Iran’s proxy forces in Iraq could operate independently of Iran’s wishes. They may inadvertently draw the UK into armed conflict with Iran. Only comprehensive domestic reform in Iraq can minimise the threat of these groups.
Iran supports and trains large Shia militias in the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). The PMF were formed in response to the disintegration of the Iraqi military in the face of ISIS. These groups include Kata’ib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, The Badr Organisation and others. Members of these militias occupy key positions in Iraqi institutions and occupy seats in the Iraqi Parliament. These groups are key fronts for Iranian influence in Iraq.
While Iran undoubtedly wields decisive influence in these groups, this does not translate into direct control. Iran’s proxy groups generally behave according to their own best interests, taking into account local considerations. Some of these militias lack a clear command structure and are, in the words of researcher Michael Knights, “extraordinarily complex, and hard to manage at the best of times”.
For example, Kata’ib Hezbollah has carried out lethal strikes against western forces in Iraq. In response, the US has struck Kata’ib Hezbollah’s bases throughout Iraq and Syria and assassinated its leader, Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis.
UK policy must recognise that two emerging trends in Iraq might weaken Iran’s control of these groups. These are the growing political conflict between Shia clergy in Najaf (Iraq) and Qom (Iran), and emerging Iraqi nationalism.
The Najaf-Qom dispute is a fundamental disagreement between two distinct worldviews. The Najaf clergy advance the traditional belief that they should have limited involvement in governance. In contrast, Qom is the home of Valeyet-e which is the current political system of Iran and involves key control of state matters by the Shia clergy. This dispute has taken on strong political dimensions. Iranian efforts to dominate Iraq have become increasingly unpopular amongst the Iraqi public and the Najaf clergy is seeking to regain prominence after decades of Baathist repression. Most recently, PMF militias loyal to Najaf have left the PMF at Najaf’s beckoning, as Iraqi efforts to exert control over the PMF and absorb it into the state increase. This move damages the legitimacy of the remaining pro-Iranian groups. Since the PMF originally formed at Sistani’s behest in 2014, the public has called for Najaf-aligned groups to withdraw, which damages the legitimacy initially held by the PMF.
Likewise, emerging Iraqi nationalism is going to frustrate Iran’s efforts to control the PMF groups it carefully cultivated. Iraq has seen repeated and widespread protests against the perceived chronically corrupt and inept post-2003 political system as well as the foreign influence considered to contribute to its failure. The 2019 protests, which started in October, saw several hundred thousand protestors stall the nation’s economy in pursuit of political reform. Iran itself was often the target of these protests, with the Iranian consulate in Najaf being burnt down. These protests have also rallied against foreign interference more broadly. As recently as January of this year protestors decried Iraq’s role as staging ground for any would-be conflict between Iran and the US. Iran-backed militias have harshly opposed the protests. They are alleged to have used lethal violence against protestors.
The burgeoning Najaf-Qom dispute and emerging Iraqi nationalism has the potential to socially and politically ostracise Iran-backed Shia militias, given Iran’s sharp dip in popularity in Iraq. The removal of pro-Najaf forces from the PMF strips them of the legitimacy it gave them, and their opposition to the widespread protests might damage their standing in any new political order that may emerge.
In order to avoid social and political ostracisation, they may aggressively target Western forces to co-opt the widespread unpopularity of foreign interference in Iraq and offset their own foreign backing. As well as, this Iranian-backed groups may agitate any nationalist government in Baghdad, which they may perceive as a threat to their existence or as anti-Shia.
This has significant policy implications for the UK. Should an Iranian-backed militia strike coalition forces without Iranian approval, it could spark conflict. The US has already struck both key Iranian officials in Iraq and Iran-backed militias. If Iran’s proxies aggressively target Western forces, US response may precipitate war.
Consequently, British policy should be to strengthen the Iraqi state and diffuse tensions with Iran regionally. The UK must recognise that its interests are best served by helping to combat the chronic levels of corruption within the Iraqi state, to restore its capacity and legitimacy. In tandem, diplomatic efforts with Iran must be renewed.
The 2015 Nuclear Deal showed that diplomatic settlements with Iran are achievable, sustainable, and able to greatly reduce tensions. Relations with Iran could be guaranteed despite the dismal state of US-Iran diplomacy given the UK’s track record in maintaining notably better relations. Only decisive diplomatic engagement with Iran can remove the risk of war.
Jack Sargent is co-Head of Agora’s Defence & Security Programme.