Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Qods Force. (NRT)

By Majid Rafizadeh

October 14, 2019

As anti-government rallies began in Iraq in early October, the security forces responded with brute force, killing more than 100 protesters and injuring thousands more. Mainstream media outlets have mainly concentrated on the domestic aspect of these protests, which include people’s grievances with the Iraqi government due to the high rate of unemployment, widespread financial and political corruption, and the lack of public services, such as electricity and drinking water. However, one key reason for these demonstrations and the dire situation in this Arab nation has been overlooked: The destructive role that the Iranian regime has long played in Iraq.

The widespread political and financial corruption, as well as many of the atrocities committed in Iraq, can be traced back to the theocratic establishment of Iran. Since the ruling mullahs came to power, they have attempted to wield influence in Iraq by exporting their  revolutionary ideals to the Arab nation. After the 1979 Iranian revolution, the party of Saddam Hussein rejected Iran’s exertion of influence and, ultimately, Tehran’s provocation became one of the causes of the bloody Iran-Iraq War, which lasted almost eight years.

The Iranian regime has a history of building ties with Shiite communities in other nations, provoking them against their states, and funding, arming and sponsoring Shiite militia groups such as those in Lebanon, Yemen and Syria. And, since Iraq is a Shiite-majority country like Iran, Tehran has long viewed this issue as a great opportunity on which to capitalize in order to obtain significant influence.

It is also worth noting that the Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala have always been of great importance to the ruling clerics of Iran, who attempt to promote their ideology and appease their conservative base by making these sites in Iraq crucial destinations for religious pilgrims.

The US invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Hussein was a godsend for the Iranian leaders. Tehran immediately began forming militias and terror groups in Iraq and infiltrating the country’s security, military and political establishments. Through its influence in the Iraqi government, the Iranian regime pushed Iraq into recognizing these militias as “legitimate” groups, incorporating them into the state apparatuses and making the Iraqi government allocate wages and ammunition for them. The Iraqi government now pays for a conglomerate of militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces.

After the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq in 2011, Tehran has been viewed as the most influential foreign force in the country, while its sociopolitical, socioeconomic and military leverage and influence in post-Baathist Iraq appear to have reached new levels.

Iran has begun more forcefully controlling the Iraqi government and dictating its foreign policy by fueling sectarian conflict in the country. This heightened meddling has even led to Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi calling on Tehran to stop interfering in his country’s internal affairs. He said: “Iran does not have the right to meddle in Iraqi affairs and I hope that (Iraq’s) relations with Saudi Arabia will be strategic.”

With total disregard for the consequences, the Iranian regime has also been expanding its intervention in Iraq through various strategies, ranging from influencing elections via the use of money to dispatching troops and transferring arms and missiles to militias. According to British security officials, Iran has been deploying hit squads in Iraq — under the instructions of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) elite Quds Force — to silence individuals or groups that oppose the Iranian regime’s policies and interventions in Iraq’s internal affairs.

From an economic perspective, Tehran has also been reaping profits from Iraq while ignoring the situation of the Iraqi people. A large portion of the bilateral trade between Iran and Iraq constitutes exports from Tehran to Baghdad, which bring significant revenues to Iran’s ruling clerics. For instance, Iran exported approximately $9 billion of products to Iraq in 2018, with only $3 billion-worth going in the opposite direction.

Tehran has also been exploiting Iraq in order to evade US sanctions and using it as a proxy battleground for its rivalry with the US in an attempt to project its geopolitical, military and economic dominance in the region. After the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Iran, Tehran’s exports to Iraq increased by more than 50 percent.

The IRGC and the Quds Force have also been using Iraq as a gateway to illegally transfer weapons to Shiite militias in Syria and Lebanon.

In a nutshell, Iran has been exploiting Iraq and expanding its destructive role in the country, while totally disregarding the lives of the Iraqi people. As long as the Iranian regime exerts a high level of influence in Baghdad, Iraq is not likely to become a stable nation and the Iranian regime will continue to profit from its instability.

Arab News

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.