Dominance over Iraq can open the road to hegemony over the Middle East.
When Qasem Soleimani was killed in a US airstrike in Baghdad, the immediate question which arose was what was the top Iranian commander doing in Iraq?
The answer is business as usual.
Soleimani who was the chief of the ‘Quds Force’ or the foreign unit of the elite Iranian paramilitary ‘Revolutionary Guards’ has been a frequent visitor to Iraq. He was at the forefront of the Iranian mission to hegemonise Iraq.
The two neighbours fought a long and bloody war in the 1980s but much has changed since then. Iran began extending its influence on Iraq after the latter was invaded by the US in 2003.
But it was in 2005 when Iran got a breakthrough. Parliamentary elections were held in Iraq under US supervision. What followed was a power vacuum left by the Americans who were unacquainted with the sectarian divisions in Iraq.
This is where the Iranians triumphed. Iraq like Iran was an exception in the Middle East, in the sense that both were Shia-majority nations. Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated government which attacked Iran had been toppled.
In his testimony to the US Congress, Kenneth Pollack, the CIA analyst on the Middle East had said, “By late 2006, Iran was putting money on every number on the roulette wheel, providing weapons, cash, information, training and other forms of support to a wide variety of groups—Shia, Sunni, Kurdish and others."
It's speculated that Iran’s aim has been to penetrate not only into Iraqi politics but its society, economy and military.
The mission to dominate Iraq involved funding Shiite militias, forging alliances with politicians and intimidation.
In fact, Abu Muhandis- the deputy commander of the ‘Popular Mobilisation Forces’- an umbrella group of Iraqi Shiite militias was part of Soleimani's convoy in Baghdad. He was also killed in the US strike.
Iran’s dominance over Iraqi politics has, at times, been so significant that it even managed to influence the appointment of the country’s Prime Minister. This was evident when Soleimani convinced Kurdish and Shiite leaders to back Nouri al-Maliki as the PM in 2006.
Iraq is perhaps the most strategically located country in the Middle East. It shares a border with most major nations in the region- Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Jordan and Kuwait.
Dominance over Iraq can open the road to hegemony over Middle East. But that is not the foremost reason why Iran intends to make Iraq a client state.
The shadow of the Iran-Iraq war of whose Soleimani was a veteran still looms large. Iran plans to ensure that Iraq never becomes strong enough to pose a threat again.
Post-2014, Shiite militias led by Soleimani aided an ailing Iraqi army in the fight against the Islamic State. The Iranian influence kept growing, so much so that in 2015, Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal Al-Saud remarked, “Iran is taking over Iraq.”
But challenges to Iranian hegemony also increased over a period of time. During the 2019 anti-government protests, many Iraqis demanded an end to Iran’s dominance.
Ahead of his death, Soleimani was tasked with quelling this very anger against Iran along with business as usual.
(Views expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)