Checkmate: Breaking Iran’s Stranglehold over Iraq

A credible balance of power must be established to deter and if necessary defeat further Iranian expansion.

The nuclear negotiation with Iran is much in the news and there is vigorous analysis and debate in Washington on elements of a possible agreement and their implications for the United States, for the region and for the non-proliferation regime. However, Iran’s recent geopolitical gains in the region, especially in Iraq, and their implications, have received far less attention. This neglect is both surprising and dangerous. 

The manner in which the United States and the West have conducted the war against the Islamic State (IS)/Daesh terrorists in Iraq has had many consequences—some unintended.  One result of the U.S. military approach—reliance on air power, a slow buildup of the Iraqi national army and limited assistance to the Kurdish Peshmarga—is a significantly increased Iranian presence in Iraq and growing domination by Tehran over the Baghdad government. Although Iranian influence started after the U.S. invasion in 2003, it has been on the rise since the pullout of American troops from Iraq in 2011. Today, Iran is the dominant influence in Iraqi national security decision making in Baghdad, and controls the bulk of the effective fighting forces in Iraq.

When several of its divisions collapsed ignominiously last summer, Iraq’s national army lost its stature as the country’s principle military force. It was feared that IS would maintain its momentum and advance toward Baghdad, Karbala or Najaf to threaten the Shiite dominated government, destroy the Shiite holy cities, or both. There were even indications of Daesh moving towards the Iranian border in Diyala province.

Seeing its interests in Iraq threatened by these developments, Iran seized the opportunity to further expand its influence and to dominate its oil-rich, Shiite-led neighboring state.

What did Iran do? It moved quickly and decisively in three ways to fill the security vacuum and respond to the panic caused by the collapse of the Iraqi military units. 

First, Tehran dispatched its own senior security officials to help plan the defense of Baghdad and other towns and localities across Iraq. These officers, including General Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds force, participated in both defensive and offensive operations to implement the plans they helped develop with the ultimate goal of defeating IS. As reported in Western media, in the ongoing battle for Tikrit, Iranian officers led by Suleimani are leading the war to end IS’s control of the city.

The Iraqis have been surprised by Iran’s willingness to risk openly participating in the fight against IS. In the past, Iran would deny and cover up its role in providing arms to militias or directing militias it controlled to carry out specific operations in Iraq. Not this time. Indeed, a number of high-ranking Iranian officers have fallen in Iraq. Iran wants its own people, its regional rivals and the world to know that it is in Iraq and is fighting there. This is a significant development.

Second, Iran promptly sent weapons and reassurances of solidarity to Kurds, an action that had both practical and symbolic significance. Massoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, has stated that Iran – not Turkey, which it had formerly regarded as its principal likely defender in the event of peril - was the first country to deliver weapons to his Peshmerga forces when Erbil was under imminent threat by IS last August. Iran also sent weapons to the Iraqi security forces including the military and police units and to Shiite militias, some of which have had ties with Iran for decades.

Third, taking advantage of Ayatollah Sistani’s appeal to the Shiite masses to mobilize against IS, Iran’s most effective strategy has been beefing up of its proxies: militias that have largely replaced the army on the frontlines. Those militias include Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq (AAH), which is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, Katai’b Hezbollah (KH), the Badr organization, and a plethora of subsidiaries under new names. These groups have fought IS and have become very powerful.

Iran has trained and armed them and Iranian officers are embedded with them. Now they control oil resources that they sell. In some areas they have openly taken over the functions of state security forces. Badr leader Hadi Al-Amiri and KH supervisor Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis command significant forces and lead major operations. Both men have for years been on the payroll of Quds Force commander Qassim Suleimani and now continue to be his lieutenants.

Today there are more pictures of Al-Muhandis on public display in Baghdad than of Prime Minister Abadi. Al-Muhandis is a terrorist who participated in the 1983 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait. After hiding in Iran for years because of fearing capture by American forces, he is now Iraq’s Deputy Commander of the “Popular Mobilization” forces serving as the liaison between the militias and the Iraqi government.

The militias, including those closely linked to Iran, outnumber the Iraqi Army. According to General Martin Dempsey, more than two thirds of the 30,000 strong Iraqi force taking part in the fight to retake Tikrit are Shiite militiamen. This force, Amiri recently boasted, is advised by a hundred Iranian officers with extensive combat experience in places like Syria and Lebanon. And their weaponry is impressive. In addition to a wide array of Iran-supplied arms, they also have access to weapons and materiel provided to Iraq by the U.S. KH, for instance, was recently seen parading a U.S.-made Abrams tank.