In October, Iraqi forces supported by local Iranian proxies and operatives of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force stormed the city of Kirkuk and the surrounding area in order to retake it from Iraqi Kurds, who had driven Islamic State militants out of the region during the multilateral conflict against the self-proclaimed Sunni caliphate.
The effort to drive the Kurds out of Kirkuk and back into the accepted borders of Iraq’s Kurdistan region were evidently spurred by the Kurdish regional government’s decision to hold a referendum on Kurdish independence the previous month. But while the storming of Kirkuk arguably helped to safeguard Iraq’s territorial integrity, it also seemed to underscore diminished Iraqi autonomy, insofar as the role of Iran in its neighbor’s affairs was reinforced.
This latter fact received renewed attention on Tuesday when Reuters reported that the Islamic Republic of Iran had been rewarded handsomely for its support of the effort to reclaim Kirkuk. The report indicates that Iran has been granted control over much of the region’s rich oil exports, under an agreement that initially grants the Iranians 15,000 barrels per day, worth approximately one million dollars.
The agreement further stipulates that that figure will gradually rise to 60,000 barrels per day, and it also revives a pipeline project that could carry ten times that amount of Kurdish oil from Kirkuk to central Iran. Reuters notes that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard can be expected to approve any oil transactions between Tehran and Baghdad. And although the initial negotiations over the given agreement involved Oil Ministry officials, it is also expected that the IRGC will take over for this government department in the future.
Such reports point to a deepening foothold in Iraqi affairs for the Iranian government and more specifically for the IRGC, which generally controls the proxy militias already operating in Iraq, and which represents a sort of “deep state” that answers only to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei while reportedly controlling the majority of all Iranian wealth.
Any further growth of influence for the hardline paramilitary represents a further challenge to Western interests in the region. And many of those who have been observing these developments have also been critical of the reticence of the US and other Western powers to take measures that might loosen the IRGC’s hold on the broader Middle East.
This was the focus of an Al Jazeera editorial that was published on Tuesday. It observed that the American image of stability in post-Islamic State Iraq is purely focused on territorial integrity and the rebuilding of something approximating the status quo. A Kurdish push for independence was presumably considered to be incompatible with this vision, and the editorial thus concludes that Western powers abandoned the Kurds in the run-up to the Iran-backed storming of Kirkuk. But in so doing, those powers also left the door open for Tehran to broaden the influence that has already grown in the wake of other regional conflicts and a shift in European relations with Iran.
US President Donald Trump has sought to reverse his predecessor’s encouragement of détente with the Islamic Republic. Toward that end, he has decertified Iranian compliance with the Obama-era nuclear deal and has ordered the imposition of broad-ranging new sanctions against the IRGC. But in light of the Reuters report and the Al Jazeera editorial, Western inaction in Iraq may appear at odds with the White House’s assertive policy adjustments. What’s more, this perspective is not limited to Iraqi affairs, or to policy analysts based in affected areas. Some of the US president’s domestic allies have also expressed concern that his administration is not doing enough to limit Iranian influence.
On Tuesday, the Washington Free Beacon reported that nearly 50 American lawmakers had written a letter to the White House calling attention to the presence of an estimated 1,800 IRGC fighters in Syria and demanding a concrete plan to push Iran out of the country. Iraq and Syria face many similarities in the wake of their simultaneous conflicts with the Islamic State. Not least among them is the apparently entrenched presence of IRGC-linked militant groups that have become virtually inseparable from the armed forces of the two countries.
Nervous about the growth of Iranian imperialism, Saudi Arabia has been leading a coalition to push Iran out of Yemen, another zone of open conflict, and to counterbalance Tehran more generally.
In recent months, the US has supported these efforts, but only up to a point. It has discouraged any broadening of the confrontation between regional rivals, apparently concerned about greater threats to the stability of countries racked with sectarian conflict. However, critics of the Iranian regime predict that the continued entrenchment of its presence across the Middle East will only exacerbate those conflicts, as evidenced by violence perpetrated by Iran-backed militias against Sunni populations in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere.