IRGC Quds Force commander Esmail Qaani (R) sits beside his predecessor, Qassem Soleimani in a photo that was circulated online after Soleimani’s death. (Supplied)

By Track Persia

October 18, 2021

A day following Iraq’s parliamentary elections which were held on 10 October, reports emerged on some news outlets about an unannounced visit by the commander of the Quds Force, the external wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), to the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. Despite Tehran and Baghdad both publicly denied such visit, sources from inside Iraq revealed that Qaani had met with Tehran’s allies a day after the elections to organise his country’s allies for the biggest bloc in the Iraqi parliament. While  Shafaq News Agency reported that a government source revealed that Qaani has met with several Iraqi officials and leaders of political parties to “coordinate positions on political alliances for the post-announcement stage of the parliamentary elections. Qaani is said to have arrived in Baghdad passing through one of Iraq’s border crossings and he was hosted by Iraq’s former Prime Minister and head of the Shiite State of Law bloc, Nuri al-Maliki.

Qaani’s visit came as Iraq’s electoral commission said that the voter turnout had been 41%, the lowest since the ousting of Saddam Hussein in 2003 by the US-led invasion. The low turnout is largely seen as a lack of faith in the overtly democratic system introduced to Iraq after 2003. It is also an indication that the disillusioned Iraqi youth and middle classes decided to boycott the poll because they feared that their participation could reinforce the post-invasion political system which proved to have failed and done little to provide basic services for Iraqis.

The defeat of pro-Iran in Iraq’s elections

The recent elections had been called early in response to the nationwide popular protests that erupted in early October 2019. According to independent human rights organisations, more than 700 protesters were killed by government forces and Iran-allied Shiite militias and about 30 thousand more were injured, among them those who sustained severe disabilities.

The preliminary results also show that the electoral bloc of the populist Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is the main winner in these elections. The expansion of Sadr’s 73 seats from 54 in the previous elections has alarmed the Sadrists’ rivals, mainly Iran-allied Shiite factions including al-Maliki and the Fatah bloc whose parliamentary seats were reduced from 48 to only 14.

Similarly, in a televised statement issued following the announcement of the preliminary results Sadr warned his rivals that there was no need to interfere in the decisions of the Iraqi Electoral Commission and his group was closely monitoring for any “illegal” interference. His statement alarmed Tehran’s proxies and prompted them to announce that they did not recognise the results of the elections.

The surprising defeat of Tehran’s proxy factions has prompted them to warn that they were prepared to resort to violence if necessary to ensure that they would not lose their power after the “fraudulent” elections. Despite the surprise of Iran’s strongest man in Iraq al-Malik who gained third place in the elections with 37 parliamentary seats, the preliminary results delivered a clear rejection to Iran’s allies in Iraq.

Tehran’s involvement in Iraq’s elections

A few months following Iraqi government’s announcement about holding the early elections in Iraq in October, Tehran had focused on spreading doubts about the feasibility of holding these elections. However, when it became clear that the elections would go ahead as planned, Tehran started to use its propaganda machine to support these elections. Iran’s state-owned media called these elections “Qassem Soleimani’s election” with the subtext that Iraqi voters would pay tribute to the dead general by massively voting for his local Shiite proxies in Iraq. For his part, Qods Force was reported to have organised frequent trips to Iraq for dual-nationals living in Iran to vote in these elections for Tehran’s proxies.

The surprise defeat of the proxies in the recent elections has prompted Tehran to seek some solace in the surprise gain of its ally the Nuri al-Maliki in these elections. The Iranian media has also tried to belittle the impact of the outcome of these elections by focusing on the theme of low voter turnout, despite this could remind the Iranian public of the lower voter turnout in the last Iranian elections that led to the victory of the hardliner Ibrahim Raisi.

Tehran also ignored the fact that the results have brought a new generation of Iraqi politicians who represent the nationwide protests that erupted in October 2019. These politicians anti-Tehran’s malign policy in Iraq and its support for the Shiite militias have won more than eight per cent of the seats. This reflects a new direction in Iraqi politics and the waning of Tehran’s influence in Iraq.

The Iranian leaders hoped that these elections would drive the Iraqi public’s focus on forcing out the US troops from Iraq. However, this did not happen as the main focus of the electoral campaigns was on rebuilding the Iraqi state, weakening the deep state represented by the Iranian proxies, fighting corruption and improving the deteriorated economic situation.

Soleimani’s influence over proxies in Iraq

Since the invasion of Iraq by the US-led coalition in 2003, Tehran has been building a powerful network of political, religious and military factions to increase its influence and materialise its will in this country in this country. Iran’s intelligence and security organisations directly linked to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei employed these proxies, which in turn, pledged allegiance to Iran and its Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iran’s proxies which call themselves ‘Muhwar al-Muqawama’ (Resistance axis) are convinced that if they increase violence against the US troops and interests in Iraq they will press the Americans to return to the negotiations table with Tehran over the latter’s nuclear deal and this subsequently will lead to lifting the US economic sanctions on Iran. They believe that the Biden administration is too weak to respond to their attacks against US interests in Iraq and that this administration will eventually accept all Tehran’s terms and conditions.

Qaani’s predecessor Gen Qassem Soleimani who was killed on 3 January 2020 by a US drone strike near Baghdad Airport was successful in uniting Iran’s proxies in Iraq. Soleimani exploited the control of the Islamic State (IS) over large swaths in north and west of Iraq, in particular, the fatwa issued by the most senior Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Iraq’s Shiite city of Najaf. By issuing this jihad fatwa against the extremist group which was preparing to control Baghdad, Sistani unintentionally offered an ideological umbrella for Iran, through Soleimani, to mobilise Iran’s proxies of Shi’ite militias to fight IS. The culmination of the misuse of Sistani’s fatwa is reflected in the justification of forming the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF) which consists of mainly Iran-allied Shiite militias. The PMF was later recognised by the Iraqi parliament, which was dominated by Shiite factions, as part of Iraq’s armed forces, although these militias had committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during and after the liberation campaign, this has enabled them to gain status above the Iraqi state.

Tehran, however, hoped to compensate for the loss of Soleimani by assigned Qaani as his successor. However, Qaani lacks Soleimani’s charisma and strong connections in Iraq have made his powers limited. For this reason, Khamenei has been reported to have decided to hand over Qaani’s responsibilities to other Iranian agencies that are directly linked to his office such as the Beit Rahbari. Nonetheless, Tehran has still been struggling to find someone who can fill Soleimani’s shoes in Iraq.

The bottom line, Qaani’s visit to Iraq appears to be the last chance for him to increase his influence on Iran’s proxies in Iraq and to prove that he is the right man to replace Soleimani and not a loser as seen by many Iraqis, including Iran’s proxies themselves.

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.