are reports that PKK fighters have actually joined the Shia militias of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) controlling the Sinjar area and continue to operate freely near the Turkish border.
Iran’s decision to up the ante against the United States in Iraq may have backfired with the new Biden Administration and practically thwarted the efforts of those wanting better relations with Iran.
On the other hand, Iran’s decision to up the ante against the United States in Iraq may have backfired with the new Biden Administration and practically thwarted the efforts of those wanting better relations with Iran. The increased activity against American targets has forced Biden’s hand by making him choose between opening relations with Tehran and defending and preserving American national interests. The American attack on a pro-Iran militia base along the Syrian-Iraqi border was his clearest and easiest response to the challenge. However, he erred in not destroying the entire base, which would have been a serious setback to Iran’s and the militias’ roles in both Iraq and Syria. The base was indeed considered a key asset in Iran’s project to control a corridor through the two countries to the Mediterranean.
There are those who object to the Turkish presence in the north of the country. But that is controlled by an official Iraqi-Turkish agreement and should not be considered fully negative or destabilizing. Iran appears to be the most upset about that relationship. Its ambassador in Baghdad, Iraj Masjedi, minced no words when, on February 28, he demanded a withdrawal of Turkish forces from Iraq because they purportedly violate the country’s sovereignty. Turkey responded by calling in Iran’s ambassador to Ankara, Mohammed Farazmand, to the foreign ministry to upbraid him about Iran’s behavior in Iraq.
It is thus clear that security in Iraq is contingent on serious domestic, regional, and international complications. Iraq’s well-being is hostage to how Iran uses its friendly militias in Iraq to send messages to the United States. This also has a deleterious effect on domestic issues. Additionally, the recent resurgence of the Islamic State and its suicide operation against civilians in Baghdad add another element of the purposeful disruption of internal security in the country.
Addressing Deteriorating Security
One recent positive step toward ameliorating poor conditions in Iraq and lessening the possibility of friction between American forces and Iraqi militias was the behind-the-scenes agreement between the Iraqi government and NATO, for the latter to help maintain security in Iraq. The agreement stipulates that the coalition would increase the number of its troops in the country from 500 to 4,000 to help train Iraqi forces. The Iraqi government guaranteed their safety; but this remains contingent upon Iran’s acceptance of their presence.
There is a serious chance that Iraq’s security may become an international affair, as was the case after the ill-fated Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
There is a serious chance that Iraq’s security may become an international affair, as was the case after the ill-fated Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. What is important is whether international actors are ready and willing to help Iraq address its many problems which, first and foremost, are related to security. Also needed is the creation of an efficient system of command and control for the entire country that, so far, has failed to develop a competent security architecture that includes logistics, training, and a chain of command. Such an approach must address the presence of a different security structure, such as the Popular Mobilization Forces whose loyalty is more to Iran than it is to the Iraqi government.
Moreover—and just as there is a security anomaly between Iraq’s armed forces and the PMF—there exists a potential schism in the status of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. While the Peshmerga’s existence is constitutional, the forces’ operations may sometimes be unconstitutional because they operate outside the purview of the official chain of command. Additionally, the Peshmerga’s loyalties are divided between the two Kurdish factions, Masoud Barzani’s and Jalal Talabani’s, which on many occasions have used force against each other in what can be described as turf wars.
This is why addressing the security situation in Iraq is multifaceted. It involves serious diplomatic discussions with the Iranian government about its interference in Iraqi affairs. Presently, the transitional government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is too weak to undertake such discussions, a condition that can be ameliorated in the upcoming October elections—only if they are held freely and fairly. Iraq is in desperate need of a truly representative parliament that can help the creation of a new, strong government capable of standing up to Iran. The hope is that the recent papal visit to Iraq may have convinced Iraqis and, perhaps more importantly, Iraq’s militia leaders that what they need to work on now is helping the country achieve the peace and security that have escaped it for decades.
Abdulwahab Al-Qassab is a Visiting Scholar at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Dr. Abdulwahab Al-Qassab and read his previous publications click here