Iraqi Prime Minister Hayder al Abadi arrived in Tehran today to meet with senior Iranian government officials. Among them was Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has the final word on all Iranian foreign policy matters. Abadi’s trip follows a meeting with Saudi officials in Riyadh, and he is slated to visit Kuwait. While Iranian and Iraqi officials vowed to boost ties and trade, Khamenei also emphasized that he intends to bolster Tehran’s presence in the Iraqi state via proxies.
Khamenei told Abadi that he wants the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) – a conglomeration of Iraqi militias that was enshrined as an official part of the Iraqi state last year – to remain in Iraq. There has been some discussion about whether the PMF would dissolve following the Mosul campaign. Figures backed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) hold key positions and are the dominant formations in the PMF.
The PMF is an “important and blessed phenomenon,” Khamenei stressed. “The reason the Americans oppose the popular forces is because they want Iraq to lose its important factor of strength,” he told Abadi.
The Iranian Supreme Leader praised the PMF as a “great wealth” during a meeting with national alliance leader Ammar al Hakim last year. In a meeting with Abadi in 2015, Khamenei also lauded the PMF, claiming it has “great potential” for “the future of progress of Iraq in different arenas.” By this, Khamenei likely meant that he wanted to see the PMF serve a more expansive role in the state.
The PMF formed in 2014 following Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s fatwa to drive the Islamic State from Iraq (though Sistani later clarified that he intended to strengthen Iraqi security forces, not legitimize paramilitary groups). IRGC commanders were influential in the formation of the PMF and still have great influence within it. IRGC operatives have been embedded in the PMF, including during the Mosul campaign.
The Iraqi prime minister is not inclined to abide by Khamenei’s call to reduce America’s presence in Iraq. The supreme leader called on Abadi not to “trust the Americans” and said he should not permit the US troop presence in Iraq. Khamenei wants to diminish or eliminate US influence in Iraq and for Abadi to move farther away from his Western ally. Earlier in the year, however, Abadi secured US assurance of continued support.
Khamenei also praised the arrival of Iraqi forces near the Syrian border, calling it “a strategic and big move.” IRGC-backed forces are attempting to maximize gains and link fighters in the Syrian-Iraqi border area. This route would facilitate the movement of manpower and material between Iran and the Levant after a nearly six-year break. It would also back up Iran’s air bridge. The effort to secure the route, however, faces significant obstacles, including US military actions and an area laden with hostile insurgents.
Khamenei, as well as President Hassan Rouhani, have voiced their support for Iraq’s territorial integrity and opposition to a Kurdish referendum. Khamenei was quite explicit in this regard.
Abadi wants to keep good ties with Iran, Saudi Arabia and the US and avoid an escalation of the Iranian-Saudi proxy war into Iraq. A published readout did not include Abadi’s comments on the PMF. But he did thank Khamenei for Iran’s support during the war with the Islamic State, saying “we need the Islamic Republic’s support during the post-DAESH [Islamic State] stage that is the stage of stability and peace and construction.” This reflects Abadi’s goal to keep Iraq stable for reconstruction and control violence. According to Reuters, Abadi recently criticized the IRGC-controlled elements of the PMF that kidnapped Qatari royals as part of a multi-million dollar ransom scheme. But he has been unable to rein them in.
Today’s meeting highlights the continued hostility of Khamenei toward the US and his goal to assert Tehran’s presence in Iraq using the vehicle of the PMF. Many Guard-backed elements seek to translate their military successes into political influence as Iraq faces city council and parliamentary elections tentatively scheduled in the next year. Abadi is in the unenviable position of overseeing Iraq post-Mosul, balancing between competing powers as he faces elections and the Kurdish referendum vote.