Hussain Abdul-Hussain, a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, spoke to a January 20th Middle East Forum Webinar (video) in an interview with Cliff Smith, Washington Project director for the Middle East Forum, about Iran's attempt to influence and dominate Iraq. The following is a summary of Hussain's comments:
The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini essentially established two states in one: the formal and weaker state with a government elected by the people; and the actual state, currently under Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's control, with its own army — the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) — and its own economy. Iran's strategy for regional domination is to "export the revolution" model to other countries. The model was put to successful use in Lebanon where, despite its elected government, president, and prime minister, the actual control of state is in the hands of Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Iran's proxy, Hezbollah, who employs targeted assassinations against any challenger to the model.
Since Saddam Hussein's fall in 2003, Iran has attempted to replicate the Lebanon model's success in Iraq, but significant differences between Lebanon and Iraq mean the effort has yet to succeed. The first is the size of each country's population. As one million of the four to five million Lebanese people are Shia, the amount is manageable within the Iranian budget. On the other hand, Iraq's twenty million Shia is too large a number for the Iranians to fund, particularly since Iraq generates ten billion dollars a month and an annual surplus of sixty billion, which enables it to exercise more autonomy from Iranian interference. Iraq has resources far greater and more diverse than Iran's, with oil reserves the Iranians want to control. A second impediment to Iran's plan to dominate the Iraqi government, despite Tehran unleashing its militias on any opposition, is that Iraq's Shia population is less pro-Iran than the Lebanese Shia. Third, although the Iranian city of Qom lays claim to Shia religious leadership, Iraq, "the only Arab country with a clear Shia majority," hosts the more prestigious city of Najaf which holds greater religious authority among the Shia worldwide.
Still, even though there is opposition to the pro-Iran forces among the Iraqis, Iran has taken the opportunity to exploit the reality that the U.S. has not excised Iraq from the global economic system. Despite measures by the Iraqi Central Bank in response to the U.S. Federal Reserve's threat to act if Iraq is unable to stanch monies funneled to the IRGC and the black market, Iran is nonetheless able to circumvent U.S. sanctions by "vacuuming up" the surplus foreign currency. Iran has not only strengthened the IRGC and weakened the Iraqi dinar as a result; it has also secured two centers (Lebanon and Iraq) from which Iran's militias launch regional terrorism.
Iran has also resorted to parliamentary tactics in order to dominate the Iraqi government. Thus, Iran obstructs the Iraqi government when pro-Iranian candidates lose in elections, as was the case in 2021. Anti-Iran groups coalesced to form a parliamentary majority, with Iraqi cleric and politician, Muqtada al-Sadr, the Kurds, and the Sunnis joining forces to elect a speaker to counter the pro-Iran faction. They planned to hold presidential elections to designate a new prime minister and form a cabinet.
However, the plan was thwarted because Iran pressured the Iraqi Supreme Court "to reinterpret what constitutes a quorum to elect a president." The majority was raised from "one half to two thirds," thereby preventing the anti-Iran group from electing a president and forming a cabinet without including the pro-Iran factions. The result was a stalemate. The plan failed also because Sadr, a political amateur, committed a blunder. Although he held the largest bloc of members of parliament, he forced them to quit in protest which, in turn, triggered a clause in the Iraqi Constitution enabling the minority Iranian factions to replace the pro-Iraqi bloc.
As the pro-Iranian bloc ascended, they still had to contend with the Kurds and the Sunnis, along with a small number of "honorable" ministers who had been appointed. A problem remained for the non-pro-Iranian factions, however, because Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's former prime minister, had chosen a weak successor, Mohammed Shia' al-Sudani, with the hopes of making an eventual comeback. As a result, the ministers are now too afraid to take a stand against the pro-Iran militias. Even if the ministers have the support of the prime minister, he is weak and easily bullied by the pro-Iran bloc, which would sink efforts to mount any opposition.
Iran has also been undermining the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), a reliable U.S. ally in the region. Iraqi dissidents and civil society activists in the crosshairs of Iranian militias have taken refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Iranians have been targeting the area with missile and drone strikes and unleashing pro-Iran Shia militias in Iraq to attack the KDP. Despite the U.S.'s allotment of aid for the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, not all of it reaches them because Baghdad's central government, tasked with its dispersal, can discount, or withhold some of the aid to settle any debt it deems outstanding. The result is that the Kurdish forces are deprived of the critical technology they need. In essence, the U.S. administration has "thrown these KDP guys under the bus" because the U.S. fears provoking the Iranians and undermining any hopes for future nuclear talks.
Another strategy the Iranians use to undermine the Kurds is weakening their competitive position as exporters of their rich supply of natural gas to Turkey. Thus, the Iranians attacked gas installations in Kurdistan while they prevailed upon the pro-Iran government in Iraq to rule Kurdish pumping illegal. Coming on the heels of the murder of Mahsa Amini, an Iranian Kurdish woman arrested and killed by the modesty police in Iran, the restive Iraqi and Iranian Kurdish populations are proving to be a "thorny" issue for Iran.
Although in a spate of civil war clashes in Iraq, pro-Sadr forces recently overcame pro-Iran militias, Sadr promoted the passage of a law to counter the Abraham Accords sweeping the region. The law prohibits any normalization with Israel, "the Zionist entity," but Abdul-Hussain maintains that the poorly crafted law was instituted to counter Iranian pressure accusing its rivals of not ejecting U.S. military advisors. Sadr, while not pressing to oust the U.S., instead upped the ante against Israel, the convenient "boogeyman," as a diversionary tactic to deflect charges of weakness and a lack of resistance to America's control. The "absurd" law has no teeth because if it did, commodities could not be imported to Iraq by any company or any Iraqi in the diaspora engaged in business with Israel.
The Gulf States oppose Iran's efforts to dominate Iraq, and Saudi Arabia has been making "common cause" with the moderate Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the head of the Shia religious establishment in Najaf, who "opposes armed militias outside state control." The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has invested heavily in Kurdistan's fossil fuel industry, but aside from the financial and diplomatic support the Gulf States offer, Abdul-Hussain believes they are filling a role that the U.S. should be playing to push back Iran. Abdul-Hussein noted that the Gulf states tend to seek to work through official and legal state bodies, in contrast to the Iranians who use militias.
Ultimately, Iran realizes that Iraq, with its accumulated surplus in the tens of billions of dollars, is stronger than Lebanon in terms of economics. The conundrum for Tehran is that while it wants to dominate Iraq, it also needs to keep the country functioning and avoid the imposition of U.S. sanctions on the country. Despite Iranian efforts to control Baghdad, the Islamic Republic lacks the economic tools to pressure the Iraqis. It may think Iraq is the "[goose] that gives them the golden eggs," but Tehran's ambition to impose the Lebanon model on Iraq has failed to succeed in its entirety thus far.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.