On the other hand, although Iran’s plan to build a railway from the Shalamcheh border area to Basra—which could facilitate Iran’s land access to Syria and the Mediterranean—has not yet been realized, Ankara intends to build a railway from Basra to the Turkish border. The railway could provide Ankara with easier access to the Iraqi market while derailing Tehran’s long-term plans to be at the center of East-West transit networks.
Finally, Iran has been experiencing challenges in Iraq at the social level, too. After the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014, Iranian assistance to the Iraqi government in fighting the jihadis increased Iran’s popularity. According to the Independent Institute for Administration and Civil Society Studies, in 2017, about 70 percent of Iraqis had a positive view of Iran. However, in mid-2020, the same institute published another poll showing that Iran’s popularity had dropped to a mere 15 percent.
The reason for this decline in popularity should be sought more than anything regarding the activities of Iran-backed militias, which are active arbitrarily and outside government control in the political, economic, and security spheres in various parts of the country. Some Iran-backed militias are involved in opaque or illegal economic activities. The groups have also been accused of cracking down on anti-government protests in late 2019 and assassinating opposition figures thereafter. PMF groups and commanders categorically deny the allegations. Nevertheless, those issues have contributed to the Iraqi people’s negative attitude toward Iran.
In sum, it is safe to argue that contrary to President Trump’s intention, Soleimani’s assassination did not significantly change Iran’s role in Iraq in the short term, nor could it deter Iran-backed militias from targeting U.S. interests. On the contrary, threats against U.S. positions and troops in Iraq have since significantly increased. That said, in the post-Soleimani era, Iran faces growing challenges to its role in Iraq. On the one hand, Iran has failed to achieve its ultimate goal of rooting out the U.S. presence in Iraq, with Washington and Baghdad actively working on maintaining their strategic relationship. At the same time, Tehran’s obsession with confronting the United States has come at the expense of its economic and social influence in Iraq. Under these circumstances, regional rivals—in particular, Turkey and Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf—have found fertile ground to expand their influence in Iraq, and the Iraqi government welcomes them to balance Iran’s role.
These trends could lead to more instability in Iraq as a result of foreign rivalries (between Iran and its adversaries) and domestic competitions (within various militias, as well as between them and the government). Yet, Kadhimi’s apparent desire to establish a balance in Iraq’s foreign relations and consolidate the central government’s authority at home is a promising sign for the stabilization of Iraq.
A longer version of this article was first published by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
Hamidreza Azizi, Ph.D., is an Alexander von Humboldt fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. He was an assistant professor of regional studies at Shahid Beheshti University (2016-2020) and a guest lecturer at the department of regional studies at the University of Tehran (2016-2018). On Twitter: @HamidRezaAz