The U.S.’s assassination of Qassem Soleimani on January 3, 2020 sent shockwaves throughout the Middle East. Some have averred that the notorious Iranian general’s demise (along with the U.S.’s inadvertent killing of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Soleimani’s right-hand man in Iraq) has not only “re-established deterrence” against the Tehran regime but potentially and gravely stunted its revolutionary expansionism. If this, in fact, proves to be the case, then the end of Soleimani may be one of the most strategically consequential events for Iraqis and others under unwanted Iranian pressure since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. However, it will be a while before the full implications of Soleimani’s downfall are known. The Middle East is still in a state of upheaval, and the regional contestation for power and influence is still unfolding. At the same time, the proxy network that Soleimani oversaw is now undergoing a process of reflection and revision. Thus, years may pass before we can fully appraise the extent to which Soleimani’s network will recover from the loss of its towering patron.
Revolutionary Iran has achieved scores of victories in recent years in multiple conflict arenas—notably in Syria, where Iran’s proxies have secured the survival of the Bashar al-Assad regime. In fact, during the past two decades, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has managed to exploit Middle Eastern upheaval and dramatically expand its power for a particular reason: It has spent the years since the 1979 Islamic Revolution systematically nurturing and dedicating resources to armed groups that enhance the regime’s influence in the region while weakening its rivals. That amounts to four decades of experience, trial and error, and the perfecting of asymmetric warfare capabilities which Iran’s rivals are still struggling to match. And General Soleimani, as the leader of the IRGC’s Quds Force, had played a central if not indispensable role in making all this happen.
Lebanon’s Hezbollah was established in the 1980s and constitutes a formidable sub-state force in Lebanon—one which devised the playbook for surrogate warfare and self-governance. That playbook has been instrumental for other proxies in the Arab and Islamic world, and this is especially so in Iraq. There, Iranian proxies subvert, dominate and influence state institutions and had done so with the guiding hand and oversight of Soleimani. At the same time, tens of thousands of fighters fall under the direct command of Iranian proxies within the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF). The PMF, a 100,000-strong umbrella militia organization, was formed in 2014 to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the Iraqi army after ISIS seized Mosul. Certainly, Iran’s widespread production of proxies has exponentially grown since the onset of the war on ISIS and the Syrian civil war. Soleimani had provided these disparate groups and fighters with both a sense of purpose and sense of direction amid a highly fractious political environment and highly volatile region.
Now, Iraq could be the first and most immediate arena in which the revolutionary regime in Tehran will be forced to deal with the consequences of Soleimani’s loss. Since the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, Iraq has been the main locus of Iranian proxy outreach and warfare. In recent years, one inadvertent effect of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran has been to further bolster the significance of Iraq to Iran’s regional strategy. Today, Iraq and its institutions, together with its informal economy, generates hundreds of millions of dollars for the Tehran regime’s coffers every month. Iran’s subversion of Baghdad’s formal and informal economic structures has effectively made Iraq the “lung” through which revolutionary Iran “breathes” even in the midst of unprecedented domestic political and economic crises.
In other words, Iraq may well be the battleground on which the fate of the Islamic Republic and its revolution will be determined. In this respect, the assassination of Soleimani warrants close examination to determine if and how it may upend the expansive Shiite militia network Iran has cultivated in Iraq and elsewhere over the past fifteen years. This network includes combatants, socio-cultural actors, and institutions that form a landscape built on the Shiite faith, including the notion of Shiite supremacism and anti-U.S. sentiments.
Iraq’s Shiite Militias
Iran’s proxies in Iraq are the product of both history and sheer luck. Its country-wide network of combatants is comprised largely of impoverished Shiites—a demographic that has been on the margins of Iraqi society for centuries. These fighters gained increased prominence when Iraq emerged bankrupt and in ruins from two disastrous and costly wars. Saddam Hussein turned to religious leaders and tribes to maintain his rule over the country after the First Gulf War in 1990. That conflict followed Iraq’s devastating eight-year war with Iran, launched in 1980.
Bruised but not defeated, in 1991 Saddam faced a major uprising in the country, at one point losing control of at least fourteen of Iraq’s eighteen provinces. Under the protection of the internationally enforced no-fly zone, the Kurdish provinces of Erbil, Sulaymaniah and Dohuk ultimately emerged from this uprising to become self-administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
As it fought to maintain power over Baghdad and the predominantly Shiite south, the Sunni-dominated Baath regime essentially outsourced security and order to communal actors like tribes and clerics. Saddam’s most consequential decision was to promote Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr as a marja ’—that is, a source to be followed by the Shia faithful—and to make him the head of the Shiite religious establishment in Najaf. This flew in the face of the consensus’ choice of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is today recognized as the marja’ and Grand Ayatollah of the Hawza in Najaf. Sadeq al-Sadr was a useful candidate for the Baathist regime because of his strained ties with the Iraqi Shiite opposition and clerical establishment. His elevation by Saddam fractured the already weakened Shiite opposition, which was struggling to recover and regroup following its losses during the uprising.
Sadeq al-Sadr became an important leader and source of respite for millions of Shiites who were mired in destitution and repression. The cleric galvanised and oversaw an expansive network that provided social services throughout Baghdad and the Shiite south. This was particularly important in the hinterlands where disease was rampant and medical care was sparse. Sadeq al-Sadr’s mobilization of Iraq’s destitute Shiites, a community that had long been disparaged as an underclass, paved the way for their transformation into a powerful constituency and political force. This came to be known as the Sadrist movement.
After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the movement came to be led by Muqtada al-Sadr, Sadeq al-Sadr’s son, and it established its own armed wing known as the Mahdi Army. The Mahdi Army played a central role in fuelling Iraq’s devastating sectarian conflict, battling the U.S.-led coalition and Iraq’s conventional forces like the military and police, and engaging in criminal activities. The Sadrists were thus responsible for scores of atrocities against Iraqi civilians and hundreds of U.S. and British military fatalities and casualties.
The Sadrist organization itself was vast. It drew much of its operational capacity from localized and communal structures, making it difficult for Iraq’s central government to establish any control over it and difficult for the central leadership to maintain their grip on the movement’s array of commanders and fighters. This was especially true when conflict in Iraq reached its peak after the 2006 civil war. The Mahdi Army consequently spawned some of the militia groups that currently feature prominently in the Iraqi political and security landscape. This included Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which was established after 2006 as a splinter of the Sadrist movement, thanks to personal and organizational disputes between its leader, Qais al-Khazali, and Muqtada al-Sadr. Many of the Mahdi Army’s commanders have since transitioned to other militia groups that currently operate as part of larger organisations. This includes Asaib Ahl al-Haq and rag-tag localised criminal groups that simultaneously operate today as part of the Popular Mobilization Forces alongside Iraqi state forces.
It is precisely this fragmented and disorderly environment that has produced—and reproduced—indigenous militia groups in Iraq that enjoy local legitimacy—and that Iran has managed to control and influence for its own gain. Iran has cultivated many of these Iraqi militias into semi-professional, disciplined and resource-rich fighters. This is not to suggest that Iran’s influence and control over the militias is impervious, or that the relationship between patron and proxy is entirely coherent or institutionalized. But Iranian influence among Iraqi Shiite militias has been helped by a common ideological outlook, premised on Shiite supremacism and revolutionary opposition to Western “imperialism.” It is underscored by the history and sense of injustice and victimhood among Shiite communities both in Iraq and the region. The existential threat presented by jihadi groups like ISIS has reinforced the socio-cultural, political and ideological nexus that enables precisely the sort of infrastructure that Iran depends on to cultivate its ties with Shiite militia groups, while exploiting and playing on the fears and destitution within the broader Shiite community.
Iran’s development of proxies in Iraq was also helped by its foremost and preeminent partner, the Badr Brigade, to which it outsourced responsibility for managing its fractious proxy network. The Badr Brigade constitutes the frontline of Iran’s proxy network in Iraq and served as a stepping-stone for the Islamic Republic’s efforts to establish and enable the ascendancy of other powerful militias. These include Ketaib Hezbollah, formed after 2003; its leader was a commander in the Badr Brigade in the 1980s. Likewise, Sayyid al-Shuhada was formed in 2013 by Iran for combat operations in Iraq and Syria and was led by former members of the Badr Brigade.
The Badr Brigade is arguably Iraq’s most powerful militia because it has more active frontline fighters than any other militia. Formed as the armed wing of a political movement established in the 1980s, the organisation has been heavily integrated into state security forces over the past decade. Its head, Hadi al-Ameri, has held ministerial posts, as have other senior members of the Badr leadership. Despite its inclusion in the post-2003 political order, the Badr Brigade has retained its capacity to function autonomously. This flexibility exemplifies the multiple identities and complexities that define Iraq’s Shiite militia groups. The Badr Brigade, for instance, engages with international actors and it has cooperated militarily with the U.S., but it also exhibits strong ties to Iran.
Shiite militias have been contained and suppressed. They once had their backs to the wall in Iraq, especially after the U.S. troop surge in 2006. Alongside the U.S.-trained Iraqi army, American forces inflicted heavy casualties on Shiite militia insurgents across the country, particularly in Basra, where the 2008 Charge of the Knights operation resulted in their biggest military defeat, forcing many militia commanders into exile in Iran. Meanwhile, the sizeable U.S. troop presence in Iraq had strained the resources available to many militias and suppressed their capacity to contest for political power. The U.S.’s political allies in government and throughout the country relied on the U.S. to help keep the militias on the margins of power and politics. The U.S. presence had also provided critical protection that insulated the Shiite and other Iraqi civic groups that opposed malign Iranian influence and which Iran had sought to weaken or eliminate.
However, after the 2011 U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, this situation was upended. Hundreds of battle-hardened commanders returned to Iraq from Iran and re-mobilised their fighters and supporters to contest the void left by the withdrawal. Moreover, the exit of U.S. forces removed the single most important political leverage America had in Iraq. And, with the U.S. gone, resurgent militias like Asaib ahl al-Haq were increasingly empowered to act with relative impunity, while Iran and men like Soleimani gained a freer hand.
One further political consequence of this was to diminish the incentives for Iraqis to strive for inclusive governance. Iraq’s former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, brazenly suppressed his Arab Sunni rivals while expanding the government’s indiscriminate detention of Arab Sunni citizens. In 2010, a predominantly Arab Sunni coalition, Iraqiyah, won the parliamentary elections but was then side-lined by Maliki’s State of Law coalition. This faction was able to muster support from other like-minded groups to form a coalition government, even though it finished second.
While the new government, led by Maliki, included Iraqiyah politicians, promises to them were not kept. They were not afforded opportunities to serve in powerful positions such as Minister of Defence or the presidency. They were also excluded from a proposed national security council that would be led by an Arab Sunni, but which never materialized. Maliki and his coalition dealt a devastating blow to sectarian relations in Iraq. It effectively confirmed Arab Sunni perceptions of marginalization; meanwhile, it emboldened those segments of the Arab Sunni community that advocated the use of violence and even insurgency. Most notably, Maliki’s decisions and mismanagement of the country paved the way for the social and political conditions that enabled the rise of Islamic State in 2014.
The heavy combat presence of militias after the 2011 U.S. withdrawal further incentivized members of Iraq’s political class to seek to co-opt these groups. They noted the muscle and localized popular support the groups enjoyed and saw it as an opportunity to reinforce their own political standing. In turn, Maliki, provided them with state resources, including funding, fleets of Land Cruisers and permits that allowed them to roam Baghdad, including in its heavily guarded green-zone, virtually unimpeded. Ultimately, Maliki’s sectarian rule and mismanagement resulted in arguably the country’s biggest calamity in its history. In June 2014, the Iraqi army collapsed after ISIS seized Mosul and declared its so-called caliphate. The opportunity that this then presented to Iran’s proxies was arguably beyond the imagination of even the most audacious and ambitious of Shiite militia groups. Their moment had arrived.
When the Iraqi army collapsed, tens of thousands of fighters and volunteers mobilized in response to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s fatwa on June 13, 2014, appealing to all able-bodied Iraqis to defend their country. The umbrella militia organization known as the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), was established in response. While Ayatollah Sistani’s fatwa was a call to arms issued to the country at-large, it was inevitable that operationally active and expansive Shiite militia groups would fill the PMF with their own fighters. This presented Iran and its proxies with a further opening to penetrate Iraq’s national and local governing structures. Soleimani duly seized on this opportunity.
The PMF, on the surface, is a state-sanctioned organization that was eventually institutionalised toward the end of 2016 by former prime minister, Haidar al-Abadi, of the Islamic Dawa Party. It was also meant to be folded into the Iraqi security services. But, in reality, the PMF came to be led and dominated by Iran-aligned militia groups. These fighters owned both battlefield experience and organizational discipline, making them capable of commanding the tens of thousands of the volunteers that had heeded Sistani’s call to arms.
Buoyed by the popular support they gained during the war on ISIS, the PMF moved to contest for political power in Iraq’s 2018 parliamentary elections. The so-called PMF list, also known as the Fatih (Conquest) alliance, was led by the same Iran-aligned groups that lead the PMF. Taken together, these actors reported to Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the head of the Ketaib Hezbollah, and, in many ways, the de facto head of the PMF organization. The PMF list won 48 of 329 seats, an impressive second place for their electoral debut. That political success added to the impressive array of formal and informal political and economic resources that have fallen to the PMF’s control. This includes access to the Iraqi national budget, which has allocated to the PMF organization more than $2 billion since 2016.
The Shiite militia network in Iraq is impressive. It is underpinned by an array of informal socio-political, cultural and security structures which emerged in the post-2003 chaos. The relationships between the main factions and their leaders—including men like Soleimani and Muhandis—have been historically tied through links of friendship, kinship and revolutionary camaraderie. Soleimani had been at the forefront of Iran’s effort to build and expand a proxy network, in part because he was head of the Quds Force since the 1990s but in large because of the personal relationships he had fostered with Arab commanders and political leaders who, like him, have been on the frontlines of the Iranian “export of revolution” since 1979.
Indeed, Soleimani did not and could not have managed Iran’s Shiite militia network in Iraq alone. Muhandis has been described as Soleimani’s right-hand man and a formidable political operator. He was more operationally integrated into the IRGC than any of Iran’s other partners and proxies in Iraq. As head of the PMF and the powerful militia group Ketaib Hezbollah, Muhandis played a critical role in enhancing Iran’s influence over the Iraqi political system. In other words, as it has done with Hezbollah in different conflict terrains such as Lebanon and Syria, Iran also outsourced some of its local security requirements to Muhandis, just as it had done with Hadi al-Ameri, the leader of the Badr organisation.
Iran has tens of thousands of fighters under its command in Iraq. The sheer size of this network and the relative nascency of the PMF requires leadership combining strong personality traits and operational experience. Equally important is leveraging such military prowess in the political arena. Muhandis will be missed because he possessed such skills.
Whereas Soleimani was responsible for managing and maintaining Iran’s vast network of militias in the region at-large, Muhandis was a key Iraqi pillar in this network. As head of the PMF and Ketaib Hezbollah, Muhandis was critical to harnessing the organization’s military superiority along with its widespread popular following. This was essential to the protection and enhancement of Iran’s influence over the Iraqi political system.
But, like any organization that is defined and shaped by multiple, powerful personalities, these internal relations are in regular need of management and maintenance. This is especially true in an environment as volatile and unpredictable as Iraq’s. And this has become ever more the case in the midst of the constraints and intensifying political tumult that has resulted from the U.S.’s “maximum pressure campaign” against the Iranian regime. The higher the stakes, the more the internal relationships within the network are strained. Soleimani and Muhandis were in effect unifying figures and ensured Iran’s proxies kept their eyes on the horizon and longer-term strategic objectives, as opposed to distractive day-to-day politics. However, if such a network is underpinned and underscored by a clique of personalities who effectively constitute the network’s lynchpin, then the elimination of these individuals throws the network into disarray. This should not come as a surprise. This vulnerability, inherent in Shiite militia politics, is essentially the backdrop against which many of Iran’s most powerful proxies have emerged. So it was that the core group—the lynchpin of this network—took a second serious hit when Muhandis was also inadvertently killed alongside Qassem Soleimani.
In this sense, the Shiite militia network’s strengths have also become its weaknesses. Rather than being governed institutionally, the network has functioned more flexibly in accordance with highly personalized internal politics and the leadership of key personnel like Soleimani and Muhandis. A series of marked splits have emerged since their deaths. The succession process within Ketaib Hezbollah has been particularly dismal and counterproductive. Abdul Aziz al-Mohammedawi was announced as Muhandis’ successor, to serve as both head of Ketaib Hezbollah and head of the PMF. That decision has not received unanimous support within the organization. Some groups are in disagreement with him and with other prominent figures over the allocation of resources, disputing whether they should go toward political or military activities.
Meanwhile, Ketaib Hebzollah and the Badr organization are now in direct competition to fill the vacuum left by Muhandis. They are seeking to position themselves with sufficient influence to shape the post-Muhandis and post-Soleimani militia landscape. This comes in the midst of a political crisis precipitated by Iraq’s protests and a steep decline in oil prices, which have plunged Iraq into its worst crisis since ISIS seized Mosul in 2014 and constrained the resources these groups would otherwise exploit.
In mid-March 2020, a number of PMF factions aligned with Ayatollah Sistani and who have traditionally resisted Iran’s influence—but were compelled to operate within the ambit of the Iran-dominated PMF in the midst of the threat from ISIS—withdrew from the PMF organization and moved to place themselves under the authority of the Iraqi armed forces. This move was significant; the PMF and the blessing it had initially received from Sistani had provided Iran-backed proxies with a cover of Iraqi nationalism and patriotism as well as religious legitimacy. Iran’s proxies had exploited this to expand their support bases and political tentacles. But the withdrawal of the Sistani-aligned factions from the PMF has left the Iran-backed proxies with limited religious cover and it may have diminished their political reach. The PMF organization itself is on its way to becoming an IRGC outlet in all but name, and Iraqi public opinion has begun to turn against it as a result of the complicity of Iran’s proxies in the brutal suppression of protestors in recent months. This reality, in time, may compel other low-ranking fighters and cadres in the PMF to withdraw from the organization, which would reduce the ranks of the PMF and diminish the ability of its Iran-aligned leadership to demand a substantial portion of the Iraqi national budget.
Indeed, the task of maintaining and directing large and complicated network of proxies and influencers is evidently difficult enough for Iran, and this was made all the more challenging as a result of Muhandis’s assassination. The political space in Iraq is highly congested, difficult to navigate and particularly problematic to manage. This was exemplified by Soleimani’s constant shuttling between Baghdad and Tehran in the weeks before his demise—the result of the political crisis precipitated by anti-government—and anti-Iranian—reform protests. This fractious environment will not be helped over the coming months by the fact that Soleimani’s successor, Esmail Ghaani, remains untested, lacks the same long-standing ties to the PMF leadership, and does not have a strong command of Arabic.
These are also perilous times for Iraq’s Shiite militias. For the first time in many years, Tehran and its proxies can no longer bank on the predictability of U.S. policy. That uncertainty has resulted in considerable discomfort within and between Iraq’s rival Shiite political factions, who are all armed to the teeth and have a history of violent conflict against one another. Iraq’s Shiite militias have been moving toward the precipice of a major confrontation for a while. The threat perception among these groups is embodied in a palpable fear of becoming displaced or weakened by rivals, who seek to exploit the fallout over Soleimani’s death.
Still Iran’s to Lose
Soleimani’s importance and his impressive record of overseeing Iran’s proxy network was not rooted solely in the combat capabilities of these forces. More remarkably, he managed to keep them functional as a proxy network despite immense internal fragmentation, tensions and disputes. Iraqi officials speak of his impeccable capacity to use a combination of charm, charisma and coercion to achieve IRGC objectives. But equally useful in his toolkit was his skill to settle disputes between and among factions. These personal characteristics were especially crucial for the IRGC. And today, the vast majority of the fighters that are deployed by Iran in the region do not possess the same history of friendship and camaraderie that Soleimani and other IRGC personnel shared with a very select group of commanders in the Arab world.
That said, while this network may have been bruised and bloodied, it has not been defeated and remains largely Iran’s to lose. It will be a while until Esmail Ghaani’s true credentials and capabilities become evident, and the IRGC’s Quds Force still retains a number of comparatively distinct advantages. Unlike the rotating cast of American officials and military leaders, Soleimani enjoyed the authority that only a long-term presence can win. He also had substantial autonomy and was not required to answer to politicians and bureaucrats back home. Moreover, the military dimension of Iranian influence in countries like Iraq contributes to its strategic depth. Iran has operated on the basis of a one (weak) state but two systems formula. This has proved conducive to establishing alternative governing structures that only Iran can form, shape and ultimately utilize to determine national policy in its neighbouring countries.
It will be particularly difficult to either dislodge or eliminate Iran’s proxy network in Iraq because of the diverse range of power centers that underpin it. Iran’s influence in places like Iraq is shaped by the Shiite faith. Iran builds social and religious networks centered on Shiism and support for Iran’s theocracy—or, at least, on the widely held view that revolutionary Iran stands for liberating or empowering Iraq’s marginalized and oppressed Shiite groupings. This is not to suggest that there is a blind loyalty to Iran based on Shiite Islam or Shiite Islamism. But, along with its proxies, Iran plays on and exploits the fears of the region’s Shiite communities through sophisticated propaganda. Many of these communities believe their faith and very existence are threatened by hostile countries that want to keep them down as well as by Sunni jihadi groups that consider them to be heretics.
Ideology, however, is only one part of the equation. Iran does not simply opportunistically back or deploy proxies as other states do. Like its rivals, Iran discards militias or cancels its support of them as it deems necessary. But, unlike its rivals, Tehran has excelled at inventing and re-inventing proxies. Iran has a demonstrated ability to exploit divisions among movements that challenge its interests. And its shrewd and honed capacities for picking winners has been evident in the formation of some of its most preeminent proxies.
Iran cultivated a powerful militia network in the region that was personally overseen by Soleimani. And the loss of an exceptional combatant and political operator constituted a huge loss for a network that depends on personalized politics and symbolism as much as operational acumen. Nonetheless, it was also the case that the tide of conflict had already overwhelmingly shifted in Iran’s favor at the time of the assassination.
In Syria, the Bashar al-Assad regime was empowered and reinforced by Iran’s proxies as early as 2012. At that time, Hezbollah entered the fray and subsequently secured vital strategic victories for the Damascus regime, alongside regime forces and tens of thousands of other Iranian proxies deployed from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since the regime’s 2016 victory in Aleppo, Iran has moved to consolidate Assad’s dominance in other parts of the country. Today, together with Russia, Assad may be on his way to achieving a full-fledged victory.
In Iraq, by the time Soleimani was assassinated, Iran had already secured unparalleled influence and control over key decision-making structures. It had cultivated a plethora of Iraqi proxy groups that, under the watchful eye of the U.S., had evolved into major political actors that control and dominate ministries. They hold seats in parliament and have access to budgets and local economies worth hundreds of millions of dollars every month. Iraqis will tell you that Soleimani was more than just a commander. He was also a mediator, friend and executioner rolled into one. And in Iraq, Soleimani and his deputies honed their carrots-and-sticks approach to managing, directing and cultivating militia groups. This effectively created the infrastructure that has been so crucial to Iran’s deployments elsewhere in the Arab world, in places like Syria and Yemen.
While this network may have been bruised and bloodied by Soleimani’s demise, it has not been defeated and remains Iran’s to lose. The regime is indeed under pressure, but it is resilient, and its regional expansionism shows no signs of being in decline. Countries like Iraq—and soon, Syria—constitute the leading edge of Iran’s proxy infrastructure, including critical conduits through which the regime can circumvent sanctions or mitigate their impact. As a result, Iran will double-down on its efforts to consolidate influence in these countries. It will also combine its strong political presence with coercion and intimidation. However, Tehran will also be careful to not overplay its hand, exercising the strategic patience that has secured its considerable gains in recent years. This comes about amid a series of American miscalculations, U.S. paralysis in Syria and Iraq, and the possibility of a new administration after November.
Meanwhile, Iran’s proxy network is in actuality a diverse range of power centers that underpin it. This makes it particularly difficult, even implausible, that a country like Iraq will either dislodge or eliminate it anytime soon. The Tehran regime has strongly positioned itself to mitigate the vulnerabilities to its de facto empire. For Iran, the loss of Soleimani meant the loss of personalized relationships he had built over decades, and it may be many years before Iran can truly replace him. But it is also true that the key centers of power, and the modalities that shape Iran’s proxy network, are able to function and operate with deadly impact even without Soleimani or direct Iranian patronage.
Iran has expended vast resources empowering community leaders (who, like military commanders, can shape and influence militia groups) and investing in Iraq’s bottom-up politics. Rather than simply directing its resources toward winning influence in national politics, Iran has a palpable presence within Shiite communal networks that are comprised of powerful charitable institutions that receive funds through religious donations from around the world. These religious networks are worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
A fundamental aspect of Shiite political mobilization is the role of religion. Shiite activism in Iraq has historically been wedded to the Shiite clerical establishment. Shiite militias depend on the clerics for legitimacy, and have strived to align their discourse and intellectual output with those of the seminaries. Religious sermons facilitate the dissemination of political and social goals. Hence, Iran is equally focused on dominating the socio-religious space within the seminaries of Najaf and Karbala to influence Shiite doctrinal thought and to secure its hold on one of the central pillars of Shiite mobilization.
That is particularly important amid the pushback Iran has received from Najaf and Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who has historically been averse to Iranian encroachment in Iraq. Many do worry that the eventual passing of Ayatollah Sistani, who is now 89 years old, could pave the way for an expanded attempt by Iran to shape the Shiite socio-religious landscape in Najaf and Karbala. In all likelihood, however, unwanted Iranian influence will continue to face significant resistance from Shiite religious and political figures in Iraq for years to come. At the same time, Iran’s proxies in Iraq have the potential to outgrow their sponsors. In the case of Hezbollah in Lebanon, this has to some extent already taken place. In conflict theatres across the region—Syria and Iraq in particular—Hezbollah has developed the operational capacity to command the conflict landscape. This has made Hezbollah indispensable to Tehran, rather than the other way around. Likewise, it is plausible that malign Shiite militias will continue to emerge in Iraq quite independent of a now diminished Iran, and that these groups will nonetheless give Iran new opportunities to expand its influence in Iraq.
The conventional American approach has focused on rebuilding Iraqi national governing and security institutions to countering Iran and suppressing the space in which malign militia groups operate. In this, it is an inconvenient reality that the U.S. risks state-building for and on behalf of Iran—not for Iraqis—since Tehran’s proxies have far-reaching political influence and their tentacles are firmly entrenched in local decision-making and governing institutions. Instead, the United States should make every effort to understand Iraq as it actually is and aim to build local political allies while strengthening existing ones. This will open new pathways for the systematic and long-term reduction of malign Iranian influence. And, in doing so, political and civic groups in Iraq that are also friendly to the U.S. and its interests will be better positioned to contest local governing structures, while expanding their hold on the very state institutions that Iran’s proxies are seeking to bring under their influence and control. In other words, when it comes to countering Iran in Iraq, the United States should stop putting the cart before the horse.