Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (left) is pictured in an October 2014 meeting with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (right) in Tehran. Abadi has been successful in mitigating sectarian tension in Iraq. However, with some prodding from Tehran, Abadi now seems to be leaning toward Iran and challenging the administration of US President Barack Obama on its support and commitment to his government.
According to a December 15, 2014 New York Times article entitled “Iraq’s Premier Narrows the Divide, but Challenges Loom”, in nearly every way, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has so far been a different leader than his predecessor, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, despite their common Shi’a political bloc. Although the obstacles facing his government are considerable and he faces political challenges within his own party, Abadi’s early performance has encouraged many Western officials. In his first months in office, Abadi has already appeared three times before Parliament which Maliki only did twice in eight years. Abadi has fired incompetent and corrupt military commanders appointed by Maliki and rooted out 50,000 so-called ghost soldiers; no-show troops for whom commanders nevertheless collect salaries. The December 15th New York Times article quoted Gyorgy Busztin, the Deputy Special Representative for the United Nations in Iraq, as saying “He [Abadi] is doing all the things we feared he wouldn’t be doing.” While many officials credit Abadi’s conciliatory style for the improved political environment, they say the changes also point to a new sense of urgency in Baghdad that Iraq might finally break apart in the face of the threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).
Abadi’s greatest test to date came when an Iraqi court sentenced a prominent Sunni politician to death. It was panning out to be an unmitigated disaster for the country’s new prime minister. The verdict, on capital murder charges brought by the previous government against the politician, Ahmed al-Alwani, prompted the defendant’s Alwani tribe to threaten the termination of its coordination with the Iraqi government in the fight against ISIS. However, Abadi moved quickly to mitigate the problem. He immediately contacted Sunni officials and Alwani tribe members, assuring them that there would be no execution. He urged them to solve the matter by the tribal tradition of paying “blood money” to the families of the two soldiers who were killed in a gun battle when commandos came to arrest Alwani last year.
However, the December 15th New York Times article also explained that Abadi faces constraints from hard-line factions within his own Shi’a constituency. For example, Iraqi Vice President Osama al-Nujaifi said that even though Sunni officials were optimistic about Abadi’s intentions, they remained worried about the “old guard,” a reference to Maliki and his cronies, who many believe are working behind the scenes to undermine Abadi. Maliki had already been accused of inflaming sectarian hostility. It was a made cause for the US push for his removal. His reputation was made worse by his open opposition of a deal to share oil revenue with the Kurds. He called the fall of Mosul to ISIS in June a conspiracy orchestrated by the Kurds. It is believed that ISIS’ march over a vast swath of Iraq has been aided by sectarian hostility which Maliki’s rule inflamed. Maliki warned against arming Sunni tribes to fight ISIS. His lack of support for Abadi has also been evinced by his refusal to vacate his prime minister’s offices and palace in Baghdad’s Green Zone. There is the possibility that Maliki is driven purely by his own political objectives and the hope that he might return to power sometime in 2015.
However, it may also be that Maliki’s actions have been driven by Iran. Tehran may be using Maliki both as leverage with Abadi and as a possible replacement, should he take what Iranian leaders in Tehran might view as an overly conciliatory approach toward other sectarian groups in Iraq and move too close to the US. Part of that effort also appears to include having Maliki maintain close linkages with Iran’s Shi’a partners in the region, including groups such as Hezbollah. Abadi must remain concerned with reactions from his Shi’a political base to his bona fides as leader of Iraq’s Shi’a community upon which his political survival depended. Indeed, it appears Iran’s approach is working. True, Iraqi leaders have always visited Iran since the 2003 invasion by the US-led coalition. Yet, recent visits by Abadi and other senior Iraqi officials indicate Iran still holds considerable influence with them. There is palpable feeling in the air that renewed linkages between Iraqi Shi’a political leaders and Tehran has been created. It has been firmed by Iran’s efforts and sacrifice in defense of Iraqi cities, towns, and citizens from ISIS.
Doubts Arise about Abadi in the US
When the ISIS blitzkrieg began in Iraq on June 9, 2014, the response of the administration of the US President Barack Obama included pushing then Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to establish a representative government, to include Sunnis and Kurds. It was seen as an effort to heal the rifts being exploited by the insurgents. The militants captured large parts of the country’s western and northern provinces in their June offensive after Sunni residents threw their support to the group after the Maliki government stopped paying the Sunni tribal fighters who had earlier helped battled the ISIS’s precursor, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Obama went as far as to insist that no US military help will be forthcoming unless Iraqis make an effort to bridge their divisions. US Secretary of State John Kerry, in talks with Maliki, tried to make headway on the issue. After a protracted political crisis, the Iraqi Parliament voted to have Maliki step down in August, and Abadi took over with a mandate to establish a new government more representative of Iraq’s ethno-religious groups and gain the trust of Iraq’s disaffected Sunnis so they would fight ISIS rather than support it. His early performance encouraged many US and Iraqi officials.
In support of Abadi’s government, the US deployed 1,700 US troops to Iraq with the mission to help train and reorganize the highly fractured Iraqi Army. It had dwindled to nearly half its size from the 50 brigades it had when the US forces left in 2011. US military troops would also prepare the Iraqi Army for a ground offensive against the ISIS. A fight to retake Mosul was being planned for the spring of 2015. Obama announced in November that the US would send 1,500 additional troops as part of a $1.6 billion effort to train and equip nine Iraqi brigades and three Kurdish brigades for a renewed push against ISIS. Obama also sought to support plans to create as many as three brigades of Iraqi National Guard units drawn from members of Sunni tribes in the Anbar province to fight AQI. Those tribal militias were a vital part of the “Sunni Awakening” that began in August 2006, during which Sunni fighters turned against AQI. The tribal militias cooperated with US troops in killing large numbers of AQI militants and in pushing the group out of its longtime stronghold in Anbar province. ISIS’s June offensive was launched from Anbar, and it has been consolidating its control over the province.
Alistair Baskey, a spokesman for the US National Security Council, stated for the New York Times in an email that Abadi and the Iraqi government “have made clear that Sunni tribal forces are going to have to be a part of the effort to defeat ISIL [ISIS] and for the security of their provinces.” Baskey went on to comment on Abadi’s participation at a December 3, 2014 Counter-ISIL Coalition Ministerial in Brussels. He stated that Abadi “once again acknowledged that military action alone will not defeat ISIL [ISIS] and that positive steps toward governmental reform, national reconciliation, and economic and social reconstruction will be needed in this fight. This process will take time but it is now underway. The new government is working to integrate tribal fighters into the Iraqi Security Forces.”
However, Abadi, during a December 9, 2014 meeting with US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, reportedly made a strong push for more weapons and expressed doubts about reconciling with Sunni tribes. According to a December 14, 2014 ForeignPolicy.com article, Abadi’s approach caused US and European officials to worry whether the US-led coalition was rushing to train and rebuild Iraq’s military forces without getting a matching commitment from the Iraqi government to make peace with its Sunni tribes. Talk began of holding back the deployment of the additional 1,500 US troops as a way to indicate US displeasure at Abadi. However, it was recognized that any slowdown or hesitation on the part of the US to execute its plan to train and equip the Iraqi military as well as support for the formation of national guard units will have far-reaching consequences. An anonymous US official was quoted in the December 14th ForeignPolicy.com. article as stating if the US waits to deploy additional forces “or if we look like we are starting to wobble in our commitment to Iraq we’ll pay for that inside the coalition and we’ll pay for that with our Arab partners.” Sedit qui timuit ne non succederet! (He who feared he would not succeed sat still!)
Iran Seeks to Guide Abadi’s Way
It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Iran would tolerate any reduction of its influence or surrender its interests in Iraq as a result of the Obama administration’s actions. Knowing that the type of representative government the US sought to construct for Iraq could not be designed easily, Iranian leaders seemed to believe the US would fail to create it. Khamenei, on June 23, 2014, stated: “We vehemently oppose and disapprove the interference of the Americans and others in Iraq’s domestic matters. We believe that Iraq’s government, people, and the senior clergy are capable of ending this sedition. God willing, they will end it.” After some political horse-trading, Maliki was pushed out and Abadi was brought in. However, Iranian leaders did not concede that the US was better able to manage Iraqi politics. In response, Iran committed itself heavily to Iraq expecting to acquire even greater influence in the country and with Abadi.
Tehran eventually expressed support for Abadi, but it was reserved. It came in the form of congratulations from the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Rear Admiral (Daryābān) Ali Shamkhani. On August 12, 2014, Shamkhani offered congratulations to the Iraqi people and their leaders for choosing Abadi as their new prime minister. He also stated that Iran supported “the legal process for choosing the new Iraqi prime minister.” Yet, the Iranian leadership’s authentic sentiments on the matter were best expressed by Senior Foreign Policy Advisor to the Supreme Leader and Head of the Expediency Discernment Council Strategic Research Center, Ali Akbar Velayati. On June 19, 2014, Velayati explained, “[Nouri Maliki] is the best figure among existing Iraqi politicians to lead. I say this because I know Iraq. I have cooperated with everyone who is managing Iraq, even before the victory of Iran’s Islamic Revolution.” In following with that sentiment, during Abadi’s first visit to Iran as prime minister on October 20, 2014, Khamenei reservedly expressed appreciation over his formation of the new Iraqi government. Khamenei stated, “Iraq is a big, important, and influential country in the region that can play a (major) role once security and conditions return to normal.” He told Abadi, “We stand by you and will defend your government just as we seriously defended the former administration.” Yet, in Abadi’s presence, Khamenei lauded the performance of Maliki in resolving the problems of the Iraqi people and maintain security in the country. It was not difficult for Abadi to perceive that in Tehran, Maliki’s standing was higher than his own. Press TV reported Khamenei heaped further praise on Maliki when he visited Tehran on November 10, 2014 by saying his approach prevented “chaos” and “instability” in the country. Khamenei rated what he called “Maliki’s approach to help the new government of [prime minister] Haider al Abadi and efforts to establish unity among different Iraqi forces” as “very good.”
By late 2014, Abadi began to publicly lean toward Iran and challenge the US regarding its level of support despite his successes in Iraq. The cause for his change in perspective may have been a combination of weariness from political infighting in Baghdad, the struggle to balance his ties to sectarian groups, pressure from his own Shi’a community, or Iran’s efforts on the battlefield. Abadi may have simply begun to question the Obama administration’s will to engage long-term in the fight against ISIS. His rebellious attitude toward the US was evinced in a December 1, 2014 interview with the Lebanese-based Al-Mayadeen Television. Abadi reportedly stated, “While the United States was hesitant to help Iraqi armed forces amid security threats to Baghdad, Iran was swift to provide assistance to its crisis-torn Arab neighbor.” Abadi went on to express his appreciation to Iran for standing with Iraq in its battle against ISIS. He also explained that Baghdad was determined to maintain friendly relations with Tehran. Abadi stated that the two neighboring nations share common interests, adding Iraq would not sever its relations with the Iran simply because others might ask Baghdad to do so. Given the views he proffered in his December 1st interview, the approach taken by Abadi during his December 9th meeting in Baghdad with Hagel should not have come as a surprise.
To Abadi, US officials have approached the anti-ISIS fight as a policy issue, but for him that fight is an existential issue. As a neighbor, Iran displays a mutual sense of danger, and its leaders have assured Abadi that as neighbors, they are open to helping his government face many critical issues.
Impact of Iranian Military Support
During a September 25, 2014 meeting with Abadi, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated, “Tehran considers Iraq’s security and stability as its own security and stability.” If the Iranians manage to shape the military situation on the ground in Iraq, they will have much to gain. Iran’s position as the dominant power in the region would be furthered. As Velyati explained, “The majority of [Shi’as and Kurds] and their leaders have very close relationships with Iran. Some Sunni Arabs have cordial relations with us as well. We can therefore make our most effort to gather the aforementioned [individuals].” Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders certainly believe they are close to achieving that goal. The Iranian Students News Agency quoted IRGC Brigadier General (Sartip-e Dovom) Yadollah Javani, the Senior Adviser to the Representative of the Supreme Leader to the IRGC as stating that the two factors in the successful liberation of Amerli and Mosul were the matjas [religious authorities]’ fatwas, especially that of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. He further noted that according to his [Sistani’s] own words, “General [Qassem] Suleimani has exported the culture of the Sacred Defense [Iran-Iraq War].” Javani continued by explaining, “Today in Iraq and Syria, the great banner of General Suleimani has been installed, with the caption beneath it, ‘Savior of Iraq;’ this is a great source of pride.”
Some IRGC boasts have derided US efforts in Iraq. Senior Military Adviser to the Supreme Leader, IRGC General (Sarlashkar) Yahya Rahim Safavi explained that Iran, Syria, and Iraq make up the strongest coalition against ISIS, with millions of people willing to defend sacred shrines. He further stated the US-led anti-ISIS coalition is ineffective and has already failed.
The Way Forward
It has been proffered by US officials anonymously that the Abadi government is still in its nascent stages and the US and its coalition partners need to “resist making major assumptions about the trajectory of the situation in Iraq based on anecdotal information or a few data points.” If the decision is made to wait to see how Abadi will behave before investing further militarily in Iraq, it is believed the Iraqis will most likely delay in organizing their security forces. Soon enough, everyone will be waiting to act except ISIS. That has been referred to as “a losing proposition.” Iran heavily committed itself to Iraq with the expectation that it will acquire even greater influence over it. With greater control over the Shi’a community and increased influence with the Kurds, not through political operations, but its military efforts, it is difficult to see how Iran would not be able to shape the political, economic, and social situation in Iraq for years. As for the sectarian struggle, Iran is confident it can handle the matter.
In many places, the Iraqi people have coped with unspeakable sufferings, injustice in violent forms, and corruption among officials. Given Abadi’s progress, hope was created that the light of his success would shine amidst such darkness, and the darkness would not be able to overpower him. Yet, no matter how capable Abadi may appear to be, he cannot be expected to find his way in that darkness without help. Iran is creating a road for Abadi. It may be either a path toward a stable, secure and unified Iraq, with a representation government or a blind alley which will lead to greater sectarian violence. If Iran’s efforts concern the Obama administration, it should consider how the US can create a straight path for Abadi to travel. It is not a matter of simply pushing him from behind with demands. It means leading the way with concrete steps and working closely with Abadi, as a partner, to accomplish all things.