Iran’s role in the reconstruction of Iraq – a year later

Ever since the International Conference for Reconstruction of Iraq last February, Iran’s interest in Iraq was always present but never completely clear. Tehran’s secretiveness could be interpreted as a signal that it didn’t have the intention to play openly in Iraq’s political scene.

More than a year passed since ISIS has been defeated in Iraq on December 9, 2017, according to an official statement from the then prime minister, Haider al-Abadi. Despite the terrorists being gone, these 12 months were critical for the future of Iraq as a sovereign and forward-going country. The absence of the main evil, finally made other deep issues in the oil-rich country visible. Indeed, that forced the nation to face some long forgotten and as well new problems and to begin looking for their solutions. A fact which defined the political instability during that period and put an immense pressure on the new political figures that emerged. Another factor that significantly affected the reconstruction of Iraq, was the presence of an old and familiar “friend” – the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Ever since the International Conference for Reconstruction of Iraq last February, Iran’s interest in Iraq was always present but never completely clear. That could be seen as the main reason for Iran not willing to reveal an official plan to take part in the Iraqi rebuilding process during the event, while other countries and organizations pledged $30 billion in loans and investments.

Tehran’s secretiveness was a signal that it didn’t have the intention to play openly in the reconstruction of Iraq.

Above all, this has been felt mostly through the actions of the so-called Shiite militias, organized, trained and financed by Iran. ISIS’s control over many Iraqi provinces and cities was both a threat and an opportunity for the country’s militias. Their role in the fight against Sunni jihadists was undeniable which gained them a growing legitimacy in Iraq’s political and social life. In March 2018 Shiite paramilitary groups were officially recognized as part of the country’s security forces which granted them many of the same rights as members of the military. A scenario which was already successfully executed in Lebanon with Hezbollah.

“But the militias wanted more than just de facto power; they also sought political representation. After the victory over ISIS, the political atmosphere in Iraq made that possible, and the parliamentary elections of May 2018 provided an opportunity to realize their goal.”, explains political analyst Raed Ahmed.

“The political entities that represent the militias, Sa’eroun, led by Muqtada al-Sadr, and Fatah, led by Hadi al-Amiri, won the most seats of any political party in the May elections, 54 and 47, respectively, out of a total of 329“. As a consequence, months of political confrontations followed leaving the country without a government until October and obstructing the process of the reconstruction of Iraq. After neither Sa’eroun, which led the liberal wing, or Fatah, which led the pro-Iran parties, could form a government following the May 2018 elections, they agreed to nominate a compromise candidate for prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi.

Without a political authority to take responsibility for the crisis in the country, the economic situation for Iraqis was getting worse and worse.

Things escalated significantly in July, when mass demonstrations erupted in the South, sparked from the city of Basra. The protests began over miserable living conditions but have grown into an indictment of Iraq’s stagnant politics. “People in Basra accused Iraq’s political class of abandoning them, ignoring the people’s pleas for relief as the politicians jockeyed for control of a new government. They have expressed their displeasure by burning down the headquarters of nearly every political party in the city, along with offices belonging to Shiite militias that won parliamentary seats in the May elections.,” has reported the Washington Post.

The protesters’ anger culminated in September, when they stormed the Iranian Consulate, setting it on fire. It was de facto the first time since the ISIS defeat that public anger against the neighborhood country was manifested out loudly. “They targeted the consulate to vent their frustrations over abuses by Iran-backed militias in Basra, as well what they see as Tehran’s outsize influence over their city and over Iraq’s fractured politics,” continued WaPo. Another reason for that was Iran’s decision to cut off electricity for the South of Iraq due to unpaid fees, choosing the worst moment to do that – while the country was in deep economic crisis, trying to recover after ISIS’s campaign.

In addition, Basra residents protested outside oil company facilities demanding jobs, and others have locked the road to the port of Um Qasr.

The danger of disruption to Iraq’s oil exports came at a time when the Trump administration was about to cripple Iran’s ability to export oil as it imposed sanctions after pulling out of the nuclear deal. With the growing necessity arising from that, Tehran has chosen to raise its focus on geo-economic interests in Iraq. It has tried, therefore, to augment its share of the Iraqi market and major economic projects, helping develop soft and hard infrastructure and taking a leading role in the reconstruction of Iraq. “During the period from March 21 to Dec. 20, Iraq absorbed 20.7% of Iran’s non-oil exports, surpassing China. During the same period, Iraqi imports from Iran marked a 48% jump compared to the same period in 2017,” says data published by Al-Monitor.

Therefore, announcements from the last month coming from Iran’s leading political figures about further joint projects with Iraq didn’t came as surprise. The visit of Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif in January only proved his country’s plan to strengthen its influence in the neighbor’s politics and economy. An upcoming trip to Iraq by President Hassan Rouhani is also expected to revolve around the same economic interactions. But it doesn’t seem like Western powers will remain passive on the process of reconstruction of Iraq, since US, Spain, Italy and even Jordan’s leaders have paid visits in the country in the last months declaring explicit intentions of future cooperation. With that being said, Iraq’s leaders will be soon forced to consider more space for nonsectarian national politics, which can help the country move forward, focusing on national reconciliation.