Regional Powers Push Back as Iran Positions Itself for Greater Influence Post-ISIL

On Tuesday, Voice of America News reported that Mohammad Hossein Baqeri, the chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, had departed for a visit to Ankara. This is the first visit to the Turkish capital by any Iranian military chief of staff since before the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which led to the rise of the Islamic Republic and to many years of tense relations between the Shiite theocracy and the traditionally more secular Turkish government.

Relations between the two countries drew closer in the wake of Tehran’s support for the autocratic Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the wake of a coup attempt. But tensions quickly resurfaced as a result of divergent interests related to the Syrian Civil War. Iran has been a steadfast supporter of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and has been credited with saving the existing government from the brink of overthrow in the early days of the more than six year war. Turkey, meanwhile, supports rebel groups that, although predominantly Sunni, are regarded as moderate and as having no affiliation with the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Numerous international reports are describing ISIL as being on the brink of defeat in both Syria and Iraq, and this fact has raised various crucial questions about the future prospects for those regions, where foreign powers including the Islamic Republic have established a foothold through local allies. In the case of Iran, many of those local allies have explicitly sworn allegiance to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, sometimes over and above local authorities. This makes countering Iranian influence a particularly important priority for some other stakeholders, but Turkey’s prospective role in this is less clear than that of longstanding Iranian adversaries like the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Baqeri’s visit to Ankara comprises three days of talks, which were expected to focus on the future of Syria’s Idlib Province, which is essentially the last major stronghold of rebel forces. The area may be crucial to Iranian plans for creating a transit and supply corridor running between Tehran and its allies in Lebanon, near the Mediterranean coast. It remains to be seen whether Turkey can be convinced that Tehran’s interests in the region might overlap with its own. But in any event, the Baqeri visit seems to be a clear example of the Islamic Republic striving to further expand its regional influence in the wake of ISIL’s collapse.

It is not just foreign powers that are committed to preventing that expansion. Local political forces within Syria and especially Iraq have clearly taken the same position, and some have begun to pursue cooperation with those foreign stakeholders, even overlooking established differences to do so. On Wednesday, Reuters reported that the Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr had met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the end of July, despite the two men’s sectarian differences and the stark contrast between their past relations with the United States. The reason for this unlikely coming-together was mutual concern over the possibility of a long-term Iranian foothold within Iraqi government and society.

Sadr proceeded from Saudi Arabia to a similar meeting with the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, “who has also taken an assertive line against Tehran,” according to Reuters. The same report notes that the Iraqi cooperation with fellow Arab powers does not end with Sadr but also includes cooperation between Iraqi lawmakers and Saudi officials regarding the reopening of the border between the two countries, the expansion of flights across that border, and the development of joint energy policies.

Reuters indicates that the issue of pushing back against Iran and specifically the issue of dismantling the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces were expected to be major issues in the Iraqi national elections that are scheduled for September. However, the given report is doubtful about the prospects for success in this endeavor, largely because Tehran has so far maintained a much more comprehensive strategy than Saudi Arabia for expanding influence among Iraqi allies. This strategy includes not just money but also intelligence-sharing, diplomatic support, and the enforcement of consequences for those who step away from prior loyalties.

The New York Times expressed similar doubts on Tuesday in a report that asked the question, “Can anyone stop Iran from taking over Iraq?” The report elaborated upon these doubts by saying that although the vast majority of Iraq’s political factions seem to be opposed to sustained Iranian influence, they are so deeply divided over other issues that it is unlikely they will be able to afford an effective coalition after the September elections. The Times suggests that this betrays a weakness that the Islamic Republic will exploit.

As it stands, the Times reports that the wind-down of the war against ISIL is only deepening Iranian influence, while local proxies are digging in their heels and refusing to vacate the public sphere after that war is concluded. The report points out: “Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a paramilitary commander who is considered one of Iran’s closest Iraqi allies, declared on July 4 that the Popular Mobilization Forces will not go away, even if the government orders them to dissolve.”

This intransigence raises issues that go beyond the Iranian challenge to the local interests of adversaries in the West and the broader Middle East. It has the potential to also amplify human rights crises that have drawn international attention during the war against ISIL. Human rights organizations and critics of the Iranian regime like the National Council of Resistance of Iran have accused Iran-backed militants of human rights abuses rivaling those committed by ISIL. What’s more, the United Nations has confirmed that the militant groups making up the Popular Mobilization Forces have broken international laws, including laws regarding the recruitment of child soldiers.

The Tower issued a report on this topic on Wednesday, picking up on original research by the Kurdish news outlet Rudaw, which determined that at least 100 PMF recruits who were under the age of 18 completed military training in Bashir village so far this year, in addition to at least 180 last year. The report added that the UN verified in April of last year that 12 such minor recruits were killed in combat. Additionally, Human Rights Watch reported child soldiers to be prevalent in a number of armed organizations including the PMF. Although this coalition of militant groups has been formally legitimized by the Iraqi parliament, its ideological statements have been shown to include explicit praise for teenaged “martyrs”.

This, of course, poses a particular challenge to any Iraqi politicians who continue to stand behind Iran-backed groups. It may also add fuel to international efforts to push back against Iranian influence, but it is still not a foregone conclusion that these efforts will be successful in the wake of years of entrenchment by Iranian operatives and proxies in Iraq and other areas of the Middle East.

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