The U.S. Must Reduce Iranian Influence in Iraq. By Gregg Roman


This provides Iran with a land corridor to Syria and the broader Levant, allowing it to spread its revolution, sow chaos, and undermine regional American allies and partners. The US must counter Iran's nefarious influence in every way possible.

The Iranian-Iraqi border is some 1,000 miles long, which guarantees some level of Iranian influence. The two countries are both majority Shiite countries, even though Shiites represent approximately 15% of the world's Muslims, the vast majority of whom are Sunnis.

The two countries share significant economic ties. Iraq is the second-largest importer of Iranian goods, after China. Iraq relies heavily on Iran for natural gas and electricity. Iran's influence in Iraq is considerable. Numerous Iraqi political parties have ties with Iran.

Iran also arms and funds militias in Iraq, which came to be collectively known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in 2014.

The US must counter Iran's nefarious influence in every way possible.

Several of the PMF's constituent groups have pledged loyalty to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei.

Some of the militias, such as Kata'ib Hezbollah (KH) and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, carried out deadly attacks against US and coalition forces during the Iraq War.

The PMF's main purpose is to facilitate Iranian dominance over Iraq and to expel US forces from the country; there are some 2,000 serving there in an advisory capacity.

The Shiite Coordination Framework (SCF), an umbrella group of Shiite Iraqi political parties, is backed by Iran. In 2022, the body nominated Mohammed Shia al-Sudani as its candidate for prime minister. Sudani successfully formed a government in October 2022.

According to an analysis by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, "the formation of a new government by Sudani can only be regarded as a major victory for Iran ... [T]he new government is a fresh start for Iran to continue strengthening its regional agenda in Iraq and beyond."

Iranian interference in internal Iraqi affairs was one of the causes of widespread anti-government protests that began in 2019. More than 600 people were killed, including many by Iran-backed militia snipers. Iranian obstruction was partially responsible for preventing the formation of a government after the 2021 parliamentary election.

KH, a US-designated foreign terrorist organization, was formerly led by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was killed alongside former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in January 2020.

Soleimani was the spearhead for expanding Iran's revolution throughout the Middle East. He was responsible for the deaths of some 600 Americans in Iraq.

Muhandis was Soleimani's right-hand man.

KH has attacked American bases in Iraq over the years, including fatal strikes in December 2019 and March 2022.

The US must act swiftly to push back against Iranian influence in Iraq. It can do so militarily, economically, and politically.

KH praised Hamas's October 7 massacre as "great victories" and declared, "Our missiles, drones, and special forces stand ready to direct qualitative strikes against the Americans in their bases and against their interests if it intervenes in this battle."

Another Iranian proxy, Kata'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, boasted, "[A]ny direct American entrance into the conflict for the crumbling entity [Israel] will make all American positions in the region legitimate targets for the Axis of Resistance."

Shortly after these pronouncements, Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria began launching drone attacks at American bases in those countries, during which dozens of US troops were injured. Overall, Iranian-backed Shiite militias have carried out more than 100 attacks on US soldiers in the region since October 7.

The US must act swiftly to push back against Iranian influence in Iraq. It can do so militarily, economically, and politically.

The US must increase military aid and advisory support to the Iraqi government to counterbalance Iranian-backed militias. While the Biden administration has struck militia targets in Syria and Iraq, these are not sufficient: the administration must appreciably intensify such targeted operations against Iranian proxies to reduce those groups' operational capabilities.

The US should work to develop Iraqi oil and gas sectors independent of Iranian influence. As has previously been observed, it is preposterous that a country such as Iraq, rich with oil and gas resources, should be paying above-market rates for imported energy, but that is the current reality.

The US should also sanction the PMF's Muhandis General Company, through which the PMF seeks to dominate the Iraqi economy.

Finally, the US should support pro-US political factions in Iraq through diplomatic engagement and economic aid. Iran and its proxies are not necessarily popular in Iraq, as the 2019 protests powerfully suggest. Extrajudicial oppression, corruption, and violence on the part of the militias do not help their image among Iraqis.

The Iranian regime is following a coherent strategy in the Middle East. The US must devise and implement a clear-cut strategy of its own in opposition.


Gregg Roman is director of the Middle East Forum.

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