Iran sent Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, to Iraq in order to try to control Iraq's political future, according to reports and insider accounts. Shamkhani is a key figure in Iran. Even as the Islamic Republic struggles to contain the coronavirus pandemic which has led to more than 7,000 infections and hundreds of deaths – even among Iran's ruling elite – Tehran is plotting to control Iraq's chaotic politics.
Iraq has been rocked by ongoing protests since October, and its prime minister, Adel Abdel Mahdi, resigned in November due to the killing of protesters. Some 600 protesters have been killed, many of them by Iranian-backed militias, and some 20,000 more wounded.
In late December Iran engineered rocket attacks in Iraq against US forces that resulted in the death of a US contractor. Washington retaliated; pro-Iranian groups stormed the US embassy compound; and the US killed Iranian IRGC Quds Force head Qasem Soleimani and pro-Iranian militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
That killing, amid the protests, set in motion a different set of protests led by populist Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Hadi al-Amiri's Badr Organization to oust US troops. At the same time, Iraq's political parties – of which Sadr and Amiri lead the two largest in a parliament that is fractured between Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish factions – appointed new prime ministerial designate Mohammed Allawi. But he failed in mid-March to form a government, tossing Iraq's politics back into chaos.
For Iran, the chaotic situation in Baghdad is problematic. Iran has invested heavily over the last decade and a half in co-opting politicians in Baghdad. Documents leaked in November show how Iran has a network of agents in Iraq. This network was a key to Qasem Soleimani's role in Iraq over the years. He worked through local militias that became part of the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). His death in early January left a vacuum.
Now Iran has sent Shamkhani to pick up where Soleimani left off. He met with Iraqi intelligence chief Mustafa al-Kadhimi, and referenced the expulsion of US forces from Iraq.
"The role of intelligence and security bodies to manage the new conditions is of paramount importance," Shamkhani said, according to Iran's IRNA news agency. The "countdown" to get rid of the US in Iraq has begun, he added. This is the same language used by Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, a pro-Iranian group in the PMU which has been sanctioned by the US.
Nujaba released videos in mid-February about the "countdown," showing US forces and noting that the Iranian-backed militias could easily target them. Rockets have been fired at the US embassy and bases in Iraq almost every week over the last five months.
Key reports from Iraq traced the meetings of Shamkhani as he made the rounds in Baghdad. Not only did he meet the Iraqi speaker of parliament, president and former prime minister, he also met the powerful leader of the PMU, Falih al-Fayyadh. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis had been deputy of the PMU, so meeting the head of the PMU shows that Shamkhani is trying to work with Iraq's key pro-Iranian groups.
Locals wonder about the timing and objectives of the Iranian meetings in Baghdad. "These visits are linked to several scenarios," notes Al-Ain media. "The most important is Iran's efforts to control the process of forming the new Iraqi government, as it has done since 2003. It also wants to compensate for the absence of Soleimani." The failure of Allawi to form a government sets the countdown for another fifteen days to find another prime minister.
An Iraqi official who spoke to Al-Ain on condition of anonymity said that Shamkhani had been in Baghdad and Najaf. He added that the council secretary met with Dawa Party head Nouri al-Maliki, head of the Hikma movement Ammar al-Hakim and Iraqi cleric Sadr.
"Shamkhani oversees the process of forming the government, and is guided by [Iranian] Ayatollah Ali Khamenei," the source added. "He came to Baghdad directly to interfere in the process."
It appears that the head of Iraq's intelligence is favored by Iran. Tehran suffered a blow to its influence after Soleimani's assassination in January. Many differences between groups in the Hashd (PMU) have appeared. Hezbollah in Lebanon has been asked to assist in uniting the various PMU factions.
Hezbollah sent Mohammed al-Kawtharani, who is in charge of the group's Iraq activities, to Iraq and Iran in the wake of Soleimani's death to try his best to unite the PMU. But meetings in Iraq and in Qom, now the center of the coronavirus outbreak, have apparently not achieved the desired results. The divisions "grow deeper day after day," Al-Ain reports. IRGC head Esmail Ghaani was also sent to Syria to coincide with Shamkhani's trip. "Iran is exhausted internally and in its security initiatives," one politician said to reporters.
Iraq is tense now because of concerns about who will become the next prime minister. Kurdish groups were wary of Allawi, who appeared to want to sideline the Kurdish autonomous region. Sadr has raised the rhetoric against Kurdish Peshmerga and the Kurdish region in recent weeks. Meanwhile, members of the PMU, which supported Allawi, fear that a different candidate might be selected and appear to oppose Kadhimi. Abu Ali Al-Askara, spokesman of Kataib Hezbollah, threatened him in a recent message, claiming he had a role in the January 3 American airstrike. It's unclear why the Kataib Hezbollah faction warned of "war" if Kadhimi is selected, but they are deeply opposed to him.
Speculation in Iraq follows Shamkhani's visit. Many wonder why this high ranking Iranian was in Baghdad and what other motives were behind his visit. Despite other Iranians being prevented from travel due to the virus outbreak, he was able to come and go.
Iran's Tasnim news agency reported that Shamkhani's visit was unprecedented. It notes that Iran seeks to help remove US forces and also position Kadhimi in a key role in Iraq. Iran has invested deeply in his two-day visit this week despite the coronavirus crisis, which has affected many Iranian members of parliament and senior leaders.
Iran places extreme importance on controlling what happens next in Iraq.
This shows the extreme importance Iran places on controlling what happens next in Iraq. Iran wants to use Iraq to transfer and store ballistic missiles and other munitions it is sending to Syria to threaten Israel. It also wants the PMU to be united along the lines of the IRGC and Hezbollah. However, the statements by Kataib Hezbollah and other units show that Iran has some challenges ahead.
The absence of Soleimani and Muhandis is like the absence of two key mafia dons to a mafia empire. They are not easily replaced and Iran does not trust most of the other leaders. That is why Iran has had to tap Hezbollah and Shamkhani to go deal with the chaos in Iraq. Iran is considering expelling the US from both Iraq and Afghanistan this year. US troops are already leaving Afghanistan under a deal with the Taliban. For Iran, the next goal is also to get the US out of Iraq. But it wants to do that without overplaying its hand and angering Iraqis. It has already seen two of its consulates burned last year by protesters in Iraq.
Seth Frantzman, a Middle East Forum writing fellow, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting & Analysis.