The recent takeover of Kirkuk by the Iranian-backed militias and Iraqi army clearly illustrates that Iran is calling shots in every important decision of Iraq. The Kirkuk operation and withdrawal of Kurdish peshmerga without meaningful resistance to advancing Iraqi forces was planned by Iran’s Quds force commander Major-General Qassem Soleimani. To what extent the Iraq prime minister’s office was involved in this episode is still unclear but one thing is certain: strategic decisions were made in Tehran, and Baghdad only followed.
Geopolitical observers are now criticizing Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi (a) for being too quick to resort to force against the Kurds, and (b) that at the behest of Tehran rather than engaging in talks with Erbil, which helped Baghdad in its fight against ISIS.
There are number of ways in which Iran gains from this current crisis. Not only does the conflict undermine Kurdish unity, it also boosts the role of Iranian-backed Iraqi shia militias like Hashd al-Shaabi which makes them look like guardians of national unity rather than violent sectarianism.
The quick fall of Kirkuk clearly showcases the extent to which the Iraqi government has increasingly come under Iran’s growing influence. And it demonstrates the currently unparalleled efficacy and efficiency of Iranian methods of revolutionary violence and political warfare, as perfected and used by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), not only in Iraq but throughout the Arab world to promote Iran’s geopolitical interests. Iran’s influence in Iraq is not just ascendant, but diverse, growing and varied, extending to almost every walk of life. Let’s have a look at various areas where Iran is dominating the Iraqi arena.
Politics – During the former dictator Saddam Hussein’s rule, Iran granted asylum to a number of Iraqi opposition parties, and part of its ability to greatly affect Iraqi political theatre today is linked to the fact that the individuals comprising a signiﬁcant portion of the Iraqi political map formerly resided in Iran. Politically, Iran has a large number of allies in Iraqi Parliament who can help secure Tehran’s goals. Even the most senior Iraqi cabinet officials quietly take – directly or indirectly – instructions from Iran’s theocratic leadership.
Economy – Trade between the two countries is primarily uni-directional in favor of Iran, and years of sanctions, wars and internal strife have rendered Iraq largely dependent on Iranian imports. The only place outside Iran where Iranian currency, the Rial, is used as a medium of exchange is southern Iraq. Iran dumps cheap, subsidized food products and consumer goods into Iraqi markets and appears to have significantly undercut Iraq’s agricultural and manufacturing sectors.
Natural Resources – Iran’s damming and diversion of the rivers feeding the Shatt al-Arab waterway has greatly undermined Iraqi agriculture sector in the south and hindered efforts to revive Iraq’s southern marshlands. Iran has in the past withheld water flows of the Kalal River, which flows into Iraq’s Wasit province, and of the Karun and Karkha rivers, which flow into Basra province.
Religion – Iran has quietly and effectively been pursuing a long-term strategy to expand its religious authority in Iraq in many ways – for example, by using financial and political leverages to ensure the primacy of clerics trained in the Iranian seminary of Qom and loyal to the Iranian ideology, over clerics trained in the relatively non-political tradition of the Najaf seminary. Also, by reconstructing the various shiite shrines in Iraq and consequently taking control of their management, religious indoctrination and influence. At lastly, by taking control of the pilgrimage observances in Iraq’s shrine cities, notably the Arbaeen procession which attracts millions of fanatical shiite followers every year in Karbala.