North Africa, West Asia: Analysis

Did the UN inadvertently recognise Iran’s guardianship of Iraq?

A recent visit to Tehran suggests that the UN is officially recognising Iran's presence – and interference – in its neighbour’s politics

Zeidon Alkinani
2 March 2021, 12.08pm
Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, UN special representative of the secretary-general in Iraq, recently spent two days in Iran
Xinhua / Alamy Stock Photo

The United Nations’ special representative of the secretary-general in Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, recently spent two days in Tehran, the capital of Iran, where she met with Ali Akbar Velayati, the senior adviser to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Was the UN finally warning Iran about its interference in Iraq?

No. The purpose of the visit was, in fact, precisely to discuss regional and political stability in Iraq, and, most importantly, Iraq's early elections, which were brought forward following protests, but delayed by four months from June to October 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. It seemed as if the UN was officially recognising Iran's guardianship of Iraq.

Iran's interference in Iraq is not news to Iraqis. The Islamic Republic has long been indirectly interfering in the country through its network of militant, political and religious proxies.

In addition, global politics, particularly in the Middle East, have taught us the importance of involving all parties who are influential in the region’s conflicts, both internal and international.

Iran’s unofficial influence

Despite the political violence that erupted in Iraq during the anti-government protests in October 2019, and the war with ISIS, which officially ended in January 2017, the country is currently neither in a state of civil war nor at war with another country. In other words, there is no reason for the UN to be discussing Iraq’s internal affairs with its neighbour.

Iran has no official right (whether domestic, regional or international) to interfere in, let alone influence and direct, politics in Iraq – and certainly no legitimacy when it comes to the country’s upcoming elections.

However, Iraqi and regional public opinion have accepted the existence of pro-Iran proxy groups moving around the country to ensure that other powers do not challenge its interests. Iran itself has not fully nor officially confessed to this reality, even when it targets its opponents inside the borders of Iraq.

Iran has long been indirectly interfering in Iraq through its network of militant, political and religious proxies

Nevertheless, if we examine the UN envoy's visit to Tehran through the lens of Iran's unofficial geopolitical influence in Iraq, there are various potential speculations.

In its battle against US-imposed economic sanctions, Iran relishes Iraq for being the second biggest importer of its non-oil commodities. While Tehran’s influence over security and national politics overshadows its economic policy in Iraq, it has continuously empowered its network of loyal paramilitary forces to ensure that its interests are consistently defended and protected.

Iran's decisive role in Iraq is familiar to seasoned observers. However, many generalised assumptions ignore the deeply complex political dynamics of Iraq. For instance, unlike what many believe, Iran does not control all of Iraq’s Shia political and social groups.

Iranian-Iraqi relations have endured centuries of conflicts, alliances and religious interactions – and all periods are relevant to understanding the complete picture today. However, it is crucial to pay particular attention to more recent developments. The eight-year Iran–Iraq War in the 1980s allowed Iran’s security agencies to familiarise themselves with Iraq's physical – and political – terrain. Thus, it was able to establish an influential intelligence role in Iraq. From the early stages of the 2003 US invasion, Iran invested in a widespread network of paid informants and funded religious propaganda campaigns in Iraq.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) led much of these efforts. Iran aims to prevent Iraq from re-emerging as a political, military or ideological rival. But it also wants to ensure that the country does not collapse into a civil war that could lead to the partition of Kurdistan, which could then motivate Iran's own Kurds to follow suit. Iran's priority is to ensure a Shia – or to be more precise, a pro-Iran Shia – dominated rule in Iraq, with just enough instability to keep the US busy.

In today's Iraq, Iran allegedly has various powerful cards in play: the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF, a grouping of pro-Iran militias), a widespread network of other militias, influence within Iraq's security and military forces, and a powerful pro-Tehran bloc on Iraq's legislature, the Council of Representatives. Furthermore, the Islamic Republic is also in a carefully balanced cold war with the US.

Where does the UN stand?

The UN’s special representative Hennis-Plasschaert presented herself as a mediator ready to start a dialogue with all sides in Iraq in late 2020. This was when she met with Iraqi activists and protesters, such as Dr. Alaa al-Rikabi, to discuss the demands of the protest movement. Many activists and protesters heavily criticised Rikabi for acting as their spokesperson.

The UN representative has also been criticised for her soft approach towards governmental and non-governmental actors and her failure in progressing or supporting an investigation into the killings of peaceful protesters in Iraq. This is despite the UN having published reports about human rights abuses in Iraq and disappearances and killings of Iraqi protesters. These deaths occurred during the massive wave of ongoing protests demanding economic and political reforms and an end to sectarianism and corruption that have swept the country since October 2019.

Hennis-Plasschaert was heavily criticised for meeting in October 2020 with Abdul-Aziz al-Mohammadawi (also known as Abu Fadak, and sometimes Abu Hamid), the new leader of Iraq’s PMF because of the role these pro-Iran militias played in cracking down on the peaceful anti-corruption protests.

Protesters were also demanding an end to Iranian influence in Iraq, so the UN visit also scandalised many Iraqis because Iran allegedly pushed its proxies to violently clamp down on the protests.

The UN needs to provide clarification on its stance towards Iran’s influence in Iraq. Acknowledging Tehran’s unofficial influence in Iraq on the one hand, while officially approaching Iraq’s political parties and protest movement in an attempt to ensure a successful transitionary period following the result of the first early elections in October 2021, is an ineffective approach to the multilateral and complex political reality in the country.

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