By Emily Anagnostos
The recapture of Mosul can reset the balance of power between Iran and the U.S. in Iraq and in the region. Iran has tolerated U.S. presence in Iraq because the U.S. provided sufficient airpower and training to combat ISIS. It has also backed Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi because his premiership was a condition of U.S. support and because PM Abadi is too weak to resist Iranian control. Pro-Iranian groups in Iraq will likely consider the recapture of Mosul as the end of major anti-ISIS operations in Iraq and continued U.S. presence unnecessary and unwelcomed. Recent U.S. statements suggest that the U.S. may increase, not decrease, its involvement in Iraq after Mosul, which is likely accelerating Iran’s efforts to expel the U.S. from the region. Iran has started to consolidate its proxies in Iraq, including a reconciliation between Sadrist Trend leader Muqtada al-Sadr and senior pro-Iranian officials, in order to both increase pressure on PM Abadi against further Western support and establish Iraq as a base from which it can project regional influence. Iran’s support for PM Abadi’s premiership could also waver, especially if a more pro-Iranian candidate emerges.
Former PM Nouri al-Maliki will aim to convince Iran that he, as prime minister, would support the power shift from the U.S. to Iran in order to secure Iran’s political support for 2018 parliamentary elections. Maliki has begun to court Iranian proxies and officials and is continuing to weaken PM Abadi’s authority, including by resuming efforts to dismiss key Abadi allies. More dangerously, he may move to retake the premiership in the upcoming month. The Council of Representatives (CoR) scheduled a questioning session with PM Abadi on February 11, alongside ten other government officials over the coming month. The questioning could be a prerequisite for a no-confidence vote. At the very least, the questioning will be a show of strength for Maliki and could undermine PM Abadi’s legitimacy.
The recapture of Mosul is a given.
- The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) recaptured eastern Mosul on January 24. Operations to retake western Mosul will begin in the coming days, with heavy support from the U.S. and the anti-ISIS Coalition to ensure the city’s complete recapture.
Context and Implications
Iran was tolerant of continued U.S. presence in Iraq in order to defeat ISIS, but now that Mosul’s capture is certain it will seek to expel the U.S. from the region.
- Iranian grand strategic objectives converged with the U.S. in the near term over the shared objective to defeat the Salafi-Jihadi threat. In the long term, however, Iran aims to expel the U.S. from the Middle East.
- The U.S. and Iran both supported PM Abadi’s premiership in 2014 over Maliki in the interest of re-stabilizing Iraq and defeating ISIS. They both prevented Maliki from ousting PM Abadi in the midst of political turmoil in April 2016.
- The U.S. provided anti-ISIS support, including critical airpower, on the condition that Maliki would not bid for a third term in 2014 elections. The U.S. supported PM Abadi as a candidate receptive to U.S. interests. Iran supported him because he was a weak candidate it can control.
- The longevity of PM Abadi’s premiership, therefore, is linked to the necessity of U.S. military support to defeat ISIS, which Iran’s military capacity was and still is unable to duplicate, and Iran’s confidence that it controls the premiership.
U.S. involvement in Iraq may increase, not decrease, after Mosul’s recapture.
- PM Abadi stated during a press conference that U.S. President Donald Trump assured Iraq of his support “at all levels” and that the Trump Administration promised to “double U.S. support for Iraq, not just continue it.”
- U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Douglas Silliman stated on January 22 that the U.S. will continue the 2008 Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA), which governs bilateral relations, including in the fields of military and economic. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs discussed the SFA further on January 26, its activation, implementation, and ways to “increase the volume of cooperation” between the U.S. and Iraq “in all fields.”
Iran is consolidating its proxies to challenge the U.S.’s continued presence in Iraq
- Sadrist Trend leader Muqtada al-Sadr reconciled with major Iranian proxy militia leaders, including Badr Organization leader Hadi al-Amiri, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) leader Qais al-Khazali, and Popular Mobilization Deputy Chairman Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in Najaf on October 18, 2016. Sadr’s interests in Iraq have long been distinct from, and often at odds with, Iranian interests and he, his militia, and political party rarely operate in coordination with pro-Iranian groups. (Do not enter: jawabna.com) Bringing Sadr back under Iran’s fold consolidates the major Shi’a groups in Iraq and creates a unified proxy through which Iran can act.
- The passing of the Popular Mobilization Act on November 26, 2016 further institutionalized Iranian proxy militias in the Iraqi state, but they continue to operate under Iran’s command and control.
- Popular Mobilization participation in anti-ISIS operations will cement Iranian presence in northern Iraq and the Popular Mobilization as a legitimate security force.
Iran is also pursuing its objective to supplant the U.S. in the Middle East by using Iraq as a regional proxy.
- Muqtada al-Sadr visited Beirut on January 20 where he met with Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Iranian proxy Hezbollah, to discuss both Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’a militias’ influence in the region.
- On January 24, Sadr stated that the transfer of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would be a “declaration of war against Islam” and he called for a formation of a “special division to liberate Jerusalem.” Sadr’s statement falls in line with the Iranian grand strategic objectives to eliminate the state of Israel and to expel the U.S from the region.
- Iran named IRGC Brig. Gen. Iraj Masjedi as Iranian Ambassador to Iraq on January 11. Masjedi is IRGC-Quds Force Commander Qassem Suleimani’s senior advisor. Previous ambassadors have also served in the Quds Force, but Masjedi’s relation with Qassem Suleimani, a U.S. designated terrorist, will likely strengthen Iran’s efforts to convert the Iraqi Government and its institutions into proxy forces.
Iran may no longer value PM Abadi’s premiership as it did in 2014, when Abadi was necessary to ensure U.S. support, opening an opportunity for former PM Nouri al Maliki to bid for the premiership.
- Iran may consider it more preferable to have an Iraqi Prime Minister that actively pursues pro-Iranian interests, rather than a premiership that is receptive to the U.S. and merely too weak to resist Iran.
- Maliki, since he lost the premiership in 2014, has sought to return to the office by undermining PM Abadi’s office. Iran previously mitigated these ambitions through direct intervention.
Maliki is courting Iranian proxy groups as an electoral base, likely on the promise to expel the U.S. from Iraq after Mosul’s recapture and shift the balance of power to Iran.
- A report on January 25 alleged that Maliki will contest PM Abadi’s reelection in 2018 by building an alliance of Shi’a militias, naming mid-level Iranian proxy militias as allies.
- Maliki chaired a meeting of the State of Law Alliance (SLA), his political bloc, on January 24, at which PM Abadi was not present. Iranian representatives were allegedly in attendance.
- Maliki conducted a four-day visit to Tehran from December 31, 2016 to January 3, 2017, meeting with senior Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during which he discussed elections and the Popular Mobilization’s involvement in the region.
- The CoR released a list on January 24 of eleven ministers, independent commission chairmen, and senior government officials that will be questioned over the next month.
- PM Abadi is the fifth of the eleven officials to be questioned. The list also includes three of the five technocratic ministers that PM Abadi succeeded in appointing during his Cabinet reshuffle in August 2016, including the Oil Minister, Water Minister, and Transportation Minister.
- PM Abadi’s questioning will reportedly be about recent security breaches in Baghdad and vacant ministerial positions. Protests, including those led by the Sadrist Trend, have occurred in response to continued ISIS attacks in the capital.
- Pro-Maliki CoR members will lead the majority of the questioning sessions, as they did during sessions to dismiss Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari on September 21, 2016 and Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi on August 25, 2016. A member of Gorran, a Kurdish opposition party, will question PM Abadi, however.
- The Iraqi Constitution (Article 7.A-C) lists two types of questioning sessions: one of which is for the sake of inquiry into a subject and one of which is the first step in a no-confidence vote. The latter requires a petition of 25 CoR members to launch the questioning session. It is unclear if these questionings were petitioned. Nevertheless, the dismissal of both the Finance and Defense Ministers did not follow constitutional procedure, underscoring the danger that the questioning, even if it is framed as a basic inquiry, may be considered the first step of a no-confidence vote.
Maliki’s efforts to replace PM Abadi and the lack of Iranian support may place PM Abadi’s position in double jeopardy. PM Abadi’s questioning on February 11 may set the stage for a no-confidence process. But Maliki will need to ensure that he has the needed votes and backing to become prime minister. He continues to hold wide support within the Shi’a National Alliance, but far from a majority in the CoR. Indicators of whether the questioning will lead to a no-confidence vote will include how Kurdish and Sunni parties throw their weight. Maliki courted Kurdish parties, primarily the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Gorran, in April and May 2016, but he has made limited outreach to these parties in the past months. If Maliki does not have the votes, he may instead choose to use PM Abadi’s session as a rallying call for further support, continue efforts to weaken PM Abadi’s authority, and build an electoral support base over the next year.