By Edward Carney
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani concluded his three-day visit to neighboring Iraq on Wednesday. The trip appeared to highlight the escalating tensions between Iran and the United States, in which Iraq is a significant battleground on account of its simultaneous dependence on support from both of the feuding countries. This was particularly evident in view of some of Rouhani’s public commentary while meeting with Iraqi officials.
The supposedly moderate Iranian president explicitly framed Iranian-Iraqi relations in terms of defiance of Western influence, referring to the US as an occupying power and an aggressor.
In keeping with that approach, the final day of Rouhani’s visit included his first ever meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the top Shiite cleric in Iran. Sistani is a well-known opponent of foreign influence over Iraqi affairs – a position that ostensibly lends itself to criticism of both American and Iranian forces in the country.
However, Sistani is also credited with the creation of a paramilitary alliance called Hashd al-Shaabi, which unified a number of different groups in the fight against Islamic State militants and was later absorbed into Iraq’s regular armed forces. Among the groups making up that alliance, many took their marching orders from Tehran, and some have kept that leadership structure intact despite the absorption.
It stands to reason that Rouhani’s meeting with Sistani was intended to amplify the cleric’s opposition to American influence while downplaying any similar opposition to Iranian forces and local proxies that continue to operate within Iraq’s military institutions and, increasingly, its political system. Affiliates of the Iran-backed militias now hold several seats in the Iraqi parliament, raising serious concerns among US policymakers and other persons who are concerned with the expansion of Iran’s regional role.
These concerns were clearly expressed by Brian Hook, the US State Department’s special representative on Iran, in his commentary upon Rouhani’s time in Iraq. Voice of America News quoted him as saying that the Iranian leadership would ultimately like for Iraq to become a vassal state of the Islamic Republic.
In that role, it would facilitate, among other things, the transport of fighters and weapons across the Middle East, via a planned highway joining Tehran to Damascus and other points west. Indeed, construction on a segment of that highway began last month in the wake of trade talks between Iraqi and Iranian officials, around the time of the 40th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic revolution.
This also speaks to the broader perceived ambitions of the Iranian regime in the region as a whole. Tehran has frequently been described as pursuing the establishment of a “Shiite Crescent” that effectively extends the reach of the Islamic Republic beyond its existing borders and positions the theocratic dictatorship as the prospective leader of a unified Muslim world. In fact, following the capture of Sana’a by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in 2016, Iranian hardliners publicly declared that the Yemeni capital was the fourth to come under Iranian control, after Lebanon, Baghdad, and Damascus.
Such rhetoric naturally colors Western thinking about Iranian officials outreach to counterparts in those capitals, even when those Iranian officials are alleged to be moderate by the standards of their regime.
The factional divide between “moderates” and “hardliners” was brought into sharp focus last month when Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif threatened to resign after apparently being sidelined by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, when they personally received a visit from Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. However, the resolution of that factional crisis involved a statement by Khamenei, which identified Zarif and the rest of the Rouhani administration as loyal servants of hardline foreign policy goals, particularly confrontation of Western influence.
This arguably set the tone for Rouhani’s departure for Iraq roughly two weeks later. At the same time, it underscored the regime’s fixation on promoting an anti-Western “resistance axis” that includes both Iraq and Syria, and thus justifies prioritizing deeper involvement in both of those countries. The Assad visit – the first known state visit by the Syrian head of state since the outbreak of civil war in 2011 – was apparently one example of the pursuit of this priority.
A story in the state media outlet Fars News was apparently another, in that it boasted about the recent signing of 16 memoranda of understanding with Syrian business leaders, which supposedly confirmed Iran’s extensive, long-term involvement in the country’s post-war reconstruction.
Such reports will no doubt be regarded as less threatening to Western interests than the outright promotion of pro-Iranian militant activity in other countries of the region. But Tehran’s emerging plans for economic and cultural cooperation reflect a scenario that Naysan Rafati, the Crisis Group’s Iran analyst, warned about in remarks to Voice of America. “Iran is certainly playing the long game in Iraq,” he said, referring to the prospective threat to Western influence that would accompany the general expansion of influence beyond military areas.
“As the U.S. tries to check Iran's regional influence, Iraq could increasingly emerge as a theater for rivalry between Tehran and Washington.”
Speaking to the same outlet, Randa Slim, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, was somewhat more optimistic, suggesting that Rouhani’s visit to Iraq could mark the beginning of “state-to-state” relations that function as a check on “what has so far been unrestrained and unaccountable action by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.” But there is already precedent for Tehran using its cultural and economic actions in nearby countries as a means of amplifying militant aims, instead of counterbalancing them.
Lebanon is a key example of this, insofar as Hezbollah, an Iran-backed paramilitary proxy, wields considerable social and political influence within its home country while also playing a substantial role in foreign terrorist attacks, the military defense of the Assad regime, and so on. Iranian largesse is widely recognized as a major reason why the Lebanese people generally embrace Hezbollah, sometimes in spite of questions about its militant activities.
Against the backdrop of this situation, the Islamic Republic News Agency praised recent efforts by Iranian and Lebanese officials to “broaden cultural cooperation” between the two countries. Iran’s own contributions to that project will almost certainly strengthen the social underpinnings for Hezbollah’s rising levels of control over Lebanese affairs.
And the promise of that project comes at a crucial time, as hardline Iranian officials are pushing back against international demands for compliance with the anti-money laundering standards set by the Financial Action Task Force. Although the Iranian parliament has introduced at least four bills to establish such compliance, powerful individuals and institutions have obstructed the legislation out of fear that it would obstruct Iran’s financial support of Hezbollah, among other regional militant groups.
At the same time that both nations express mutual commitment to Iran’s influence over Hezbollah, simultaneous commentary on such matters as Rouhani’s trip to Iraq make it clear that that influence fits within a larger model. As the Iran Project pointed out on Wednesday, former Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour praised Rouhani for encouraging the development of relations between Iran and Iraq that are “as deep as the deep-seated relationship between Iran and Syria.” Mansour went on to say that it would be in the interest of other Arab countries of the region to adopt similar relations with the Islamic Republic, and conversely, to reject relations with Western powers.
The Iran Project further characterized the former Lebanese diplomat’s remarks as emphasizing that Rouhani’s visit followed the Hezbollah model in highlighting “various dimensions, including the increased security, strategic, military, economic, and financial cooperation.” But there is an implicit danger in this model for partners of the Islamic Republic, insofar as it threatens to generate a situation of dependency and, more to the point, malleability under the thumb of a revolutionary state with aspirations of regional imperialism.
The questionable public embrace of Hezbollah in Lebanon is only one example of the effects of this arrangement. The situation in Palestine is another, as was suggested in a recent Al Monitor article about Iran’s relationship with Hamas. In that case, as with Hezbollah, the Iranian regime has traditionally provided simultaneous support to military and political wings of the organization, thereby serving the regime’s own ends but also fostering some manner of good will among the local population.
But the article explains that when Hamas broke with the Iran over requests for support in the Syrian Civil War, the Iranians withdrew financial backing for the political wing while continuing to finance the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military subdivision that was focused on conflict and terrorist actions against Israel. This change reportedly had real consequences for Hamas and the Palestinian people, precipitating a financial crisis and forcing the closure of media institutions, thereby putting pressure on the group’s leadership to come into line with Iran’s broader regional goals.
The recent restoration of full financial backing for the entirety of Hamas allowed it to begin rebuilding damaged elements of its local operations. But in the meantime, the selective financing kept its paramilitary infrastructure intact and ready for deployment in service of Iran’s aims once Hamas re-submitted to foreign control. And with Iran’s relationship to Hamas having lately returned to normal, the group is once again being praised alongside Hezbollah by Iranian hardliners, as examples of Iran’s “firm foundation” of alliances in the Arab world.
These were the words of Soleimani, the Quds Force commander, during a military ceremony on February 21. On Monday, at the same time that President Rouhani was visiting Baghdad, Soleimani was receiving Iran’s highest military honor. As Newsweek put it, Soleimani became the first officer to receive the Order of Zulfiqar since the 1979 revolution, because he has become a “persistent, popular symbol of Iran’s footprint abroad” and a standard bearer for defiance of Western influence and interests in the Middle East.