Some of Iraq’s most powerful Iran-backed paramilitary groups running the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) have shown strong interest over the course of 2020 and 2021 in re-modulating their relationship with Iran as more autonomous actors. Shifting balances between security institutions in Iran under a hardline President such as Ebrahim Raisi can help re-shape the country’s engagement with these groups to smoothly force US troops out of Iraq.
Qais al-Khazali, the Secretary-General of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), is a prominent example of Iraq paramilitary groups’ drive for further autonomy from Iran – which he calls “our strategic ally”. In an interview in November 2020, justifying further escalation against US forces, Khazali said he told the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force (IRGC-QF) Commander Esmail Ghaani:
“The Americans occupy our country and not your country, and who martyred in Qa’im are our brothers in the PMF, and the [ammo] storages are those of the PMF…. thereby we are concerned regardless of other calculations, so, from now on, please, if someone comes to you and embarrass you, do not talk to us, and we will not listen…our drivers are one hundred percent patriotic, even if our interests converge with the Islamic Republic”.
More starkly, in December 2020, Abu Ali al-Askari, the Security Chief of Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), stated on Telegram: “From here, we call on the treacherous Kadhimi not to test the patience of the resistance after today because time is ripe for cutting off his ears like goats, and, at the time, neither the Iranian Itla’at (Iranian Ministry of Intelligence) nor the CIA will help him”. In another interview, in June 2021, AAH’s Khazali said: “The Iranians did not and will not negotiate [with the US] on the Iraqi resistance’s weapons…. if it [hypothetically] happens, we are not concerned about such negotiations”.
While this language must dissatisfy Iranian officials, this trend in Iraq provides Tehran with more plausible deniability as attacks carried out against US forces in Iraq and domestic warring become a “local” matter. Still, at the same time, in the long-term, this can weaken Tehran’s ability to decisively sway paramilitary decisions in critical times when it needs to rally its regional axis to de-escalate with the US. This situation evolved after the assassination of the IRGC-QF Commander Qassem Soleimani and the PMF Deputy Chief and Kata'ib Hezbollah (KH) leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in January 2020. Their assassination triggered (or accelerated) dynamics within Iraq and Iran that explain Iraqi groups’ recent behaviour.
In Iraq, at least three key dynamics have been unfolding since the departure of Soleimani and Muhandis – perhaps in part as a byproduct of internal changes in Iran. First, as mentioned earlier, there is a drive by key Iraqi groups towards further autonomy, which came with paramilitary reliance on state financial coffers via the PMF over the years and decreased Iranian funding. Second, a transition from centrally coordinated different groups by a single senior figure, represented in Muhandis, to the emergence of a hydra-headed paramilitary leadership modeled by three to four more junior paramilitary leaders. Third and last, Iran is potentially carving out a new class of Iraqi militant groups that only answers to its directives (or that of specific Iranian agencies). The overarching feature of the post-Soleimani and Muhandis stage is the atomization of Iraq’s paramilitary scene and the proliferation of resurgent surrogates. Along with pressure from the October 2019 protest movement, this feature left the PMF more vulnerable to multiple harassment episodes by the Mustafa al-Kadhimi Government in 2020 and 2021. However, the PMF showed that it is, so far, resilient and capable enough in effectively foiling perceived threats.
In Iran, Soleimani’s murder left a vacuum that multiple Iranian state networks sought to fill. For example, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs visits and the Ministry of Intelligence became more visible in post-Soleimani Iraq. Tehran has, however, given the Supreme National Security Council (SNCS) the driver’s seat – apparently to preempt internal fissures over Iraq. The SNCS represents — and has onboard — all critical Iranian military, security, and foreign agencies, including the IRGC-QF, which has the most significant influence over Iran’s Iraq policy.
A more neighborhood-centric Iranian foreign policy under Raisi would mean that Iran’s imperative to pursuit of a better working relationshipwith Iraqi paramilitary networks will gain more importance. Enjoying a warm relationship with the Supreme Leader Office (SLO) and the IRGC, Raisi's consolidation of Iranian institutions by a team of loyal hardliners is something he will seek if he were to have effective instruments to re-project hard power in the neighborhood. Such internal institutional consolidation would allow Tehran to gain greater leverage vis-à-vis Iraqi paramilitary networks. With the finalization of a nuclear deal with the US, a recovering Iranian economy will enable Tehran to inject funds to key Iraqi groups and potentially new ones. Still, it is unclear if this would help soften the increasingly defiant attitude of some of those groups.
To achieve this, which institution will Raisi push to the driver’s seat as regards the Iraq policy? Will Raisi continue to position the SNCS as the umbrella in charge, or will the IRGC-QF be given the driving seat instead of the SNCS? The IRGC-QF’s influence may very well stealthily increase within the current SNCS framework of Iranian engagement in Iraq. Raisi himself may play a role in shaping the Iran-Iraq paramilitary relationship if he – on a personal level – appeals to the groups in Iraq. Some of Raisi’s strong points can be: First, he has long engaged with some of Iran’s pivotal paramilitary partners in the region, primarily the Lebanese Hezbollah, an actor that has strong leverage in Iraq. Second, he has been thought of as a potential successor of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, therefore, Iraqi groups may want to have a good working relationship. Third, as a hardliner unenthusiastic about the Iranian nuclear negotiations with the US, he can mitigate Iraqi paramilitary concerns that a segment of the Iranian establishment can compromise with the US at their own expense. Fourth, his role as the Iranian Judiciary Chief probably resonates with paramilitary groups’ growing interest in deploying “lawfare” against the Kadhimi Government.