Originally published on War on the Rocks – October 3, 2019
Iraq faces a threat of Iranian subversion that is, to a large extent, a function of a deepening geopolitical rift in which Iran stands on one side and the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia are on the other. To protect its own interests and avoid falling prey to Iran’s apparent desire to become the regional hegemon and assimilate Middle Eastern capitals into its sphere of influence, Iraqi leaders would be wise to chart these waters carefully. They need to defend and strengthen institutions at home, check the rogue factions that are trying to supplant the state in its political and military apparatus, and abstain from getting sucked into costly, losing battles with regional antagonists.
Iraq is in trouble. Baghdad cannot challenge Tehran’s use of allied Iraqi militias to beef up its forward defenses at Iraq’s expense. These militias might not take marching orders from Tehran, but there is a strong “convergence of interests” between Iran and powerful Iraqi militias whose influence in Iraq’s government is powerful enough to deter coercive measures by Baghdad. Nor can Iraq allay the concerns of the United States and other neighbors who see themselves as threatened by Iran. Meanwhile, Iraq’s government appears overwhelmed by the difficult test of establishing good governance, combating corruption, and creating an inclusive meritocracy with real equal opportunity for hitherto marginalized groups. Its impending failure is inseparable from the country’s deepening entanglement in the rising tension with Iran.
The outlook for Iraq was positive a year ago, when post-election negotiations delivered a new government under independent Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, young and promising Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi, and articulate, Western-friendly President Barham Salih. Since then, trends have highlighted the Achilles’ heel of this government: Though impressive at the top, the fact that the prime minister does not have his own political party means that the government lacks an organic political base in parliament that’s necessary to sustain it through crises. Thus, it is increasingly kept in a box and manipulated by influential leaders of pro-Iran militias and their disproportionate presence in parliament.