As Tehran prepares to fight dirty, the Arab world must reach out to Baghdad
Qassim Soleimani cannot be a happy man right now. The commander of Iran’s Quds Force spent the last 15 years nurturing an assortment of Iraqi paramilitary forces. The outcome of the recent Iraqi elections risks seeing his efforts go up in smoke, hence his unseemly rush to Baghdad before results had even been formally announced.
His worst-case scenario would be a victorious Muqtada Al-Sadr allying with Prime Minister Haider Abadi and a cross-section of other factions, forcing Iran-aligned lists (primarily Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi and Nouri Maliki) into opposition.
Al-Sadr and Abadi have committed themselves to demobilizing Al-Hashd militias. This could in part be achieved simply by slashing Al-Hashd’s budget once Iran’s allies are locked out of government. With Daesh on the ropes, these paramilitary forces have no pretext to exist, beyond being an expensive scourge upon ordinary Iraqis.
Iraq stands at a critical moment in its regional alignments. Enhanced engagement by Saudi Arabia and other Arab states offers massive investment and reconstruction funding. Faced with a choice between alignment with the pariah basket case of Tehran, or with prosperous Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, it is not surprising which option rational Iraqis would prefer. This is not a Sunni-Shiite confrontation. Riyadh’s outreach has primarily been with Shiite leaders such as Abadi and Al-Sadr, while huge numbers of Shiites supported Al-Sadr’s nationalist agenda for curtailing Iranian proxies.
But Soleimani will not go down without a fight. He knows Iraq’s political landscape better than anyone. He knows which politicians can be blackmailed or bought. He holds key levers of influence, with many politicians in his pocket. Since his appointment as Quds Force commander in 1998, Soleimani has been the architect of Iranian regional interference. He briefly fell out of favor with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei after his boast that Saudi Arabia would not dare counter Iranian meddling in Yemen proved spectacularly wrong.
He was also chided for making himself too visible on the battlefields of Iraq. A defeat for his Baghdad allies would be a further blow to the prestige of Soleimani’s expensive, imperialist regional strategy. He has cultivated an aura of invincibility by profiting from anarchy in divided, war-torn states, arming the strong to prey on the weak. Like all bullies, when faced with determined opposition he proves to be mere hubris and bluster.
Yet Al-Sadr or Abadi could be seduced by Soleimani’s carrots and sticks. Soleimani previously coerced Al-Sadr to align with pro-Iran factions, while over the past year Abadi and Soleimani collaborated to displace the Kurds from Kirkuk. Abadi and Al-Hashd even briefly appeared on the same electoral list. Thus true friends of Iraq must use their influence to ensure that Al-Sadr, Abadi and other centrists stand firm against threats and empty promises.
Attacks on Al-Sadr’s offices in southern provinces in recent days are just a tiny proportion of the hell Soleimani could unleash if he decided to confront Al-Sadr on the streets of Iraq. Pro-Al-Hashd elements could instigate resistance against the formation of an Al-Sadr government, pushing Iraq back into factional violence.
Since his doomed confrontations with the Americans after 2003, most experts agree that Al-Sadr has matured as a proponent of reform, enjoying immense grassroots support. He may represent Iraq’s best chance for a clean break with its sectarian past, through his advocacy of technocratic governance and his activism against corruption.
During the Iraq elections, I participated in a Beirut Institute event in Abu Dhabi. Given the many attending diplomats and military figures who served in Baghdad, Iranian interference was a dominant topic. All agreed that any Western policy for containing Tehran necessarily started in Baghdad and Damascus.
However, a dangerous wedge has been driven between America and Europe over the nuclear issue. Europe’s kneejerk reaction toward obstructing renewed sanctions is unfathomable. European leaders risk prioritizing illusory trade prospects and pretending to ignore how the various facets of Tehran’s meddling add up to a coherent policy of dominating multiple Arab states. Europe and America may differ on strategy, but it is glaringly obvious that a vigorous policy of containment is essential.
Iran’s leaders have their claws deeply enmeshed in Iraq’s social fabric: It will take time for Al-Hashd’s allies to be purged from its administrative strongholds, for Quds Force operatives in Iran’s Embassy in Baghdad to be reined in, and for the plethora of Khomeinist theological and cultural institutions to be wound up.
Yet Iraq is not Lebanon. When visiting Beirut, I am reminded how Hezbollah over decades has released its toxins into every cell of Lebanon’s political fabric. Iran’s hold on Iraq is visible everywhere, but it is more recent and superficial, and has triggered a vigorous backlash. Many Iraqi Shiites recall Iran as the enemy from the brutal 1980s war. Even Al-Hashd’s foot soldiers often feel little genuine connection with Iran, in contrast to the older generation of leaders who were reared there, immersed in Khomeinist theology and have Iranian families.
Iran and Iraq should aspire to cordial relations between sovereign equals, not one side subverting and dominating the other’s governing system. GCC outreach should likewise mediate Iraq’s return to the Arab fold as an independent state whose sovereignty lies with Iraqis themselves. Al-Sadr won the elections by being the only politician to credibly advance such an aspiration.
Iraq sits astride a unique tipping point. The stakes are too high for GCC states and world powers to sit patiently on the sidelines while Soleimani subjects Iraqi factions to a tornado of threats and enticements. There may never be a better opportunity to cut Iranian influence down to size, but only if Tehran’s theocrats are outwitted and outmaneuvered in this complex and ruthless geopolitical chess match.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.