Saudi Arabia moves to consolidate Arab and Muslim support, anticipating intensified confrontation or diplomacy.
With the administration of President Donald J. Trump applying greater pressure against Iran with renewed economic sanctions and other leverage, Tehran is seeking to push back against the United States and other adversaries, and even some erstwhile partners, and assert itself regionally by flexing its diplomatic muscles. The main themes are embodied in the visits by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to Iraq and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Iran. In both cases, Iran is seeking to communicate its central role in neighboring countries as they consolidate a post-Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant stabilization period and, in the case of most of Syria, a new postwar environment. Meanwhile, Iran’s Syrian and Iraqi allies are attempting to leverage Iran to play off various foreign powers – including the United States, Russia, Turkey, and the Gulf Arab countries – against each other and gain breathing space to pursue their own policies.
But both trips are also making it clear that, when push comes to shove, the Iraqi government is not prepared to bow to U.S. demands to actively cooperate in imposing new sanctions and restrictions on Iran, and that Tehran remains a key ally for Syria. This has significant implications for Gulf Arab policies, especially those of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, which are core members of the anti-Iranian alliance in the Middle East. These rare head of government diplomatic visits demonstrate that Iran retains enormous influence in both Syria and Iraq and feels the need to consolidate and demonstrate this clout.
The stakes are particularly high in Iraq, because anti-Iranian forces have made considerable political gains in that country over the past 18 months or so. The once solidly pro-Iranian Shia alliance in Iraq slowly fractured in recent years; now, some of the most influential factions, including that led by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, which won the most seats in the 2018 parliamentary elections, are openly skeptical of Iranian intentions and interested in building closer ties to other regional powers including Gulf Arab countries. The elections were not a disaster for Iran, with some of its closest allies coming second in the polling and a large bloc still beholden to Tehran’s influence. But the outcome was hardly ideal, and in fact both the voting results and the subsequent political negotiations were more satisfactory to Washington and Riyadh than they were to Tehran.
Still, the most important ministerial positions in terms of domestic political power remain unfilled. In addition, still unresolved is the disposition of the Popular Mobilization Forces, the mostly highly sectarian Shia Iraqi militias; they were formed ostensibly to combat ISIL but are now exercising authority in much of the country beyond the direct control of the government. While there is a general agreement that the PMFs should be incorporated into the national security structures run by the government, questions of how and when that happens are crucial. The answers will determine a great deal about the scope and degree of ongoing direct Iranian influence in Iraq, especially by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and hard-line factions in Tehran.
If the PMFs are simply folded into extant Iraqi national security structures with their own identities, hierarchies, and systems essentially intact, it will effectively mean that the government ministries will continue to subsidize de facto independent militias over which they exercise little control. In many cases, it would be Tehran rather than Baghdad that would have the most influence over these nominally Iraqi government forces. If, on the other hand, the existing PMFs are effectively broken up, placed under significant government control, and essentially dissolved with their members receiving new jobs in different national security entities in Iraq, it will be much harder for the IRGC and Iranian hard-liners to dictate policies and conduct inside Iraq.
Rouhani in Iraq
This dilemma was clearly on display at the remarkable meeting of Rouhani with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf. Sistani is the highest-ranking Shia cleric in Iraq and one of the most senior in the world, and certainly among the most influential. The meeting was a rare audience for a foreign leader with the senior cleric. His blessing is essential for power in most of Iraq, and he wields considerable influence in Iran as well. The messaging coming from this extraordinary meeting – Sistani has not met with foreign political leaders other than United Nations and other multilateral agency heads since 2015 – was multifaceted. Iran was clearly sending the message to Washington and its allies that it retains powerful influence in Iraq and that the Iraqi Shia clerisy is, ultimately, still more sympathetic to Tehran than to the United States or Sunni Arab countries. Sistani is, in effect, a card that Iran can play, and Tehran has waved that in the air fairly dramatically.
Yet there is a power struggle inside Iran between hard-liners suspicious of the outside world, especially the West, and those who continue to advocate for engagement, particularly with Europe. The recent resignation, which was not accepted by Rouhani, of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, appears to have been an important effort by the more “moderate” factions to push back against more “hard-line” elements like the IRGC. Indeed, it was also highly significant that Zarif won the explicit praise of the head of the IRGC regional expeditionary force and militia vanguard, the Quds Force, Major General Qassim Suleimani. It may have been an attempt to communicate relative unity to audiences inside Iran and to the outside world. But it was also widely viewed as at least a limited validation for Zarif himself and Rouhani, and their policies.
By meeting with Rouhani, Sistani, too, may have been sending important messages to audiences in both Iraq and Iran. In Iraq, it communicates his continued sympathy with Iran, when, as they now are, the chips are down. The meeting strongly suggests Sistani’s view is that Iraq should be dealing with the formal Iranian government, not the IRGC, and that both prominent citizens like himself and, especially, the government should be meeting with Iranian officials through formal channels.
This is also important for the elderly Sistani’s legacy. He is relatively apolitical compared to many of his fellow senior Shia clerics, especially in Iran, and has been politically cautious and moderate for much of his life. However, it was precisely a fatwa he issued when ISIL arose as a major threat, calling on Iraqis to join together in “popular forces” to oppose the terrorists, that was used by Shia sectarian forces and the highly pro-Iranian then-Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to create the PMFs. Since then, there has been widespread concern inside and outside of Iraq that these militias are becoming the equivalent of uncontrolled states within a state like Hezbollah in Lebanon, often beholden to the same foreign power, Iran. But because there are dozens of small PMF groups operating under various influences and agendas, there is concern that they could in many ways be even harder to deal with than a single, centralized substate actor.
The PMFs loom grimly, therefore, as a possible profound stain on his career, given that the proximate cause for their formation and often-cited justification for their actions was Sistani’s own notorious fatwa. Even though he has issued subsequent opinions that would encourage the PMF groups and their backers to undo the damage, he apparently understands that the best course for both Baghdad and his own legacy is to work with forces inside Iran that also want to control such groups and have their own fraught relationship with the IRGC.
Of course, even Rouhani and his faction will only go so far in that direction. The PMF coalition in Iraq – the United Iraqi Alliance list – is pushing strongly for the appointment of PMF Chair and Iraqi National Security Advisor Falih Alfayyadh as interior minister to oversee the terms of their “incorporation” into existing, or even new, state entities. Iran’s enthusiastic preference for this appointment was demonstrated by Alfayyadh’s prominent participation in the meeting between Rouhani and Sistani. It doesn’t necessarily mean Sistani is backing him, but Rouhani certainly is. For Sadr and other Iraqi Shias who are neither hostile nor beholden to Iran, but want to ease Iraq into a position of relative independence by playing off Iranian influence versus that of the United States and its Gulf Arab allies, it is apparently now necessary to bolster the Iranian presence in the country to push back against anti-Iranian forces.
Assad in Iran
A similar juggling act is being performed by the Assad regime in Syria. Beholden to its saviors – Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah – in the civil war that is effectively over in most of the country, the Syrian government now seeks to carefully pit those forces against each other to win its own breathing space and avoid becoming completely subservient to any of them. Damascus would probably prefer to be dependent on distant Moscow than any closer domineering patron. Yet the boots on the ground that have made the continuation of the Assad regime possible are primarily paid for and directed by Iran, although they are a motley crew of Lebanese, Afghans, and Pakistanis, in addition to Iranians and others. Damascus also must seek to placate and balance the interests of Turkey, which, after the government recaptured Aleppo, redefined its priorities to focus almost entirely on containing Kurdish influence in northern Syria. And the regime is conducting a partial rapprochement with Kurdish and other domestic militias that seem to be willing to accommodate a degree of regime authority in the once-liberated areas in order to avoid a devastating Turkish military onslaught.
So, it was striking that one of Assad’s first trips abroad, other than two brief trips to Russia, since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011 was to Tehran in February. The message the Syrian leader was sending both domestically and internationally was a continued insistence that, whatever the United States, Turkey, and even Russia might wish, Iran remains a vital regime ally and, as things stand, will be playing a major part in forthcoming reconstruction efforts in the country, mainly by profitably implementing projects financed by others. A year ago, the Syrian government might have been looking for Russian and Turkish reassurance that it would not fall under complete Iranian domination in the postwar stabilization period. But under the current circumstances, to the contrary, it is reminding all other players that Iran remains crucial to the regime’s interests, including balancing the influence of these other foreign forces.
Significantly, the Assad visit also played directly into the internal power struggle in Iran, because the proximate cause for Zarif’s abortive resignation was his purported indignation at not being included in high-level meetings with the Syrian president. Assad met Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Rouhani, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs bitterly complained it was not informed of the trip or the meetings at all. Zarif’s resignation was intended to send the message that Iran’s formal ministries and government agencies cannot be bypassed by the supreme leader and the IRGC in crucial foreign affairs matters.
There followed a period of recriminations with Rouhani complaining that he and Iran needed an empowered Zarif for foreign affairs – at least for outreach to Europe and, perhaps eventually again, the United States – and that he could not be so casually dispensed with. That prompted Suleimani’s “surprising” endorsement of Zarif and the resolution of the affair with the foreign minister continuing in his post. But the jockeying for position in Iran that was reflected in the handling of the Assad visit and its aftermath may have played into Sistani’s – and perhaps Rouhani’s – efforts to use the Iranian president’s subsequent visit to Iraq to reinforce the idea that Iran needs to deal with its Arab clients and allies mainly via the Foreign Ministry rather than the IRGC and its militia proxies. Ultimately, the Syrian and Iraqi governments will almost certainly want that too, especially as postconflict stabilization and reconstruction gains ground and they increasingly look for space to make their own decisions based on their political and national interests rather than always bowing to the imperatives of a foreign patron.
What these recent visits demonstrate is twofold: First, while progress has been made in Iraq by Gulf Arab countries, there is still a long way to go before Iran’s powerful hegemonic force is eased – especially among many of the Iraqi Shia factions that still dominate the politics and government, and the PMFs that remain largely uncontrolled. And, second, the Assad regime in Syria continues to regard Iran as not only a major source of support and reinforcement but also as a key player in rebuilding and reconstruction in much of the country as a prize for its crucial support in saving his regime. If Washington and its Gulf Arab allies are hoping to work with various partners including Russia, Turkey, and, eventually, the Iraqi and even Syrian governments, to limit Iran’s regional influence, that project is still at its relative infancy. Iran retains powerful regional muscles, particularly in Iraq and Syria, and, when pressured, is clearly happy to publicly flex them.
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