The stage that followed the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran's Quds Force (QF), the arm of its Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) early 2020 has shown a state of defect in the strategy of QF in Iraq. The notable feature of this defect was the failure of the new commander of QF Esmail Ghaani to fill the vacuum left by Soleimani’s absence. Moreover, new Iranian actors – who did not have strong presence during Soleimani’s era - have entered the Iraqi scene. In addition, the rise of other factors related to Iraqi Shiite actors has also complicated the strategy of QF in Iraq.

This paper seeks to analyze changes in the strategy and action of QF in Iraq in response to various challenges that emerged in the Iraqi theater.

QF’s new approach

The influence and role of QF in Iraq were based on the pro-Iran armed factions it has established in the country, which control the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). Soleimani’s killing, however, has created the following four challenges to QF’s role in Iraq:

First, the rise of roles for competing Iranian parties, especially the ministry of intelligence (MoI), office of the supreme leader, and the ministry of foreign affairs (MoFA). These parties have started to compete with IRGC over political influence in Iraq after Soleimani’s death. More importantly, some of these parties such as MoI and MoFA might have political objectives in Iraq that are not completely in line with that of IRGC, such as choosing Mustafa al-Kadhemi as prime minister in May 2020. This choice was supported by MoI and MoFA despite IRGC’s objections. Moreover, while the two ministries adopt a policy of pacification in Iraq and the region in response to the ongoing Iranian-American talks in Vienna and the Iranian-Saudi dialogue in Baghdad, QF thinks that President Biden’s administration will not give any concessions in the nuclear deal without a controlled escalation in Iraq.

Second, a growing competition within the ranks of leadership of pro-Iran factions and an inclination by some of these factions for independence to prove its presence. This has threatened the ability of QF’s leadership to control and direct these factions.

Third, a growing public resentment in Iraq against armed factions, especially involvement of some of these factions in suppressing protests and assassinating activists. In addition, many of these factions faced charges of corruption which makes Iranians accountable in front of Iraqi people.

Fourth, the growing American pressure on pro-Iran factions and including them in Washington’s sanctions. Furthermore, these factions have also become part of the political infighting which sometimes limits their operational effectiveness.

That said, it seems that there has been a tactical change in IRGC’s strategy in Iraq by reducing their direct dependence on big militant factions and depending on small elite groups that do not have local leadership and linking them to IRGC directly. Quoting Western and Iraqi sources, a report by Reuters[1] said that Iran has trained Shiite Iraqi elements in bases for Lebanon's Hezbollah to carry out operations under IRGC supervision. The training included flying drones, firing rockets, planting bombs and publicizing attacks on social media. These groups are responsible for a series of attacks against American resources in Iraq, the report added.

Although these small groups enjoy greater mobility to carry out attacks with more accuracy away from political infighting, there are other reasons related to Iran’s point of view on Iraqi militias which Tehran has sponsored for years. It seems that Tehran does not trust these factions as before because some of these factions’ leaderships are trying to impose their independence or at least does not appear as subordinate to Iran. Part of this action by these factions’ leaderships came after widespread protests and rejection by Iraqi people to Iran’s intervention in Iraq, especially at a time when Baghdad is preparing for the upcoming elections in October. Some Iraqi politicians who are known for their loyalty to Tehran want to appear a little different than before.[2] Moreover, Iranian leadership is dissatisfied with the behavior of these factions and has lost trust in their loyalty. Iran also thinks that these factions have diverged away from what it sees as a revolutionary puritanism, involvement in financial corruption and preoccupation in financial and investment interests.

Motivations behind change in QF strategy

One can argue that the domestic Iraqi environment has produced a number of changes that forced QF to change its strategy in Iraq, notably:

  • Searching for new strategic exits after a series of defections by factions and procedures taken by Al-Kadhimi’s government against the influence of factions close to Tehran politically, economically and security wise. The latest action was the arrest of Qasim Muslih, commander of PMF operations in al-Anbar who is close to QF. Muslih is accused of human rights violations and huge financial corruption. For the first time, there was noticeable contradiction in the positions of the leaders of the militant factions on this incident to the point that they started finger-pointing at each other and a growing fear of a possible disintegration of PMF.
  • Surpassing the state of Iran’s strategic       imbalance in Iraq after Soleimani’s assassination, especially in terms of controlling and subduing QF centrality and Ghaani’s failure to face challenges to Iran’s influence in Iraq. It is worth mentioning that Ghaani himself is facing a big competition from Gen. Asghar Hejazi, Khamenei's security adviser in charge of the Beit Rahbari agency, who became directly responsible for the most prominent Iraqi armed factions, including Kataeb Hezbollah and al-Nujabaa Movement.[3]
  • Creating harmony between the strategic roles played by big factions and the tactical role played by active groups and cells to impose more pressure inside Iraq by leading from behind and enhancing Tehran’s negotiating cards.
  • Iranian-Saudi dialogue, on the one hand, and Vienna talks, on the other, have angered several large factions, particularly those close to QF. These factions fear that Tehran might sacrifice them in exchange for lifting sanctions or easing pressure. In response, militant factions have rebelled against Tehran’s orders. General Haider al-Afghani, the Iranian QF’s officer in charge of the Iraqi armed groups, submitted a request to transfer his services outside Iraq. He did so "due to his failure in his mission and the refusal of the leaders of a number of Iraqi armed factions to obey his orders." The new approach is trying to overcome this situation out of fear of losing control.[4]
  • QF counts on the impact of pro-Iran factions to consolidate and sustain its influence in Iraq. Therefore, the rising disputes among leaders of some factions on the economic benefits and seizing the centrality of factions’ decision are directly reflected on the nature of QF’s role. This justifies Ghaani’s shuttle visits to Iraq in an effort to tackle and put an end to these differences.

Likely consequences inside Iraq

Change in QF’s strategy would likely lead to the following influential consequences on the Iraqi scene:

  • Escalating attacks on positions hosting American forces by using Katyusha rockets or drones. Here, we cannot neglect the importance of this new weapon. Gen. Frank McKenzie, Commander of US Central Command, said countering drones used by pro-Iran militias in Iraq is a priority.[5]
  • The continuation of disputes and lack of coordination between QF and other Iranian parties working inside Iraq – which was revealed by the leaked interview of Iran’s Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif – would lead to more security instability in Iraq, as well as, the possibility of increasing chances of dispute and competition among militant Shiite factions which have multiple loyalties and affiliations.
  • Recent developments inside Iran after the release of the final list of candidates eligible to compete in the upcoming presidential election point out that it is highly likely that the hardline/revolutionary camp will win this election. This means enhancing IRGC power; thus, a negative consequence inside Iraq.

Conclusions

Tendency by QF to change its strategy in Iraq was a result of a number of challenges both inside Iran and Iraq and the continued American pressure whether through nuclear talks or regional dialogues. QF increasingly tends to re-engineer its influence in Iraq by depending on small groups in “resistance” operations while preserving the role and impact of large factions part of PMF.

In general, we can argue that the Iraqi theater will face more security and political challenges related to the nature of QF’s troubling roles through its affiliated factions and cells. IRGC’s Commander-in-Chief Gen. Hossein Salami pointed out that the region will not witness stability in the era of US President Joe Biden.[6] It seems that part of this instability will be in Iraq.                             

Endnotes

[1] John Davison and Ahmed Rasheed, “EXCLUSIVE In tactical shift, Iran grows new, loyal elite from among Iraqi militias,” Reuters, May 21, 2021. https://reut.rs/3wwsXHp

[2] Mina al-Oraibi, "Iran's new strategy and its consequences on Iraq & the region,” Asharq Al-Awsat, May 25, 2021. https://bit.ly/34RMvKF

[3] “Iraq: Iran's competing power centers are creating havoc in the country,” Middle East Eye, 17 March 2021. https://bit.ly/3oZtpLI

[4] “Iraq armed groups' defiance prompts Iranian official to quit,” Middle East Eye, 21 May 2021. https://bit.ly/3yNV86A

[5] “New York Times: Iran’s Proxies in Iraq Threaten U.S. With More Sophisticated Weapons,” Iran International, June 6, 2021. https://bit.ly/3cgUZPF

[6] “IRGC does not see stability in the Middle East in the era of the Biden administration,” Sky News Arabia, May 29, 2021. https://bit.ly/3wZSLfl

 

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