This week, Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, made his first official trip to Baghdad. Following a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, the two leaders announced agreements to expand trade, establish a rail link between the two countries, and remove travel restrictions. Rouhani also had a high-profile meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most revered religious authority in Iraq. USIP’s Sarhang Hamasaeed examines the implications for the complicated Iran-Iraq relationship.

Shia militiamen on patrol in al-Mazraa, a village in Salahuddin Province, Iraq, June 9, 2017. Iran has built up militias to fight against the Islamic State in Iraq. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)
Shia militiamen on patrol in al-Mazraa, a village in Salahuddin Province, Iraq, June 9, 2017. Iran has built up militias to fight against the Islamic State in Iraq. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)

What does Rouhani’s first visit to Iraq as Iran’s president mean for relations between the two countries?

Views on the relationship between the two states differ among both the Iraqi people and expert observers of the country. Some believe that Iran has benefited most in post-2003 Iraq by increasing its political, security, economic, and cultural influence—if not outright capturing the state. The visit of President Rouhani, likewise, could be seen as a continuation of Iranian inroads.

Those advances were made through consolidating political, security, and economic gains after U.S. troops withdrew in 2011; the proliferation of Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), who secured the second-highest number of seats in the Iraqi Council of Representatives; and the military defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS).

Others acknowledge Iranian advances but believe the picture is not so bleak and that a more balanced relationship is possible. In that view, the visit by Rouhani, Foreign Minister Zarif and other government officials before him, may provide opportunities for more state-to-state dialogue and negotiations through diplomatic and other specialized channels.

It’s true that the balance of power is tilted toward Iran and not easy for Iraq to change. But it’s also a fact that Iran needs Iraq more than ever due to U.S. sanctions and Iran’s internal economic situation. Iraq is gaining more leverage through increased engagement with other Arab countries, a point that Rouhani shrewdly recognized by referring to Iraq as an “Arab state.”

Iraq has relied on Iranian paramilitary support in the fight against the Islamic State. With the military defeat of ISIS, how will Iranian support for these groups change?

As the military campaign ends, the groups backed by Iran arguably do not need its logistical support as before. These groups—part of the PMF—are without doubt very powerful in their own right. But they continue to need Iran’s political and organizational help. They also need Iran to cajole them to stay focused on a common purpose, and possibly to help resolve disputes within the PMF among its factions.

Iraqi leaders and international observers discuss ideas for disarming, demobilizing, and reintegrating the PMF, but their thoughts often lag behind reality. The reasons for the rise of the PMF continue to exist. For the foreseeable future, the more realistic question is how to reduce the need for the use of the PMF and improve their discipline and accountability to the state and the people.

In the meantime, the armed groups that either expanded or formed to fight ISIS—many of them in direct response to the fatwa “religious call” by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani—have been legalized by the Iraqi Council of Representatives under the PMF law. Some of them competed in the May 2018 national elections and secured 48 seats (the second largest bloc), which enhanced their access to government resources in the form of salaries, training, and arms.

Iraqi leaders acknowledge that crucial Iranian support arrived quickly when the Baghdad and Erbil appeared threatened by ISIS, and that the assistance continued through the war against the extremists. The U.S.-led coalition not only helped Iraq win the military fight against ISIS, but also provided humanitarian assistance to over five million people displaced by the conflict, supported Iraq’s economy amid falling oil prices and the need for international guarantees, and provided stabilization assistance for areas liberated from ISIS, including support for religious minorities. 

While Iraqis appreciate the external support they received, they take pride in their forces fighting ISIS, retaking land and enabling over four million people to go home.

What other common interests do Baghdad and Tehran share that could enhance cooperation? What issues divide them?

The list of shared and diverging interests is long and complicated. Common concerns include: securing their 900-mile border; preventing the re-emergence of ISIS and other extremist groups; cooperating on energy issues; strengthening economic integration through—for example—cultural and religious tourism; and importing food products from Iran, as conflict and negligence have badly damaged Iraq’s agricultural sector.

Key issues dividing the countries include: Iran’s heavy-handed involvement in Iraq to secure strategic depth and influence, and in the view of many, outright control; Iran’s diversion of rivers flowing into Iraq; and differences over border demarcation. The successful plunge by Iran-backed PMF groups into politics has turned the PMF into a sensitive topic that occupies a gray zone between common and diverging interests.

How can Iraq limit external, negative influence? Who can help Iraq?

The Iraqi people are the best bet for countering violent extremism and malign influences. Iraqis of every ethnicity and religious stream have taken to the streets repeatedly to demand services, jobs, justice, security, and action against corruption. They also increasingly express anti-Iranian sentiments and object to Iranian interference in Iraq, blaming their neighbor for constricting natural water flows, being a source of illicit drugs, and more.

Iraqi leaders in all spheres—government, policy, community and politics, and some top PMF officials, too—have stated publicly that they want Iraq to avoid entanglement in international conflicts, like Iran-Saudi Arabia or U.S.-Iran. The best way to reduce external negative influence in Iraq is to help the country recover from violent conflict. Continued U.S. and international engagement in Iraq after its military fight against ISIS is needed to strengthen its state and communal institutions, address the needs of its people, and constructively support stronger relations with regional countries and the international community. Supporting Iraqi state institutions and civil society also will help. Pressing Iraq to choose sides, or abandoning Iraq, will only backfire.

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