Jonathan Spyer, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum and the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, and the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis (MECRA), spoke to Middle East Forum Radio host Gregg Roman on April 8 about the U.S. strategy to counter the Iranian regime's influence in Iraq and the Middle East.
While ISIS remains a threat in Sunni central Iraq, according to Spyer the more immediate threat is "the Iranian project for regional domination" that seeks to "essentially absorb Iraq in the same way that Iran has absorbed Lebanon in recent years." To counter Iran's ambition, the U.S. will need a "coordinated strategy" encompassing military, intelligence, economic, and political efforts. "It's not enough just to do military stuff," he said, noting that the Iranians do "multilevel stuff extremely well."
Although America has a central role to play in challenging Iran's domination of Iraq and the region, "it must also be a mission undertaken by Iran's other Middle Eastern enemies," such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and American Kurdish allies in Iraq and Syria. "It needs to be a full-court strategic push."
Israel, he noted, has quietly and effectively employed its intelligence capabilities and air power to "turn back the Iranian effort" in Syria, while the Saudis have been "doing their best in Yemen," though "without ... achieving an unqualified success."
Unfortunately, the battle for Lebanon, "where the Iranian project of hollowing out the country and replacing it with an Iran dominated power system has advanced [the] most," is "kind of done." Despite major Western efforts to counter Iranian influence over the last decade and a half by supporting the March 14 movement, Hezbollah's 2008 takeover of West Beirut made clear that its opponents "had nothing to challenge the Iranian system with when it came to the use of cold brute force." Since then, Hezbollah has increased its domination of Lebanon's political, economic, military, and intelligence institutions. "That will only change if and when ... the Islamist regime in Iran itself falls."
The battle for Lebanon is "kind of done." Iraq is still "very much in play."
By contrast, Iraq is still "very much in play," said Spyer. Iranian domination is strongly opposed by the country's Kurdish and Sunni Arab minorities, and months of street protests prior to the COVID-19 pandemic showed that opposition within the majority Shia community is mounting as well. "So it's time to start to get involved in coordinating those forces ... so that they can then start to try to push back within the political system."
Spyer pointed out that both the current prime minister designate, Adnan al-Zurfi, and the candidate likely to challenge him, Iraqi National Intelligence Service (INIS) chief Mustafa Kadhimi [who has since been appointed to replace Zurfi], are "associated with the anti-Iranian element in Iraqi politics" and seen as having collaborated with the U.S. in Iraq. Kadhimi has received the support of the Shia parties who opposed Zurfi, as well as the support of Sunni Arab forces in parliament.
Another indicator of anti-Iranian sentiment among majority Shia is the fact that General Esmail Ghaani, Qassem Soleimani's replacement as head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Al-Qods Force, was recently refused a meeting with Iraq's top Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Populist Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr also snubbed him. Ghaani, a non-Arabic speaker who mainly spent his professional career in Afghanistan, "is simply not succeeding in replicating the power and influence wielded by the late General Qassem Soleimani in the Iraqi context," said Spyer.
Compounding the vacuum left by Soleimani is Abu Fadak Al-Mohammedawi, the replacement for Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Iran's most influential Iraqi militia leader who was killed in the same drone strike as Soleimani. Al-Mohammedawi's authority is questioned by pro-Iranian militias who consider him a weak successor.
These deficits leave the pro-Iranian camp in Iraq in disarray. Now is an "opportune time" for America and its allies to leverage their advantage to ensure that "a non-Iran-associated prime minister" can harness Iraq's political system against pro-Iranian forces. When the coronavirus pandemic subsides and circumstances are conducive for Shia demonstrators to return to the streets in protest against the Iranian-led systems of corruption, the slogans that many of the Shia are tiring of hearing from the Iranians will be further exposed as empty promises.
In the meantime, Spyer emphasized, the U.S. doesn't need "to have large numbers of conventional forces on the ground in order to wield influence." In fact, a large contingent of forces is "not even really conducive to U.S. and Western interests" because it enables Iran to portray the U.S. as an occupier and provides an attractive target for Iranian-backed militias. Rather than stationing soldiers in large U.S. bases, the U.S. should craft a more "directed and subtle" presence by devising a "much lighter ... smart footprint."
Marilyn Stern is the producer of Middle East Forum Radio.