Iraqi politicians have repeatedly failed to form a government in the eleven months that have passed since the country’s October 2021 elections, in large part due to disagreements over the future of Iraq’s political system, the composition of the cabinet, and the divvying-up of shares in the country’s ethno-sectarian quota system, known in Arabic as muhasasa. One regional player whose involvement and role many are questioning during this crisis is the Islamic Republic of Iran, especially given the fact that the latter has long enjoyed significant influence in Iraq’s post-2003 domestic political order. Another concern is motivated by the existence of the Coordination Framework (CF), an Iraqi Shia political bloc that includes many of the country’s major pro-Iran political leaders and groups, and that is the main rival of Iraq’s Sadrist Movement—led by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr—which won a parliamentary majority in the last election. Iran’s years-long efforts in Iraq consist of supporting Iran-affiliated political groups in order to dominate Iraqi politics, empowering Iran-affiliated militias under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) that were initially organized to fight the so-called Islamic State between 2014 and 2017, and increasing Tehran’s growing economic dominance in Iraq.
However, Iran’s influence in Iraq has witnessed a major decline since the popular Tishreen (October) protest movement in 2019, and it is expected that significant protests will emerge on the movement’s third-year anniversary, on October 1. The Tishreen movement specifically targeted Iranian interventionism, alongside a more general anti-government discourse. The US military assassination of Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), in 2020 also played a vital role in damaging Tehran’s influence in Iraq since Soleimani maintained extensive relations with Iraqi militias and religious leaders. With many changes afoot in the region, it remains to be seen how Iran’s current cautious approach to Iraq will play out.
Dealing with Iraq’s Deadlock
Iran’s engagement during the last Iraqi election in 2021 differed from its previous involvement in the country’s political scene. This time around, the electoral performance and influence of political parties and groups affiliated with Iran, such as the CF, decreased, while Sadr, whose movement made substantial gains, took a stance of limiting foreign interventionism, particularly by Iran. It is worth noting that not all parties within the CF maintain an affiliation with Iran. Some political leaders from the CF, such as Qais al-Khazali and Hadi al-Amiri, are certainly affiliated with Tehran’s Iraq agenda, and even with the IRGC. However, others, such as former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and former President of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) Ammar al-Hakim, are not dominated by Tehran and have had their own disagreements with Iranian leaders. Despite their differences, these leaders and their parties’ electoral defeats pushed them to join the CF.
The electoral performance and influence of political parties and groups affiliated with Iran, such as the CF, decreased, while Sadr, whose movement made substantial gains, took a stance of limiting foreign interventionism, particularly by Iran.
Iran’s position toward the current Iraqi crisis consists of both official and unofficial stances. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi officially reaffirmed his support for bilateral relations between the two countries during an April 2022 meeting with Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament Mohammed al-Halbousi in Tehran. A similar call was made by Iran’s Foreign Minister in an August 29 meeting, wherein, in what was undoubtedly a reference to Sadr’s supporters’ recent sit-in at the Iraqi Parliament, he emphasized the importance of respecting legal institutions. This statement can be seen as indirect and diplomatic criticism of the Sadrists.
The Iranian media, however, did not reflect a unified Iranian stance. It is hard to overlook the role of Iran’s own domestic internal disagreements in this regard. For instance, the conservative camp in the Islamic Republic has arguably been aiming to concentrate power in its own hands, and is behind the transformation of the IRGC into a dominant economic, social, and political force. This shift is achieved by increasingly empowering IRGC-loyalists and undermining the role of Iran’s religious center in the city of Qom. Iran’s Reformists, meanwhile, differ from its conservatives on many domestic and foreign matters, with Iraq a central concern.
This internal division in Iran may also reflect its lack of a unified approach to transnational issues. For instance, the region’s two leading Shia Islamic seminaries in Qom, Iran and Najaf, Iraq have always found themselves in a theological and ideological rivalry. The former promotes strong religious involvement in the state apparatus and espouses a foreign policy that seeks to protect Shia communities outside the country, while the latter prefers both a more quietist role and reasonable—but not full—engagement between state and religion and refrains from politically interfering in the fortunes of Shia in other countries.
Directly Challenging Sadr’s Project
Although the CF is mainly affiliated with Iran’s conservatives in this intra-Shia political rivalry, Tehran’s official approach to Iraq’s political crisis has been to act as a neutral meditator supporting a settlement between the two Shia rivals for the sake of creating a united Shia political camp. In reality, however, Iran has also attempted to take the matter directly into its own hands.
Esmail Qaani, who was appointed as commander of the Quds Force in January 2020 following Soleimani’s assassination, has been unable to match Soleimani’s stature, arguably due to his lack of experience and charisma, and of the Iraqi political relationships that Soleimani enjoyed. The absence of a dominant Iranian military commander to oversee and unify Iran-affiliated armed groups in post-Soleimani Iraq is a major weakness in Iran’s stance during this crisis.
Qaani has visited Iraq multiple times since the October 2021 elections in order to convince Sadr and his Kurdish and Sunni allies not to exclude the CF. Following failed attempts, Qaani aimed to ensure a unified CF front as Sadr aimed to break the bloc apart by suggesting that the CF join his “national majority” government without former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. This compromise offer to the CF demonstrated Sadr’s intention to exploit his reform and anti-interventionism rhetoric to deal with his personal political rivalries, especially his contest with al-Maliki. The Sadr-Maliki political rivalry has been a major component of Iraq’s political stalemate, and dates to 2008 when al-Maliki allied himself with US military forces to defeat Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army. This personal dispute continued to overshadow Iraqi politics, especially during al-Maliki’s second term as prime minister, when Sadr accused him of sectarianizing Iraqi politics and criticized his government’s shortcomings. Qaani has also allegedly tried to convince the CF to abandon the nomination of Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani for prime minister as a compromise to Sadr’s demands.
The personal dispute between Sadr and Maliki continued to overshadow Iraqi politics, especially during al-Maliki’s second term as prime minister, when Sadr accused him of sectarianizing Iraqi politics and criticized his government’s shortcomings.
In March 2022, Iran claimed responsibility for an attack targeting a US consulate complex in Erbil, arguably in retaliation for the assassination of two Iranian leaders in Syria. However, the attack was seen by observers as a display of force by Iran designed to pressure the Kurdistan Democratic Party over its alliance with Sadr. In April 2022, Iran replaced its ambassador to Baghdad with Najaf-born Mohammad Kazem Al-e Sadeq. Tehran was evidently unsatisfied with its previous ambassador’s inability to unify Iraq’s Shia political parties, making the newly appointed diplomat’s first priority mission clear.
Iran’s stance toward Iraq’s current events reflects an unusually cautious position, which could indicate Iran’s inability to act proactively according to its interests and priorities. Non-Iraq-related developments may also play a role. Indeed, there are various economic, political, regional, and global motives behind Iran’s caution in showcasing any involvement in Iraq’s current crisis via its proxy influence.
Stalled indirect nuclear talks between the US and Iran may also mark a development in Iran’s political regional attitude. Taking a reconciliatory role with Washington’s friends in the region—including the Iraqi government—helps Tehran’s reputation in the West, which may potentially aid Iran in the negotiations. Iran is also now entering a de-escalation phase with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—a move that could also arguably reflect Iran’s friendliness with Washington’s even stronger partners in the region. Iran’s growing strategic relationship with Qatar following the Saudi-led blockade and boycott of the country in 2017 paved the way for Doha to promote and support an efficient and productive dialogue between Tehran and the West over a renewal of the 2015 nuclear deal. A similar relationship between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE would also benefit US-Iran relations. Interestingly, the Saudi-Iran reconciliation is being mediated by Baghdad, which means that further damaging the relationship between Iraq and Iran could only undermine the opportunities presented by the recent openness between Iran and Gulf states.
Iran’s willingness to negotiate a nuclear deal is due to the drastic economic effects of US-led sanctions on the country’s currency and its unemployment rate. Therefore, reforming certain foreign policies to aid the regime’s survival would be the rational choice at this stage. Iran is cautious and very much wants to promote a political settlement that would welcome all traditional political parties in Iraq to form a typical consensus government rather than making a drastic political or constitutional change to Iraq’s political system. Iran is likely taking this position because any such development could have a significant impact on global energy prices due to Iraq’s substantial role in global oil markets.
Iran, meanwhile, has been pushing for its own oil to be used as an alternative to the recently-sanctioned Russian energy sector. It thus is loath to expend financial, military, intelligence, and political capital on Iraq’s deadlock, especially considering its decreasing influence with its Iraqi affiliates. But Iraq remains so crucial to Iran that it has even been called Iran’s “economic lungs,” and also offers it a connection to markets in Lebanon and Syria.
Ever since the early stages of the US invasion of Iraq, Iran has favored some level of division within the Iraqi Shia political camp. It was Iran that encouraged Qais al-Khazali to split with the Sadrist Movement in the early 2000s and that urged Shia militia the Badr Organization to break away from the ISCI (then known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq). However, with public anger currently targeting Shia Islamist parties as part of the wider problem in Iraq, Iran is doing its best to avoid exacerbating a political elitist intra-Shia conflict, especially as Sunni and Kurdish parties appear to enjoy a period of political resurgence. To be sure, Iran does not want to create or assist conditions that may further decrease its dominance in the Iraqi political arena.
With public anger currently targeting Shia Islamist parties as part of the wider problem in Iraq, Iran is doing its best to avoid exacerbating a political elitist intra-Shia conflict, especially as Sunni and Kurdish parties appear to enjoy a period of political resurgence.
The emergence of strong Sunni and Kurdish political actors or the demise of the muhasasa system could threaten the ideological breakthrough that Iran achieved by being able to infiltrate Iraq through the dominance of Shia Islamist parties. Sunni and Kurdish parties also share the fear of an intra-Shia political conflict as it could cause schisms within the ethno-sectarian democratic system from which they benefit. From a strategic perspective, Tehran is also aware of Sadr’s influence over the Iraqi street—even beyond Sadrist loyalists—which he gains by presenting himself as an opponent of both the muhasasa system and corruption. Iran does not want to face a powerful Shia cleric and political leader like Sadr and risk losing its proxy network in Iraq.
Redefining Roles and Changing Dynamics
Despite its proxy network of influence across various sectors in post-2003 Iraq, Iran’s restrained approach to the current Iraqi political stalemate reflects a significant decrease in Tehran’s influence in the country. And although the rise of an anti-Iran discourse during Iraq’s Tishreen protest movement played a vital role in this shift, past events have had their impact as well. These include formerly pro-Iran Iraqi political allies gradually distancing themselves from Tehran’s interests in Iraq’s domestic politics, Iran-affiliated politicians’ loss of significant numbers of seats in parliament, clashes between the CF and Prime Minister al-Kadhimi, and the disheartening fact of the country’s intra-Shia political split.
On the bright side, the current situation could present an opportunity for Iran to redefine its position in Iraq and to change from merely a strong regional player to a strong economic ally as well. Iraqi public opinion is overshadowed by calls for reform and for an end to corruption, both of which are associated with necessary limitations to Iranian interventionism. Iran, like Turkey and other neighboring countries, enjoys extensive access to Iraq’s consumer economy. If Tehran does not reconsider its role in Iraq, which is witnessing major societal opposition to Iran that is evidently putting pressure on Iraq’s political class, it may risk losing its long-term interests in the country while preserving only what it claims to be short-term advantages.