The Buzz

Is Iran's Strategy in Iraq Adrift?

Russia may have thrown Iran a lifeline in Syria, but Putin’s aid only obscures larger problems for Tehran’s policies in the region. In particular, Iran’s policy in Iraq and its strategy against the Islamic State (ISIS) is under severe pressure. It is not clear the Islamic Republic has a good way forward.

Tehran’s activities and policies in Iraq and the Levant remain largely under Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani’s direction. Soleimaini had been riding high ever since the fall of Mosul to ISIS in June 2014. His photographs spread over social media and he was lauded in Iranian and regional press for his role in leading a hybrid IRGC advisory and Shia militia force to fight ISIS in Iraq and President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents in Syria.

This past spring, however, the commander began to disappear from view amid speculation of dissatisfaction in Tehran with his campaigns in both theaters. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif reportedly promised Secretary of State John Kerry that concluding the nuclear agreement would allow Zarif to discuss regional issues, possibly mitigating Soleimani’s influence. Others speculated that retired former IRGC Commander Mohsen Rezaei donned his uniform again at the behest of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to keep an eye on Soleimani.

While there may be some truth to these points, Soleimani’s troubles are more linked to problems Iran is having navigating Iraqi domestic interests in general. Baghdad, like Damascus, recognizes its government would have fallen by now if not for Iran’s intervention. This does not keep most Iraqi leaders from resenting the heavy hand Tehran plays in their security and political decision-making.

In the midst of last summer’s revolt against then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s failed leadership and the loss of Mosul, Khamenei acquiesced to Maliki’s forced demotion to Vice President. Soleimani and other Iranian leaders expected his successor Haider al-Abadi to remain a pliable client. To Khamenei’s likely regret, this is turning out not to be the case.

Iraq’s Prime Minister demonstrates a willingness to stand up to Iran’s influence. Abadi is pursuing major political and anti-corruption reforms that would abolish the constitutional positions of vice presidents and check the power of the Maliki-aligned judiciary. Iraqi authorities began inspecting cargo on Iranian planes arriving in Baghdad last month. Abadi is even rumored to have kicked Soleimani out of a cabinet meeting—rebuking the Iranian for the presumption of attending and criticizing his reform plans.

Following Abadi’s August 9 decision to eliminate Nouri al-Maliki’s position as vice president (which still needs judicial approval), Maliki made a well-publicized visit to Iran, meeting with Supreme Leader Khamenei’s senior foreign policy advisor, Ali Akbar Velayati and other Iranian officials. The prime minister is rightly worried that Tehran is plotting a Maliki restoration, perhaps by using the Iranian-aligned Iraqi Shia militia groups under Soleimani, such as Khataib Hezbollah, that are deepening their grip on large parts of the Iraqi’s security forces amidst the government’s campaign against ISIS.

What Tehran did not count on is the broad support among Iraqi Shia and their religious leaders for reform--and for pushing back against Iranian influence. Abadi has cleverly tapped into this sentiment, first by gaining open support for his agenda from Shia Islam’s most influential leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and then by tacitly supporting the large public protests against corruption in Baghdad and elsewhere. (Sistani had already questioned Iranian policies in Iraq earlier in the year.) This political contest is far from over, but Iran’s options to force change at the top have become much more complicated.