By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Iran's Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani (علی شمخانی) made a high profile trip to Iraq in March. It is seen as Iran's attempt to shore up Iranian influence in Baghdad in the wake of the US targeted killing of IRGC Quds Force head Qasem Soleimani on January 3.
Iranian media and regional Arabic media, including Tasnim, Al-Ain and others, have reported the trip and provided roughly similar explanations for its importance. While the main news of Shamkhani's trip appears to be an attempt to coordinate more pressure on the US to leave, part of the "countdown" that Iranian media and pro-Iranian voices in Iraq have mentioned, the larger context is more complex.
What has Shamkhani been up to
Shamkhani was born in 1955 in Ahwaz and his family are from the Arab minority. A former officer in the IRGC's navy, he rose to prominence as minister of defense in the 1990s under President Mohammad Khatami and was elevated to his current position under President Hassan Rouhani in 2013. He has been portrayed as a "bridge builder" to regional Arab states and caught between power struggles of the IRGC and presidency. In 2017 he held several major meetings with Syrian regime officials. He has warned Israel against airstrikes in Syria, claiming a "crushing blow" might be Iran's reaction. He met a Hamas delegation n July 2019 and travelled to Russia for meetings in June 2019.
Shamkhani has been clear, since the January 3 strike on Soleimani, which also killed Kataib Hezbollah leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, that the US will be pressured to leave Iraq.
"Should Americans not leave the region on their own, we would push out their bodies horizontally (in coffins)," Shamkhani asserted on January 7, days before the Iranian ballistic missile strike on Ayn al-Assad base that caused traumatic brain injuries to dozens of Americans. He said Iran was prepared to confront "aggression."
March 8, 2020
Shamkhani's Iraq trip comes at a time of turmoil in Iraq. Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned in November but his replacement Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi failed to form a government in early March. Shamkhani went to Baghdad at a time of this uncertainty.
He met with head of the Hashd al-Shaabi (PMU) Falih al-Fayadh in Baghdad, as well as Presdent Barham Salih, speaker of the parliament Mohamed al-Halbousi and Abdul Mahdi.
"Measures taken by the Iraqi government, Parliament, and nation, who have demanded to oust US forces in their huge rallies, deserve gratitude," Shamkhani said. Iran says that he went to Iraq with a high-ranking political and security delegation. Publicly he spoke about
bilateral political, security and economic issues. Central to this is Iran's attempt to coordinate with Iraqi political factions to "oust" the US. Shamkhani also said he was in Iraq to support Iraq's efforts against coronavirus.
The latter part of this claim is odd considering Iran has the largest number of cases of coronavirus and Iranians are supposed to be preventing from traveling to Iraq. Several high-level Iranian politicians and figures have the virus and have died from it. In such a situation why was Shamkhani permitted to enter Iraq at all with a delegation? Clearly the larger issue was not about the virus but about Iran's overall role.
One Iraqi MP Abdallah al-Kharbeet told Rudaw that “We have many issues with Iran, in addition to the role that Iraq can play as a mediator between Iran on the one hand, and the West and Arab countries on the other hand." Iranian media interpreted the visit as having "contained a political message at the regional and international level message." This means that the goal was a larger discussion about Iraq's "unity and cohesion," as Tasnim noted. Abdul Mahdi thanked Shamkhani for Iran's assistant to Iraq.
Shamkhani held a unprecedented number of meetings with Shi'ite factions in the government. He went to Najaf and met Ammar Hakim, as well as former Prime Ministers Nouri al-Maliki, Heider al-Abadi and also Hadi al-Amiri, the head of Badr and head of the Fatah Alliance.
Iraq's Intelligence Head at the center
Tasnim notes that "one of the important meetings of the Supreme National Security Council Secretary was with Mustafa Kadhimi (Kazemi مصطفی کاظمی), the head of the Iraqi intelligence service, who has been speculated these days to nominate him for the post of prime minister." This was greeted with some surprise in Iraq.
The recent controversy regarding the potential appointment of Mustafa al-Kadhimi (Kazimi) as PM-designate led to anger among the leaders of Kataib Hezbollah. Abu Ali al-Askari, spokesperson of KH called it a “declaration of war”. “Some are trying to nominate candidates for the prime minister position who are accused of being involved in the [Jan. 3] US assassination of [Iranian Quds Force] commander Qasem Soleimani and PMU commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. This is a declaration of war against Iraqi people that will burn what remains of Iraq,” Abu Ali al-Askari, spokesman KH, tweeted March 2. Yet Shamkhani had said that “the role of intelligence and security bodies to manage the new conditions is of paramount importance,” according to Iran’s IRNA. This indicated a preference for Kadhimi.
The crises now seems to involve multiple factions, not only KH against Kadhimi, but also Sadr's recent comments against the Kurdish Peshmerga, and feelings among Kurds and Sunnis that they are being sidelined. Also Asaib Ahl al-Haq and leading members of the Fatah Alliance have argued that Saleh has not appointed a member from the largest parties. This comes in the context of Hezbollah sending Mohammad al-Kawtharani to Iraq to negotiate after Soleimani and Muhandis were killed on January 3. Kawtharani's mission from January 4 to March 8 may be seen as Tehran's first attempt to unify the PMU. Shamkhani March 7-9 trip may be the second major attempt. The controversy over Kazimi was not what Iran thought would happen.
Al-Ain argues that Iraq is "back to square one" in terms of finding a Prime Minister. In this reading of the visit it is an attempt by Iran "to control the process of forming the new government similar to other governments that preceded it since 2003." Iraq has fifteen days to choose another Prime Minister candidate. "An Iraqi official who spoke to Al-Ain News, preferring not to reveal his identity because of the sensitivity of his location, said that Shamkhani had held a series of meetings in Baghdad and Najaf." In this accounting Shamkhani also met Muqtada al-Sadr and other leaders of the PMU. "Shamkhani oversees the process of forming the government and is charged by the Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to play the role of Qasim Soleimani. Therefore, he came to Baghdad to directly interfere in the process of choosing a pro-Tehran figure to form the government and compensate for the Iranian failure to pass the government of Muhammad Allawi." However Tehran faces a hurdle in dealing with the PMU as "differences between the leaders of the Hashd militias began to appear and grow deeper day after day." For instance the "countdown" rhetoric that Shamkhani references was put forward by Nujaba's leader on Feb. 15 (see tweet).
Commentator Hisham Al-Hashemi indicated that "Shamkhani came to fill the gaps in the political dossier caused by Soleimani's absence and the inability of his legal representative to accomplish the mission." Does this represent a marginalization of the PMU and militias, or not? Iran may believe that Abdul Mahdi should be re-appointed as Prime Minister as the least bad option after Allawi's failure and controversy over Kadhimi.