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Iraq’s riots threaten Iran’s plan for Middle East dominance

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These are trying times for Iran’s ayatollahs. They continue to confront the worst nationwide protests since they took power four decades ago. The Trump administration’s sanctions are crippling the Iranian economy, and are a major reason why the protests have yet to be fully contained. And ongoing unrest in Lebanon and Iraq, especially in the latter, is undermining Tehran’s efforts to establish its hegemony throughout the Middle East. 

Iran’s involvement in Iraq differs in kind from its activities elsewhere in the region, notably Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. Iran long has sought to dominate its neighbor, with whom it fought a bloody war including the use of chemical weapons, throughout much of the 1980s. America’s overthrow of Tehran’s arch enemy Saddam Hussein, and the civil war that followed in its wake, created an unprecedented opportunity for Iran to meddle to Iraqi affairs, especially when Nouri al-Maliki became prime minister in 2006. 

Maliki’s efforts to suppress the country’s Sunni population and establish Sh’ia dominance in all but the Kurdish areas enabled Tehran to establish itself as the dominant force in Iraq, especially once President Obama withdrew American troops at the end of 2010. 

Iran became especially active in the workings of the Iraqi interior ministry and expanded its role in the country’s affairs once Maliki created the Sh’ia-dominated Hashd-al-Shabi (Popular Mobilization Forces) in 2014. The Hashd, which became a critical element in the effort to dislodge and defeat ISIS, benefited from Iranian training, especially from the support of the Quds Force and its leader Qasem Soleimani

Soleimani has played an increasingly outsized role in Iraqi politics. It is noteworthy that a senior U.S. State Department official complained that, whereas he needed a visa every time he came to Iraq, Soleimani could enter the country at will. When Adil Abdul Mahdi became prime minister in October 2018, he was willing to accept Soleimani’s candidate for the key position of interior minister. A year later, with Abdul Mahdi threatening to resign in the face of accelerating street protests, Soleimani was in Iraq to prevent the departure of Tehran’s puppet. 

Soleimani failed to save Abdul Mahdi’s job. The ongoing protests, initially a result of an increase in the price of gasoline, became focused on government corruption and Iranian influence, and brought down the prime minister. Indeed, they threaten to undermine all that Tehran and Soleimani have accomplished over the past decade. Iran opposes the merging of the Hashd with government forces, something that should have taken place several years ago. Iran worries that the next prime minister will not be as pliant a puppet as Abdul Mahdi has been. Most of all, it is concerned that, by losing its grip on Iraq’s affairs, it will no longer exploit that country’s oil-driven wealth at a time when its own economy is floundering.

What is most significant about the rioting against the government is that it is taking place in the Sh’ia south and in Baghdad — the worst rioting has taken place in Sadr City — as well as elsewhere in the country’s major cities. 

There is little love lost between the Iraqi and Iranian Sh’ia. The disdain between Persians, who look down on Arabs, and the Arabs who resent Persian arrogance, is as old as both civilizations. It is no accident that Iraqi Sh’ia were active fighters in the war against Iran; their common religion was no more important than Christianity was in Europe’s innumerable wars, including the two world wars.

Of far greater importance to the Iraqis is that a government that is clearly under Iranian influence has been responsible for more than the officially reported 400 dead and nearly 20,000 wounded at the hands of the security forces. Reports from Iraq indicate that families are being pressured to sign a letter stating that their loved ones died from causes other than being shot by the security forces, such as a result of tribal disputes or accidents of some kind.

The riots are unlikely to end until a government that is not an Iranian cat’s-paw takes over the reins of power. When that happens, the key figure behind the scenes will be Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Iraqi Sh’ias’ supreme religious leader. It was Sistani’s final word that resulted in Abdul Mahdi’s departure; moreover, Sistani refused to meet with Iranians seeking to prevent the prime minister’s ouster. Notoriously independent, whose scholarship dwarfs that of his Iranian government counterparts, Sistani embodies the Iraqi desire to free itself from domination by its larger neighbor. 

Iran appears to be exploiting Iraq’s political crisis by moving medium-range missiles into the country, where they are under the protection of the militias that it controls. These missiles pose a direct threat to Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel already attacked the militias twice this past summer, and no doubt is prepared to do so again. 

For its part, the United States has refrained from intervening in Iraq’s political crisis, although it once again maintains troops there, and reportedly may deploy as many as 14,000 more to the Gulf region — a report that Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has vigorously denied. 

Nevertheless, President Trump has other matters on his mind, while lesser officials worry that American political meddling in Baghdad could backfire. They are correct. The Iraqis need no American intervention at this time. What they do need is a promise that an independent government in Baghdad would receive unstinting American political and economic support. America should then deliver on that promise without reservation, because by doing so, it will help to begin the process of unraveling Tehran’s hegemonic objectives throughout the Middle East. 

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Ali al-Sistani Donald Trump Iran sanctions Iran–Iraq relations Iraqi Shia Muslims Mark Esper

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