A major crisis has begun in Iraq, as Iran seeks to maintain its influence in the country despite its eroding strategic position. Opportunities to reverse strategic trends are difficult to anticipate. But there is now a clear opportunity to curb Iranian power, and quietly and carefully, the U.S. should seize on this chance, pushing harder to divide Iran’s attention and undermine its grip on Iraq.
Iraq is at the heart of Iran’s interests in the Middle East. It is the region’s only majority-Shiite country apart from Iran. It has significant oil reserves and is a potential avenue for illicit oil exports. It is the graveyard of American and Baathist power. And it is the geographic bridge between the Zagros Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. One way or another, Iraq must fall under Iran’s control if Iran wishes to be a regional power.
Pressuring Iran’s proxies in Syria — as the Trump administration likely did, at least covertly — might curb Iranian power. But pressuring Iran’s position in Iraq poses a mortal threat to Iran’s regional strategic interests.
This explains the emotional significance and strategic relevance of the U.S.’s 2020 killing of Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force, Tehran’s premier power-projection tool. Soleimani was a battle-hardened military, political, and bureaucratic operator. The architect of Iran’s influence in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, he had the respect and loyalty of a variety of Iraqi paramilitaries, and through them, a powerful means of exerting influence over the direction of the Iraqi state.
Iraqi politics is fickle. As is the case in the Middle East more broadly, sectarian divisions do not alone determine loyalty. Moqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Sadrist movement in Iraq, is a particularly influential Shiite cleric who commands the loyalty of a significant proportion of Iraqi Shiites. The Middle Eastern Shiite community has always been split between Iran and Iraq, Karbala and Qom. Yet during the Iraq War, Sadr accepted Iran’s support against the U.S. and the Iraqi government.