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An Iranian endeavour to booby-trap Iraq

January 30, 2019 at 12:20 am

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif speaks during the Valdai Discussion Club titled ”Russia in the Middle East: Playing on All Fields” in Moscow, Russia on 19 February, 2018 [Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency]

During a five-day visit to Iraq, the Iranian foreign minister focused on two matters: the US military presence and the need to end it, and the issue of reconstructing the areas affected by the war on Daesh.

Mohammad Javad Zarif’s talk included government officials, but the most important participants were the leaders of the Popular Mobilisation Forces amid growing expectations that Iraq will be the arena for the Iranian-American confrontation. This is due to the harsh economic and financial sanctions, as well as the diplomatic campaign launched by Washington on Iran and its quest to build an international-regional alliance against it.

While Tehran finds that its influence in Syria is under the pressure of Israeli strikes that are likely to be escalated and that the Russian presence does not guarantee it will reap the fruit of America’s withdrawal, it does not feel any threat to its domination over Iraq. It does, however, want to develop its control in anticipation of any surprises.

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Iran is explicitly relying on Shia parties to push for a law that forces the government to demand the withdrawal of US forces. The differences between these parties do not prevent them from aligning against the United States and its sympathy and loyalty to Iran.

However, the latter is also counting on its significant infiltration of the Kurdish and Sunni components and their divisions. It is also relying on Iran’s pivotal role in choosing the heads of the three top ranking positions in the state.

Based on this, there may not be a considerable obstacle facing the passing of the law to schedule the withdrawal of foreign forces, American forces. Work to prepare for this legislation is proceeding quietly but somewhat quickly. Before this, it is assumed that the vacancies in Adel Abdul Mahdi’s government should be filled after resolving the disputes and disagreements over the interior and defence portfolios.

A series of developments prompted Tehran to send Zarif to Baghdad, most importantly the American president’s landing at Ain Al-Asad base in Anbar in the west and confirming that the American withdrawal from Syria will not apply to Iraq.

Of course, Donald Trump’s visit and failure to meet with any Iraqi officials provoked internal controversy that highlighted the issue of sovereignty. This was followed by the American Secretary of State’s visit to Baghdad and Erbil in which he confirmed, once more, that the US would not withdraw.

Read: Iraq must move away from economic reliance on Iran

Mike Pompeo’s public speech was not surprising, but what was later discovered is what provoked Iran.

On the one hand, Washington called for close cooperation between the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga. On the other hand, it requested the dissolution of about 69 factions in the Popular Mobilisation Forces, considering it an army parallel to the national army and posing a clear and direct threat to the state and its institutions.

The truth is that the two requirements are logical if the state is to impose its authority, but meeting these two requirements seems difficult if not impossible.

Iranian General Qasim Soleimani, who is almost a resident of the Green Zone, continues his work far from the limelight. His task is complemented by Zarif’s mission of organising the Iranian response to Washington, specifically by relying on the Popular Mobilisation factions to act as a military spearhead in opposing the Americans and as a nucleus of political action against them, making their withdrawal an internal necessity.

Zarif was not satisfied with the Popular Mobilisations Forces achieving victory over Daesh. He also argued that the war on terror is over, meaning that the reason the 2014 government sought American assistance was no longer valid.

However, this assessment of Daesh’s activities contradicts the situation on the ground and does not only depend on the Iranians and their followers but also requires a government decision after consultation with the American side.

The facts on the ground indicate that there is a sensitive phase in the process of eliminating the organisation’s capabilities and is currently taking place in the area where the Iraq-Syria border meets. Washington is pressing hard to exclude the Popular Mobilisation from it because it wants to exploit it to control the borders on both sides.

There is currently a campaign of signature collecting to put pressure on the parliament and government for the withdrawal of the Americans. Zarif stressed the need not to allow the US to interfere in its relationship with Iraq and even referred to the Iranians as the people of the land.

As part of his promotion of Iran’s willingness to contribute to reconstruction and the need to give Iranian companies a priority after the end of the battles against Daesh, Zarif provided justifications including the low costs and the fact that Iranian companies do not need to provide protection. He also added that the companies are reconstructing the country out of love for Imam Hussain.

However, he was quoted as saying that Iraqi officials “are afraid to deal with us for fear of the Americans.” This brings back the Iranian objectives to the reality imposed by the sanctions, as the request for the withdrawal of the Americans, if it happens, will not be without negative repercussions on the Iraqi economy in general and reconstruction projects in particular.


The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.