Four recent incidents in Iraq, in which Iranian-backed paramilitary bases were struck or exploded mysteriously, have brought to the foreground a quiet conflict that has been brewing. Iran's role in Iraq has expanded over the last decade and a half, raising questions about Tehran's goals and how it views Iraq.
On the one hand, Iran pays lip service to the concept of Iraq as an ally. It has sought high level meetings with Iraqi officials and discussed joint defense. In March, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani traveled to Iraq. Bilateral agreements have been signed, including economic agreements and also visa-free travel for Iranians doing pilgrimage to Shi'ite sites in Iraq.
However, Iraqis have also protested against Iran's role. In the summer of 2018, protests targeted Iran and Iranian-backed paramilitaries in Basra. There are complaints about Iran hogging resources that could go to Iraq's electrical grid. Also, there are rumors that Iran enabled drug smuggling to Iraq.
It is not a simple picture, though. Iranian-backed paramilitaries helped defeat ISIS, and many locals are loyal to different groups within the Hashd al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Forces. These paramilitaries, sometimes called "militias," helped arm locals and provide security. Young men see work in the militias as a way out. But those groups are also accused of involvement in corruption and even running secret prisons. For some, this is a form of justice against alleged ISIS members. But for other Iraqis who fled the ISIS war in 2014, it means they have difficulty returning home, fearing reprisals from these paramilitaries.
Iran's overall policy in Iraq could end up like its role in Syria.
Iran's overall policy in Iraq could end up like Iran's role in Syria, Lebanon or Yemen. It could support proxy forces or work with one large group, like Hezbollah. It could be an ally of the government, as in Syria, or work on the ground to expand religious endowments and create a kind of parallel state. Iraq is Iran's "near abroad," a term that usually describes how Russia relates to neighboring countries and areas. In these areas, Russia historically sought influence or control. In the early 20th century, that meant total control of areas in Central Asia and in Poland and Ukraine. Today, that role is more complex, Russia has influence, but also recently annexed Crimea.
For Iran, there is no concept of annexation. Iran wants influence. But it may also want direct control through militias and paramilitaries or setting up political parties that are allied to Iran and control government ministries.
In Iraq, for instance, pro-Iranian parties have controlled the powerful Interior Ministry. However, as with the paramilitaries, the logic behind this can be seen as historic and reasonable. Leaders of the paramilitaries and parties, such as Hadi al-Amiri, grew up in Iran in the 1980s fighting alongside the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) against Saddam Hussein's brutal regime. They have good reasons to be allied with Iran. Iran helped them when they wanted to be free of Saddam.
The question today is how those like Amiri see themselves and the Iraq that they help run. Is Iraq an equal with Iran, or does Iran's long-term goal want a weakened Iraq, hollowed out of its resources, economy and defenses? Does Iran want the PMF to become a sort of IRGC in Iraq, replacing the military bit-by-bit and supplanting its role until the Iraqi army withers and the PMF becomes the major force in Iraq? Or will the Iraqi central government rein in the paramilitaries, as it has sought to do? The former prime minister Haider Abadi saw the PMF as the hope of the future of Iraq and the region, a detail he told former US secretary of state Rex Tillerson. If that is the role of the PMF and its allied parties in parliament, along with its allies' religious institutions – which all tend to be one entity like Hezbollah is in Lebanon – then the PMF will grow and the Iraqi central government will not be strengthened.
Iran was a victim of a strong Iraq under Saddam. It may fear Iraq regaining strength. But long-term that has implications for Syria and Lebanon and Yemen as well.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.