Bottom Line Up Front
Baghdad’s difficulty in assembling a new government is a result of U.S.-Iran competition for influence in Iraq. The latest choice for Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, appears to be acceptable to both the United States and Iran. Despite its struggles against COVID-19, Iran has unified Iraq’s Shia factions to exercise control over major Iraqi decisions. U.S. influence in Iraq is waning as U.S. troops draw down and the perceived threat from the Islamic State recedes.
The government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned in December 2019 in the face of sustained protests by mainstream Shias and other groups over government incompetence, corruption, and the failure to address Iraq’s economic weaknesses. Since then, Iraq’s major communities – Sunni and Shia Arabs, and Kurds – have had difficulty agreeing on a successor that is broadly acceptable, including to the two most influential external actors—Iran and the United States. Complicating Iraq’s search for consensus has been the ebb and flow of U.S.-Iran hostilities in Iraq, which have broader roots in the Trump administration’s efforts to apply ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran. The hostilities reached an apex in January 2020 with the U.S. killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani on arrival at Baghdad airport, and Iran’s missile retaliation on Ayn al-Asad base in Iraq a few days later. Smaller clashes have continued since, including, most recently, an early April rocket attack by pro-Iranian Shia militias on facilities of the U.S. oil services company Halliburton in Basra, Iraq.
Iran’s attempts to outmaneuver the United States for effective control over Iraq mostly center on shaping the composition of Iraq’s government. To accomplish that goal, Iran seeks to ensure that its Shia allies and proxies remain influential in Baghdad and that Iran-backed Shia militia forces can continue to attack U.S. installations in Iraq. First and foremost, Iran has sought to ensure that no new Iraqi government is led by anyone who opposes Iran’s interests or is perceived to be too close politically to Washington. Working through its allies in Iraq’s Council of Representatives, Iran was able to derail the first designated successor to Abdul Mahdi, Mohammad al-Allawi, and, more recently and more significantly, the next choice, Adnan Al-Zurfi. Zurfi had taken positions directly opposed to those of Iran and was committed to reining in the autonomy of Iran-backed militia factions in favor of a close working relationship with U.S. forces. In the face of opposition from pro-Iranian factions, on April 9 al-Zurfi withdrew as prime minister-designate in favor of Intelligence chief Mustafa al-Kadhimi.
Kadhimi’s designation appears to enjoy broad acceptance; key leaders of all the major factions attended his nomination ceremony. The show of unity was evidence that Kadhimi had gained Iranian backing. In late March, and amidst Iran’s own difficulties to mitigate the COVID-19 outbreak, Soleimani’s successor, Esmail Qaani, visited Baghdad to unify all Shia factions against Zurfi and to back Kadhimi as a replacement. Kadhimi was an anti-Saddam Shia activist in exile until the U.S.-led overthrow of that regime in 2003 and has most recently been head of Iraqi Intelligence. In that capacity, he has worked with U.S. personnel against the Islamic State, earning him the trust of Washington as well as the backing of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and Kurds. Even though Kadhimi is not reflexively pro-Iranian, he is viewed by the IRGC-QF and its Iraqi Shia allies as willing to accommodate their interests. Iran and its allies also appreciate that Kadhimi opposes the protest movement that caused Abdul Mahdi’s government to fall.
If he is confirmed as Prime Minister, Iran can continue to use its allies, as well as Kadhimi, to further reduce U.S. influence in Iraq. In the face of repeated Iraqi Shia militia attacks since January, and a receding of the apparent threat from the Islamic State, U.S. forces have given up some bases in Iraq and have withdrawn a portion of the total U.S. force. Over the past week, the U.S. State Department announced a June 2020 ‘Strategic Dialogue’ with Iraq and a $10 million reward for information leading to the capture of a top Lebanese Hezbollah figure, Shaykh Mohammad al-Kawtharani, who allegedly had taken over coordination of pro-Iranian Shia militias following the death of Soleimani. These actions, when coupled with the U.S. military drawdowns, are unlikely to reduce Iran’s preponderant influence over Iraq’s political and security structure. Iran is now well-positioned to achieve its vital strategic goals in Iraq despite the challenges from U.S. sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic.