The degree of influence Iran has in Iraq is always a source of consternation and debate. Why Tehran would want to influence events there, and how it elects to do so, are much less debatable.
Iraq is a major security concern for Iran – more so even than Syria. The Zagros Mountains insulate Iran from direct invasion, but they can’t prevent smaller bands of insurgents from staging attacks from the west, say, from Iraq. Iran therefore has an interest in controlling, to as great a degree as possible, the political and security environment in Iraq. However, the sheer diversity of interests in Iraqi politics makes it difficult for Iran to completely control the establishment through formal means. It has supplemented its quest for official political power with the presence of large militia groups that answer to Iran, not Iraq. And it uses state organs to fund them.
Iran appears to be gaining traction in that regard. After months of delay, the parliament finally elected a speaker, an important step toward forming a government after hotly contested elections in May. The speaker, Mohammed al-Halbousi, was backed by the Fatah Alliance, a political organization led by former pro-Iran militia member Hadi al-Amiri. The next step in forming a government will be electing a president and prime minister. Former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi – considered a compromise candidate who has shown a willingness to work with both Iran and the U.S. – had until recently been considered a favorite to reclaim his post. That changed because of how poorly the government handled the Basra protests. Its performance was so bad that Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, an Iraqi Shiite cleric whose opinion rings out in Iraq’s political system, said he would not support anyone who held office during the protests.
Yet, those protests attest to the limits of Iranian power in Iraq, even in Shiite-dominated areas. Demonstrators chanted anti-Iran slogans and even lit the Iranian Consulate on fire. Several offices of pro-Iran militias, including the Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah, were attacked and lit on fire. The Basra protests, then, were at least partly a protest against the status quo.
Also obstructing Iran’s influence in Iraq is the United States. On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate plans to introduce a bill that would impose sanctions on Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, two of the many pro-Iran militias operating in Iraq. The bill would also require the State Department to publish a list of groups that receive funding or are controlled, to whatever degree, by Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Washington means to delegitimize Iran’s Iraqi proxies by labeling them as terrorist organizations, which it hopes will, in turn, prevent Iraq from incorporating them into the formal armed services.
Then there are Kurds, which, as outlawed groups, are challenging Iran from their strongholds in northern Iraq. Over the past few months, there has been an uptick in attacks against Iranian state forces by Iranian Kurdish forces. Iran has petitioned the Kurdistan Regional Government to control these groups, but the KRG is either unable or unwilling to do so. Add to this the reasonable inference that the U.S. is supporting Iranian Kurdish groups – it selectively supports other Kurdish factions as the situation warrants – and Iran finds itself facing a much more substantial threat from the north than it has in recent years.
This explains why Iran reportedly provided ballistic missiles to its Shiite militias in Iraq. Soon thereafter, in late August, the IRGC conducted a ballistic missile strike against Iranian Kurdish positions in northern Iraq, killing 15. (Following the attack, Kurdish sources claimed that Iran was beginning a buildup of forces on its border with Iraq.) Iran has shelled Kurdish positions in Iraq before, but this is the first time it used precision-guided missiles. It is therefore a clear signal to the entire region: To defend its interests, Tehran is willing and able to strike deeper into Iraqi territory, without the use of its hallmark proxies, than ever before.
Not long after the strike, the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan called on other Iranian Kurdish groups to form a united front against Iran. If they do, they will only invite more reprisals. And if the KRG cannot prevent attacks against Iran from Iraqi bases – given signs of U.S. involvement, it seems unlikely – an Iranian invasion of northern Iraq can’t be ruled out. After all, with Iraqi loyalty to Iran coming into question, extra guns in Iraq would help secure the Iranian border.