The Fate of Iran’s Role in Iraq According the Current Political Scene

Policy Analysis | This analysis addresses with the nature of Iran’s role in Iraq, in light of the current political situation. The analysis tackles the nature and priorities of Iranian strategies in Iraq, the way in which it manages the Shia-Shia conflict, also how Iran views the political scene in Iraq after selecting the President of the Republic and the forming the government, and the reflection of this in general on the future of Iran’s role in Iraq.

by Dr. Firas Elias
  • Release Date – Nov 6, 2022

At a time when Iran is witnessing an escalation in anti-regime protests, the nature of Iran’s role in Iraq in the current political situation raises many questions about the nature of this role and the effects thereof. Therefore, this analysis is attempting to shed light on the nature of Iranian strategies and priorities, the way it manages the Shia-Shia conflict, how it views the process of forming the new government, and the overall reflection of this on the future of its role in Iraq.

Iran’s New Approach to Iraq

The period after Quds Force Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani was assassinated near Baghdad International Airport in January 2020 demonstrated a major imbalance in the Iranian role in Iraq. The most prominent features of which were the stumbling of the new Quds Force commander, Ismail Qaani, in filling the vacuum after Soleimani’s demise, not to mention domestic and foreign variables that, in turn, complicated the effectiveness of the Iranian role in Iraq.

The most notable were the American pressure and popular protests. Iran tried to overcome this imbalance by re-engineering its roles in Iraq, starting from controlling the conservative current on the domestic arena and then reaching the presidential elections in June 2021, which resulted in the victory of the conservative candidate Ibrahim Raisi.

Raisi’s arrival marked a new shift in Iran’s role in Iraq. The completion of the revolutionaries’ conservative control over all political and security institutions in Iran created a state of unity and integration in Iranian objectives in Iraq that led to a new Iranian repositioning in the Iraqi arena, different from what it was during the period of former President Hassan Rouhani, where there were many Iranian entities, discourses, and means in Iraq. It can be said that the features of the new Iranian approach were represented in four main levels.

First: Iranian Political Discourse

Raisi’s arrival has created unity in the Iranian-oriented political discourse in Iraq, which is one of the most prominent reasons why Raisi was selected by the conservative movement and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps(IRGC) with the support of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. It was an attempt to end the disputes that emerged during Rouhani’s tenure— between the presidency and the IRGC over the Iranian regional role in general and regarding Iraq in particular—and unify Iranian policy and discourse regarding Iraq rather than address it in front of several policies or contradicted and overlapping discourses.

Second: The Role of the Quds Force

The strategy of the Quds Force in Iraq, specifically after Soleimani’s assassination, was based on bringing about a process of continuity and change in the way it operates to help consolidate its influence in Iraq in the face of the influence and effect of other Iranian actors. Most notable among them were the information sources, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security that control multiple areas of influence inside Iraq.

Iranian interference in Iraq greatly complicated the role and effectiveness of the Quds Force. However, with Raisi in office, the role and control of the Quds Force was restored and protected from the influences of other parties.

Controlling the modes of calmness or escalation with the United States was also restored, as required by the interest of the new Iranian reality.  This is clear from the fact that the Iranian role in Iraq is now managed by influential IRGC ’s figures: Qaani; former IRGC General Hassan Danai Farr, the official in charge of the Iraq file in the Iranian Foreign Ministry who previously served as Iranian ambassador to Iraq; and Mohammed Kazem al-Sadiq, the new Iranian ambassador to Iraq who was also a former IRGC general.

Third: Merging the Role of the Foreign Ministry with the IRGC

The process of selecting Hossein Amir-Abdollahian as foreign minister under Raisi marked an important shift in the Iranian approach in Iraq. Amir-Abdollahian is the most prominent figure in the second generation of the revolution. An experienced diplomat influenced by Soleimani, he enjoys the trust of both the Supreme Leader and the IRGC. He also has a strong public relations network with all of Iran’s proxies in Iraq, having served as a former diplomat in Iraq, where he became a special assistant to the Iranian Foreign Minister for Iraqi affairs 2003–2006 before serving at the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad 2006–2007.


Therefore, appointing Amir-Abdollahian as the minister of foreign affairs during Raisi’s era will allow his experience and relationships within the framework to support the efforts of the IRGC in Iraq, balance Qaani’s failure to fill Soleimani’s vacuum, and, lastly, rearrange the Iranian cards scattered throughout Iraq in a way that seeks to restore effectiveness to the Iranian role in Iraq.

Fourth: At the Iranian Political Bilateralism Level

The features of the new Iranian approach in Iraq pointed to the rise of the “conservatives and the IRGC” consensual dichotomy, replacing the decline of the controversial “president and IRGC” dichotomy. The spearhead, at this point, is to give security a priority over the priority of diplomacy in Iraq, especially since the most complex files, faced by Iran in Iraq, are files with a security dimension, specifically at the level of managing the relationship with the armed factions associated with it, aside from the influence and role of other Iranian agencies, such as the Foreign Ministry.

Iran’s Strategic Priorities

There are many strategic priorities that Iran is trying to maintain in Iraq, despite the many challenges Iran itself is facing. These priorities were strongly present in Iran’s agendas in the post-Soleimani era: preserve Iranian influence in Iraq and thwart any process that opens Iraq to its Arab neighbors or potential international partnerships, specifically at the level of economy, trade, and energy. As witnessed during the first year of Raisi’s presidency, Arab outreach towards Iraq is strong, represented by regional and development projects as well as the strong Arab presence in Iraq highlighted by the Baghdad Summit for Cooperation and Partnership in August 2021.


Iran has also been keen to accelerate the process U.S. forces departure from Iraq, a priority that has received major support and attention, as an attempt to end the dual game with the United States in Iraq, by increasing the pace of political and military pressure, empowering the armed factions associated with Iran in Iraq, and strengthening Iran’s ability to absorb the government measures taken by the government of Mustafa al-Kadhimi against it, in order to contain its influence and influence.

The IRGC’s moves in Iraq, during the past period, have shown an attempt to make Iraq part of the equation of Iranian strategic balance in the Middle East, by linking Iraq to the regional role of the IRGC, and trying to keep Iraq away from any regional or international discussions related to Iranian regional influence and policies, whether such discussions were at the level of nuclear talks or regional dialogues with Saudi Arabia, in order to overcome the state of imbalance in the Iranian strategic balance in Iraq after the assassination of Soleimani, especially at the level of controlling and subjecting the Iraqi situation to Quds Force centrality.

Iran has also been keen to enshrine the concept of political realism, based on not exceeding Iranian interests in any Iraqi moves at the internal and external levels. Even more importantly was to preserve the political unity of the“Shiite house” in Iraq. Perhaps this is evident from the role played by Iran in supporting the efforts of the Shiite Coordinative Framework, in moving forward to resolve the stalemate of the political scene, away from the influence of other political actors in Iraq, foremost among which is the leader of the Sadrist movement, Muqtada al-Sadr.

Iran has not lost sight of the importance of consolidating Iraq’s position in the economic, investment and, service dimension, through expanding the fields of interaction between the two countries at the level of importing energy, electricity, and others. Iran is well aware that ensuring its role in Iraq is, in turn, a guarantee of its roles’ effectiveness in the Middle East, as the success of its role in Iraq will give it regional impetus to move other tools of influence in the region at the very least, as Iraq is the first target of the Iranian strategy.

Iran and the Challenge of Conflict Management Inside the "Shiite House"

Iran still, with great fear, views the step of Sadr’s withdrawal from the political process, specifically after the serious security events that took place in the Green Zone at the end of August 2022, after Sadr’s supporters tried to storm the presidential palace hold a and sit-in there. Clashes with individuals affiliated with armed factions loyal to him took place at the Green Zone. Even with the success of the Coordinative Framework in passing the process of electing the president of the Republic on October 12, 2022, and granting the parliament confidence in the new government on October 27, 2022, Iran fears that the conflict between Sadr and the forces of the Coordinative Framework will happen again, in a way that may lead to a reconfiguration of the Shiite equation in Iraq, according to new formats that may not suit the Iranian role and objectives.

The main problem Iran is currently facing in Iraq, specifically at the level of restoring the Shiite political house and maintaining Shia-Shiite consensus withing the limits of the Iranian interests in the country; all the same stems mainly from several reasons, the most important of which is the critical moment, when Qaani assumed command of the Quds Force in January 2020, which showed him as if he had no clear program in Iraq. He revealed that the Iranian regime was not prepared primarily to deal with an issue of the scale of Soleimani’s assassination, or even to arrange the Iranian strategic priorities in Iraq after his assassination.


It is clear that Qaani’s lack of a clear vision and perception of the Iraqi situation, with what that situation has of interactions, currents, and fluctuations, along with his lack of a supporting figure in Iraq, as was the case with the commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and the role al-Muhandis played alongside Soleimani. All the foregoing are variables that were -somehow- reflected on the role of Qaani at the first place, then on the IRGC regarding how to manage the Shia Shiite conflict in Iraq. It seems that Iran recently chose to monitor the Iraqi situation, without directly intervening in it, especially after the Coordinative Framework forces were able to break through the stalemate in the political arena, due to the strong reactions shown by Sadr and his current against the Iranian role, and the subsequent anti-Iranian slogans "Iran will not rule Iraq" raised by the October demonstrators in their recent protests in Baghdad early October.

With the major transformations that took place in the leadership after the killing of Soleimani, and with the emergence of a domestic conflict between the Shiite camp caused by seeking to obtain a high position in Iraq, Iran has become facing clear fears of depleting the military and human capacity of the armed factions associated with it in a conflict with Sadr, especially since Iran has made financial and armament efforts in supporting and backing these factions, to be as they are today. Such fears came with constant calls by Sadr to dissolve these factions, and confine their weapons to the hands of the state, which are calls explicitly expressed by Sadr on several occasions.

In spite that Sadr was relatively successful in changing the rules of the political game, he still does not have the upper hand in Iraq yet: In late August, the Shiite religious leader, Kazem al-Haeri announced his retirement from religious leadership and traditional work, demanding that his followers should follow Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, not al-Sadr. Although there is no evidence that Haeri’s move was coordinated by Iran, it tended to weaken the Sadrist movement, especially their leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who derived his legitimate cover from al-Haeri.

However, Sadr’s camp is still resisting, as Sadr, through his opposition to Iranian behavior, is trying to extract Iranian recognition of the centrality of Shiite representation. However, what is currently happening reflects a great disappointment that Sadr is facing, as he aspired to be resorted to by Iran after the assassination of Soleimani, in order to manage the Iraqi situation. Instead, Iran resorted to other local leaders, as well as activating the role of Hezbollah’s leader, Hasan Nasrallah, inside Iraq. Besides, Sadr believes in the need to preserve the duality of "Qom and Najaf", Iran should not change this equation. Perhaps this is what is illustrated by al-Sadr’s statement after the retirement of al-Haeri, that the Shiite authority is in Najaf, not in Qom.

While Sadr faces major obstacles in his way today, Iran seems eager to situate itself on the sidelines and just watch, at least for now. Iran’s allies have dominated the political landscape, suggesting that the current dynamics in Iraq continue to lead, in one way or another, to a reshaping of the Shiite and Iraqi political landscape, in a way that serves Iran’s interests and influence in Iraq.

On the ground, the rift between Sadr and Iran is most evident through the slogans and chants raised by Sadrist supporters, including "neither eastern nor western" which means "neither Iran nor America", as well as the slogan "No to subordination" which means armed factions related to Iran. Given this tense environment, Tehran is still betting on letting Iraq’s internal conflict take shape, without exerting influence over it. Moreover, Tehran can still use Sadr as a source of power in Iraq, especially if the Shiite situation is subjected to a common external threat: Even Sadr’s Iraqi nationalist slogan may not necessarily mean anti-Iran, but rather a reconfiguration of Iran’s role in Iraq, in a way that makes Sadr an independent rather than a follower of Iran.

Iran’s Allies Dominate the Political Landscape

The ability of the Coordinative Framework to engage in a new coalition, the State Administration Coalition, reflects a shift in the nature of Iran’s role in Iraq, as the Coalition was able to overcome the political deadlock in the country since the parliamentary elections in 2021. The Sadrist movement is excluded from the Coalition, which means -in one way or another- that the Coordination Framework will be the strongest party in the Coalition. Even with the independence of the new government, and its president, from dependence to either of the crisis parties, or being independent from Iran itself, but many components of the Coordination Framework are allies of Iran, and potentially are seeking to control the most important security, military, and oil institutions in Iraq, in a way that seems disturbing to many regional and international parties, as the Coordinative Framework’s success in achieving this control and ensuring its sustainability will represent a rare opportunity for Tehran to influence power for a long time, compensating for the recent years, in which Iran’s influence in Iraqi life has declined relatively after the assassination of Soleimani.

Although Iran seems to be the most profitable regional party from overcoming the political impasse, it is also afraid of such situation, as the Iraqi public opinion is still living in a state of tension due to the accumulated economic and social crises. The continuation of such crises may mean the renewal of protests and confrontations on the ground, in a way that may make Iran lose what remains of political influence, in addition to the fact that Iran is not yet welcoming the idea that the forces of the Coordinative Framework will proceed alone in managing the political scene independently from Sadr.

Iran is well aware that Sadr’s presence in the political process is better for it than his presence outside this process, because Sadr will be a partner in its success or failure, for Iran today seems unprepared -due to domestic and foreign reasons- to face a new popular wave in Iraq, that may endanger its overall political influence therein, especially in light of the protest movement escalation inside Iran, on the background of the killing of the Iranian Kurdish citizen; Mahsa Amini, by the Iranian Morality Police, as she violated the conditions for wearing the hijab.


In light of this complex political situation in Iraq, Iran considers that betting on the forces of the Coordinative Framework, in the implementation of the Iranian mission in Iraq, seems very confused. Tehran is trying currently to find a new political path that serves its political vision in Iraq, as Iran is very interested in the size of its influence in Iraq, as Iraq’s position is a regional bridge that feeds its role in Syria and Lebanon. Therefore, Iran is trying to adapt Iraqi political variables, in a way that makes them more of an opportunity than a threat.

Iran may be the most prominent party in the upcoming Iraqi political equation, especially since the Coordinative Framework emerged victorious from the crisis, after its success in bringing the Kurds and Sunnis to participate in the equation of power, despite Sadr did not participate in the government. However, Iran will try to contain Sadr, and prevent him from being provoked, first in order to avoid aggravating the scene again, and also in order to secure its influence in Iraq secondly, away from any surprises that Sadr or the October forces may make in the next stage.

The Future of Iran’s Role in Light of the Current Stage

As far as studying the future possibilities of Iran’s role in Iraq is of great importance, as it will determine the shape of domestic, regional, and international interactions in Iraq, their repercussions, subsequent consequences, their repercussions on the overall relations whether negatively or positively, and at their various levels "Iraqi, regional, and international".

First: The Scenario of The Status Quo Continuation

This likely scenario assumes the continuation of the Iranian role in Iraq, in the same political, strategic, and security form, due to the continuation of the same variables affecting this role, specifically related to the Iraqi and Iranian domestic arenas. Despite the success of Iran’s allies in controlling the political scene, but the possibility of maintaining this control faces many challenges, which indicates that Iran will remain oscillating in Iraq at the foreseeable level, and that the possibility of securing Iran’s influence and the future of its allies remains undecided, until the final features of the current political landscape are clear. 

Second: The Scenario of The Iranian Role Success in Iraq

This possible scenario assumes the success of the Iranian role in Iraq, based on the premise that the Iranian influence, through security and political decisions, the absence of a regional competitor, the containment of domestic opposition, the rise of its political ally, and the possibility of international consensus, may increase the chances of its success in Iraq. There are a number of indicators that indicate the possibility of Iranian role success in Iraq at various levels, especially if Iran seeks to support these indicators to make its project in Iraq and the region a success, in order to preserve its geostrategic interests, and strengthen its regional hegemony.

Third: The Scenario of Iranian Role Failure in Iraq

This unlikely scenario assumes that Iran’s role in Iraq will fail, based on the premise that the increasing domestic, Iraqi, Iranian, regional, and international variables against Iran will push its strategy in Iraq to face a set of challenges and brakes, which in turn will lead to an increase in the obstacles Iran faces, the matter that may lead to its failure. Therefore, it can be said that the Iranian role, under these considerations will falter or contract inside Iraq, turning Iran from an influential state to a secondary state.


The Iranian role in Iraq, within the assumptions of strategic precautions, aims to ensure and protect the requirements of national security, and maintain the integrity of Iran’s vital interests. This role involves some different strategic goals and priorities, which are all aimed at achieving the supreme national interest in Iraq, through political influence, economic control, and the reduction of regional competitors, as well as ending the double game with the United States in Iraq, which goals and priorities that began to be strongly present in the features of the Iranian role in Iraq.

Iran entered a significant transformation after the assassination of Soleimani, such transformation was a new Iranian approach to overcome the challenges it faces in Iraq, whether those challenges emanating from inside Iraq, or resulting from the regional and international competition with Iran. Despite the advantages that Iran has in Iraq; Iran’s efforts in Iraq were not without hinders, its strategy also faced many affecting changes, most notably the escalation of the political and social crisis against Iran, besides Iran’s stumbling in containing the crises repercussions.

Iran is aware that its position in Iraq is facing major political challenges at the current stage, so it will push strategically towards reproducing a new Iranian position in Iraq, serving its influence and interests, by supporting the efforts of its allies in controlling the political scene, as well as consolidating the idea of Iraq’s association with Iran economically, commercially, and in the field of energy, in a way that ends any possibility of creating a domestic or regional situation hostile to it in Iraq in the next stage.


Dr. Firas Elias

Academic and researcher in strategic affairs and national security