BAGHDAD: Iran is scrambling to secure its interests in Iraq amid fears it will lose out in the political battle to form Iraq’s new government.
Negotiators and political analysts told Arab News that Tehran is even ready to support an administration led by its rivals in a bid to maintain influence in the country.
Iran and its Shiite allies in Iraq have been “cautiously” watching the new kingmaker Muqtada Al-Sadr, whose Sairoon alliance triumphed in elections last month.
While Al-Sadr has led talks to build the largest coalition in Parliament, Iran’s allies “have not sought to seriously compete” to form a rival bloc, but instead joined negotiations to try to secure Iran’s interests in the country, the sources said.
Iraq is a focal point for international rivalry in the region, especially between Iran and the US since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. No stable government can form without the agreement of both nations.
Al-Sadr, the influential Shiite cleric openly hostile to Iran, heads the Sairoon bloc, which won 54 seats in the May 12 election.
Arab News revealed last week that he is close to securing the largest coalition without the need for any of the Iran-backed parties.
That bloc would then be able to nominate a prime minister who would be assigned to form a government.
The pro-Iranian Shiite Al-Fattah alliance came second in the election with 47 seats. The alliance is led by Hadi Al-Amiri, head of the Badr Organization, one of the most prominent Shiite armed factions, supported by Tehran.
Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Al-Quds Force, made a short visit to Baghdad on May 18 to tell Al-Fattah’s leaders that they should keep negotiating.
“The message was very clear. No red lines against anyone, not Sadr or Abadi,” a senior Fattah leader who attended the meeting with Soleimani told Arab News.
Al-Fattah leaders were advised by the Iranian commander to “negotiate with whoever you think will serve your interests.”
Two days later, Al-Amiri went to visit Al-Sadr in his temporary Baghdad headquarters to “discuss the developments of the political process … and the formation of a patriarchal government,” the senior leader said.
“Iranians are still negotiating to get Al-Amiri into the coalition,” a negotiator close to Al-Abadi told Arab News.
But he said it would not include the other main Shiite armed faction in the Al-Fattah alliance — Assaib Ahl Al-Haq.
Last week, the US Congress included Assaib in the list of terrorist organizations whose members or collaborators would be covered by US Treasury sanctions.
“They (the Iranians) knew that Assaib had no chance to get any position in the government,” the negotiator said.
“So they negotiate to get just Badr in.”
Al-Amiri’s Badr faction won more than 20 seats and is angling to get the transport ministry, negotiators involved in the talks told Arab News.
An Iran ally controlling that ministry would help maintain the air bridge between Iran and Syria, where Iranian forces and militias are heavily involved in military support for President Bashar Assad, the source said.
Keeping the transport routes running freely through Iraq would also help Iran get around US sanctions.
Iranian airlines have been under a suffocating blockade since 2011 over their involvement in transporting arms and fighters to Syria and Iraq.
Iraq’s Transport Ministry is responsible for the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority, and the Iraqi government and private transport fleet, and Al-Badr’s control of the ministry would relieve the pressure on Iran.
Fearing this outcome from negotiations, Al-Abadi, who is favorite to stay as prime minister and enjoys US support, last week ordered the Civil Aviation Authority to be separated from the Transport Ministry and linked to the Cabinet.
The move sparked widespread objections from his Shiite rivals, who accused him of seeking to control the aviation authority for personal reasons.
“Separating the aviation authority from the ministry of transport is a proactive step to reassure the international community,” the negotiator said.
Tehran is also seeking to ensure it can continue to use Iraq to circumvent US sanctions and ensure the flow of foreign currency into Iran and the sale of Iranian oil on the global market away from US monitoring.
“(Iran’s) concern is that the flow of money is threatened. US Treasury sanctions may be imposed on Iraqi banks and companies linked to Iran at any moment,” a Shiite politician familiar with the negotiations told Arab News.
Last month, the US Treasury Department listed Arass Habib, the owner of Iraq’s Al-Billad Islamic Bank, on the list of terrorist-cooperating organizations for transferring funds to Hezbollah on behalf of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
“Also, they want us to sell oil on their behalf,” a negotiator said.
Sami Al-Asskari, a prominent Shiite leader and one of the negotiators of the State of Law bloc, told Arab News that Iran wants a government that will not be involved in any hostile policy toward Iran or its interests in Iraq.
“A government that does not engage in any regional or international axis against Iran,” he said.