The victory of the hardline camp’s candidate Ebrahim Raisi in Iran’s presidential election has drawn various reactions about the nature of Tehran’s potential role in Iraq due to the direct link between internal variables in Iran and the Iraqi landscape. So, what is the nature of Iran’s role in Iraq in the wake of Raisi’s rise to power? And how Tehran’s strategic priorities would be reevaluated? And what are the ramifications of all of this on the Iraqi landscape?

Towards a new Iranian approach in Iraq?

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 major flaws in the strategy of QF in Iraq. The notable feature of these flaws was the failure of the new commander of QF Esmail Ghaani to fill the vacuum left by Soleimani’s absence. In addition, there was rebellions among pro-Iran factions, mass protests and American pressure that complicated the efficiency of Tehran’s role in Iraq. There is a belief that the rise of Raisi to power might lead to a new shift in Iran’s role in Iraq; the completion of hardliners control over all political and security institutions in Iran would create a state of unity and integration in Tehran’s objectives in Iraq. This, in turn, would lead to a new Iranian repositioning in the Iraqi landscape. In the past, there was a multitude of Iranian establishments, discourses and tools in Iraq.

The following are some of the features of Iran’s new approach under Raisi:

  1. Iran’s political discourse: An effort to unify Iran’s political discourse aimed at Iraq and the Middle East is one of the prominent reasons behind choosing Raisi by the hardline camp and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) with the blessings of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Therefore, past differences between President Hasan Rouhani and IRGC, in particular, about Tehran’s regional role would likely end in the coming period. The Iraqi landscape will witness a unified Iranian policy and discourse.
  2. Quds Force role: The strategy of QF in Iraq, especially after Soleimani’s assassination, was based on an attempt to create continuity and a change in its modus operandi to cement its influence in Iraq and counter the impact and influence of other Iranian parties, notably the intelligence community and the ministry of foreign affairs which control a number of militant factions, religious and security leaders and active media establishments. This Iranian overlap in Iraq has complicated the role and efficiency of QF. With the rise of Raisi, QF will try to regain its control over the Iraqi landscape away from impact of other parties. QF also wants to have control over escalation and de-escalation with the U.S. based on the interests Iran’s new landscape.
  3. Relations with militant factions: It is likely that Iran’s role in Iraq would see restructuring of the relationship with militant factions towards a more centralized framework controlled by QF; IRGC’s arm in Iraq. All of these factions would be under QF’s control as was the case before Soleimani’s assassination by building a new strategy, redistributing roles and curbing rebellions by factions which have increased recently.

Iran’s strategic priorities in Raisi’s era

Over the past period, Iran has tried to preserve its strategic priorities in Iraq despite challenges. The following are some of these priorities on Raisi’s table:

  1. Cement Iran’s influence in Iraq and obstruct any attempt of an Iraqi openness towards its Arab and international periphery, especially in the economic, trade and energy fields. Moreover, foil any regional efforts to take Iraq out of Iran’s grip.
  2. Speed up evicting American forces from Iraq. This priority will receive the support and attention of Raisi who is supported by IRGC. The latter, will try to end the double game with the U.S. in Iraq by increasing political and military pressure.
  3. Empower militant factions inside Iraq and strengthen their ability to absorb measures taken by Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s government to contain these factions and subject them to the state’s authority.
  4. Make Iraq part of Iran’s strategic balance equation in the Middle East by connecting Iraq to IRGC’s regional role and try to exclude the country from any regional or international discussions related to Iranian regional influence and policies.

Motivations of Iran’s repositioning

There are several variables that might push Iran to produce new approaches in Iraq, notably:

  1. Iran under Raisi would consider Iraq as a gateway for some political solutions and use the country as a negotiating table or a mediator to bridge the gap in perspectives with regional and international environments.[1]
  2. Look for new strategic exits that restore the impact of Iran’s role in Iraq, particularly in terms of the relationship with rebellious militant factions.
  3. Overcome the flaws in Iran’s strategic balance in Iraq in the wake of Soleimani’s assassination, especially with the failure of his predecessor, Ghaani, to bring anything new to the Iraqi landscape.
  4. End differences among Iranian factions active in Iraq and give preference to IRGC. Iran's policy on Iraq under Raisi is expected to become more consistent, especially due to his close relationship with
    Khamenei, QF Commander Ghaani, and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Speaker of the Iranian Parliament.[2]
  5. Find new approaches for the relationship with al-Kadhimi’s government, remove any ambiguity in defining Tehran’s policy in Iraq, and whether factions execute all of Tehran’s orders literally. Raisi will try to overcome this in Iraq in the future. This was evident in the invitation letter which Raisi extended to the Iraqi premier to visit Iran.[3]

Consequences

It is likely that Raisi’s new approaches would produce the following consequences on the Iraqi landscape:

  • Iran realizes that its position in Iraq is facing huge challenges after Soleimani’s assassination. Therefore, Tehran would strategically move towards reproducing a new repositioning in Iraq that serves its influence and interests and consolidates the idea of Iraq’s economic, trade and energy subordination to Iran.
  • Raisi’s presidency will empower Iraqi’s militant factions by escalating attacks against positions hosting American troops depending on the outcome of Vienna talks. It is likely that Iraq will bear the brunt of Raisi’s potential policies as the ideological battlefield between Washington and Tehran in light of the recent strategic shift in Washington’s position. This was evident in the Biden administration’s deterrence policy to continue confrontation with Iran’s allies in Iraq and Syria.
  • The reluctance of al-Kadhimi’s government to rein in militant factions might embolden IRGC under Raisi to move forward and consolidate the influence of these factions. This might herald grave consequences for Iraq.
  • Although Iran’s policy towards Iraq had not changed in Rouhani’s era, his presence, however, was an obstacle for IRGC’s efforts to expand its influence in the country. This will change under Raisi and its expected that we will see a complete domination by IRGC compared with other Iranian establishments.[4]

Conclusions

The rise of a hardline figure such as Ebrahim Raisi to power in Iran will have a huge impact on the Iraqi landscape. Raisi enjoys close ties with militant figures and factions and the support of the hardline camp and IRGC. Therefore, Raisi can draw new features for Iran’s role in Iraq. This role will see a clear restructuring of tactics while Tehran’s general strategy would remain almost intact.

That said, one can argue that the Iraqi landscape will face more security and political challenges under Raisi. These challenges are related to the nature of the new roles which Tehran might play in Iraq in the future to execute its short-term plans and long-term strategies.

Endnotes

[1] “How would Raisi’s rise to presidency be reflected inside Iran?”, Iraqi Press Network, June 21, 2021. https://bit.ly/3vU16QN  

[2] "Iran's Iraq policy unlikely to change under Raisi," Al-Monitor, June 21, 2021. https://bit.ly/2Sq8MMW

[3] “Al-Kadhimi will do away with veteran mediators…and embarrasses factions with Iranian messages for calm”, Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, June 24, 2021. https://bit.ly/3qrlNlX

[4] “Will Raisi enhance Iran’s influence in Iraq?”, Amwaj Media, June 25, 2021. https://bit.ly/3gWa8sk

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