The recent shift takeover of Kirkuk by the Iranian backed militias and Iraqi army clearly illustrates that now Iran is calling shots in every important decision of Iraq. This whole operation and withdrawal of PUK peshmerga without putting resistance to advancing Iraqi forces was planned by Iran Quds force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani. Iraq Prime Minister office was involved up to what extend in this whole episode is still unclear but one thing is certain decisions were made in Tehran and Baghdad only followed that. Geopolitical observers are now criticizing Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi for being too quick to resort to force against Kurds at the behest of Iran rather than engaging in talks with Erbil which helped Baghdad in fight against ISIS. There are number of ways in which Iran gains from this current crisis. Not only does the conflict undermine Kurdish unity, it also boosts the role of Iranian backed Shia militias like- Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq and makes them look like guardians of national unity rather than sectarianism. But as nation Iraq is at loss as it has sparked anger against federal government among its sizeable Kurdish minority.
The fall of Kirkuk clearly showcase the extent to which Iraq today is an Iranian controlled territory. And it demonstrates the currently unparalleled efficacy of the Iranian methods of revolutionary and political warfare, as used by Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) throughout the Arab world to promote Iran geopolitical interests. Iran’s influence in Iraq is not just ascendant, but diverse extending to almost every walk of life. Let’s have a look at various areas where Iran is dominating Iraqi arena.
Politics- During Saddam Hussein’s rule, Iran granted asylum to a number of Iraqi opposition parties and part of its ability to greatly affect Iraqi political theatre today is linked to the fact that the individuals comprising a signiﬁcant portion of the Iraqi political map formerly resided in Iran. Politically, Iran has a large number of allies in Iraq’s Parliament who can help secure its goals. Even the most senior Iraqi cabinet officials take instructions from Iran’s leadership.
Military- Tehran has been the principal backer of mainly Shiite Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) formed to fight the Islamic State and now formally absorbed into the Iraqi military. Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRCG) overseas arm, the Quds Force provides the bulk of logistical support and advice to Popular Mobilisation Forces. In turn than Iran use PMF for exerting military leverage over the Iraqi government to wrestle power on behalf of Iran, much like Hezbollah did in Lebanon.
Economy- Trade between these two nations is primarily unidirectional in favour of Iran and years of sanctions and the internal conflicts have rendered Iraq dependent on Iranian imports. The only place outside Iran where the Iranian currency the “Rial” is used as a medium of exchange is southern Iraq. Iran is dumping cheap, subsidized food products and consumer goods into Iraqi markets and is undercutting its neighbour’s agricultural and manufacturing sectors.
Natural Resources– Iran’s damming and diversion of the rivers feeding the Shatt al-Arab waterway has greatly undermine Iraqi agriculture sector in the south and hindered efforts to revive Iraq’s marshlands. Iran has withheld water flows of the Kalal River, which flows into Wasit province, and of the Karun and Karkha rivers, which flow into Basra province.
Religion- Iran has been pursuing a long-term strategy to expand its religious authority in Iraq in many ways. Like by using financial and political leverages to ensure the primacy of clerics trained in the Iranian seminary of Qom and loyal to the Iranian ideology, over clerics trained in the relatively non-political tradition of the Najaf seminary. Then by reconstructing the Shiite shrines in Iraq and consequently, take control of their management in the long run. At last by taking control of the pilgrimage observances in Iraq’s shrine cities, notably the Arbaeen procession which attracts millions of devotees every year in Karbala.
Despite this great degree of Iranian influence on Iraqi nation still there is a ray of hope. The current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has the potential to be pulled out of Iran’s influence and act as an independent figure. This is especially true as he has stood in the face of Iran’s pressures on some occasions. But still al-Abadi government officials must prove their allegiance to the Iraqi people and not to the Iranian regime. The Iraqi judiciary is also heavily under Tehran’s influence, seen specifically when the country’s supreme court last October blocked al-Abadi’s reform package. Efforts have to be put to clean the judiciary and make it independent. Current Iraqi leadership should also try hard to bridge the gulf with its Sunni and Kurdish minorities by establishing an equal method of governance across the country. Not all Iraqi Shiites are pro-Iranian puppets in fact, many are fervidly nationalistic. Prime Minister Abadi can tap into Iraqi nationalism to combat further sectarian division.