Comparing Parties’ Discourses to the Voice of the Streets
February 7, 2020
Western Sahara Issue: Foreign Interventions vs Sovereignty Claims
March 28, 2020

How Iraqi Pluralism and Intra-Shia Rivalry Thwarts Iranian Intrusion


In September 2014, Iranian Parliamentarian ʿAlīreżā Zākānī boasted that Sanaa had become the fourth Arab capital in Iran’s possession, joining “the three Arab capitals who are already a subsidiary of the Iranian Islamic Revolution,” and part of “the greater jihād.”[1] Media pundits have recurrently cited Zākānī’s peculiar statement and the almost mystical figure of Qāsim Sulaimānī to red-flag Iranian expansionism.[2] By “exporting the Islamic Revolution,” Iran supposedly controls Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen through the transnational agenda of revolutionary Shīʿism.[3]

The striking anti-Iranian elements of the protests ripping through Iraq since October 2019 seems to yield a point to these critics.[4] The spectacular leaked cables which indicate that Iran has been trying to “infiltrate every aspect of Iraq’s political, economic, and religious life,”[5] seems to have caught Tehran red-handed. The killing of Qāsim Sulaimānī on January 3, 2020, and the reciprocal tit-for-tat assaults between the US and Iran on Iraqi soil not only involve the danger of sparking another war but the recent events have also shown how crucial Iraq is in terms of geostrategy for both countries. The very fact that Sulaimānī sojourned in Iraq during the time of his death fueled allegations again of illegitimate Iranian intrusion.

These accusations, however, are not new. The inclination towards the narrative of Iranian-led Shīʿa expansionism gained considerable momentum in late 2004 when King ʿAbdullāh of Jordan coined the term “Shīʿa Crescent” to warn against Iran’s waxing influence on post-Ṣaddām Iraq.[6] Since then, the coinage has been widely used by analysts and policy-makers, leaving the impression to have a raison d’être in the study of Middle East politics. The “Washington Institute for Near East Policy” (WINEP) dedicated the very first volume of its column “Middle East FAQs” to the term’s meaning:

“Tehran is forming a ‘land bridge’ that connects Iran through Iraq to Syria, Lebanon, to the Israeli border at Golan. This is what’s called the [Shīʿa] Crescent”.[7]

Prominent and respected voices have commented on this issue, such as former US Foreign Minister Henry Kissinger, who stated that “[…] there has come into being a kind of a [Shīʿa] belt from Tehran through Baghdad to Beirut. And this gives Iran the opportunity to reconstruct the ancient Persian Empire, this time under a Shīʿa label”.[8] Bahrain’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Khālid bin Aḥmad put it straight by tweeting in April 2019, “The Iranian regime controls Iraq.”[9]

These claims premise a homogenous and dirigible Shīʿa population, prone to Iranian monopolization attempts. The question, however, remains if these assumptions and charges are legit and how successful Iran has been to “infiltrate every aspect of Iraq’s political, economic, and religious life.” This paper poses that the popular narrative of a “client state Iraq subordinate to Iran” is an oversimplification and represents a unidimensional framing that zeros in on Iran’s “push factors.” In contrast, this paper seeks to shine a light on the “pull factors” by presenting a comprehensive analysis of Iraq’s political, religious, and social substrate, which reveals intrinsic pluralism and intra-Shīʿa rivalry, acting as a natural absorbing force against Iranian interfering.

Marjaʿism and the Piercing Blade of Nationalism

The “sectarian narrative” is the usually cited explanatory attempt of why Iran was able to gain a foothold in its neighbor country. Iraqi Shīʿas are nearly entirely so-called “Twelver Shīʿas.” So are their co-religionists in Iran, where “Twelverism” (Ithnāʿashariyyah) serves as the official state religion.[10] Shīʿas in both countries are therefore formally homogenous in terms of official religious status. However, given a more in-depth consideration of Shīʿa ecclesiastical history, inconspicuous characteristics that deviate from the usual portrayals outline a more nuanced picture.

Unlike Iranian Shīʿas, Iraqi Shīʿas are predominantly adherents of a quietist doctrine, which proscribes the exertion of political power by the Shīʿa clergy (ʿulamāʾ). Ithnāʿashariyyah bears reference to a line of Twelve Imāms, of which the last one, known by the epithet “al-Mahdī” (“the Guided One”), vanished into metaphysical occultation (ghaybah). Hence, Twelverism is marked by eschatological messianism (almahdawiyyah), and believers should exercise patience and “intiẓār al-faraj” (“wait for the relief”) until the return of the Mahdī.[11] In the meantime, believers should follow an expert on religious matters (mujtahid) to come to Islam-compliant decisions – a practice which is known as “taqlīd” (tradition; imitation).[12]

Over time, some of these mujtahidūn would rise to far-reaching prominence, and their position known as “marjaʿ at-taqlīd” (“source of imitation”) would entail them to serve as an authority for all Twelver Shīʿas. Quietist “marjaʿism” became the unchallenged modus operandi of the most prominent religious institution (ḥawzah) in Najaf, as embodied by highly renowned marājiʿ Abū al-Qāsim al-Mūsawī al-Khūʾī (d. 1992) and his former student ʿAlī al-Ḥusaynī al-Sīsitānī, who is currently the most influential Shīʿa cleric in Iraq.[13]

However, it was these prominent figures Āyatollāh Khomeynī would tangle with during his exile years in Najaf. In his eponymous book “Velāyat-e Faqīh” (“Guardianship of the Jurist”), published in 1970, Khomeynī reasoned that a jurist of Islamic law (faqīh) should guide and govern all Muslims and revive Islam as a bulwark against colonial exploitation and Western influence.[14] Khomeynī drew on the centuries-old concept of “ijtihād” (“mental effort”), which developed during the formation phase of Islamic jurisprudence as a tool to go beyond the static scriptures of Islam.[15] It is the spatio-temporal idiosyncrasy of ijtihād that offered Khomeynī a loophole to reinterpret Shīʿa history and Islamic sources fundamentally.  Not only did velāyat-e faqīh institutionalize and legitimize the theocratic leadership of the state by the ʿulamāʾ, but Khomeynī also uplifted himself to the locum tenens of the Mahdī. This alteration of long-established Twelver doctrine led to much criticism within Iranian and Iraqi Shīʿa circles, as it infringed the quietist principles.[16]

Muḥammad Bāqir al-Ṣadr (d. 1980/81), one of the most influential Āyatu’llāhs in Iraq at this time, did not subscribe to Khomeynī’s privileged position as faqīh. Whereas Khomeynī saw the ʿulamāʾ as the only permissible legislative power (top-down approach), al-Ṣadr contended that power should emanate from the “ummah” – the Muslim community (bottom-up approach).[17] He served as the figurehead of the ”Islamic Call Party” (Ḥizb al-Daʿwah al-Islāmiyyah, abbr. Daʿwah), which emerged in 1957 as a counterweight to secularization trends.

As the party propagated the retention of “Islamic values,” it brought the party and its figurehead Muḥammad Bāqir al-Ṣadr in the crosshairs of the Baʿathist regime. The party relocated to Iran and supported the Iranian revolution logistically.[18] Despite mutual assistance, ideological differences persisted. A group defected from Daʿwah and amalgamated with the “Islamic Action Organization” (Munaẓẓamat al-ʿAmal al-Islāmī) led by marjiʾ Muḥammad Taqī al-Mudarrisī. Initially established in 1982 as the “Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI)” (al-Majlis al-Aʿlā lil-Thawra al-Islāmiyyah fil-ʿIrāq), the party functioned as a proxy to work towards an Iraqi revolution modeled after the Iranian prototype.[19]

Nonetheless, SCIRI soon suffered from an internal power struggle: Muḥammad Taqī al-Mudarrisī advocated Muḥammad al-Ḥusaynī al-Shīrāzī’s (d. 2001) concept of “ḥukumat al-fuqahā’.” It differs from velāyat-e faqīh in the sense that instead of a sole sovereign, several jurists (fuqahā’ is the plural of faqīh) ought to form a legislative council (shūrā).[20]

In his later years, al-Mudarrisī became a promoter of a democratic Iraq and vocal critic of Khomeynī’s system and thus, also of Khāmeneʾi’s position as a marjaʿ at-taqlīd.[21] Overseeing the ḥawzah in Karbalāʾ, and with more than 400 published books, al-Mudarrisī constitutes an obstacle for Iranian influence not to be underestimated. Indubitably, most Iraqi Shīʿas reserve marjaʿ at-taqlīd for Grand Āyatu’llāh al-Sīstānī, who is considered to be Iraq’s most prominent marjiʾ. Counterfeits of the outspoken critic of velāyat-e faqīh are found widespread across the country, and despite rare public appearances, the words of the grey eminence possess a directive-like character.[22]

What this altogether amounts to is that the oft-quoted “sectarian narrative” falls short of explicating Iran’s influence in Iraq. Theologically, or ideologically respectively, both countries deviate quite significantly from each other, exposing the usual broad-brush framing of both countries as a short-sighted, if not orientalist approach. Shīʿsm, despite a common founding myth, formed several oligopolies with various, varying gravitational pulls over time and space. Hence, not only does the sectarian narrative bluntly ignore the religious aspects, which often cause friction rather than fraternity, it also overlooks contextualization of the historical socio-political dynamics, which helped velāyat-e faqīh succeed in modern-day Iran.

The accumulation of revolutionary vigor in Iran resulted from growing alienation:  The kleptocratic authoritarian rule of Shāh Moḥammad-Reża Pahlavī appeared to many Iranians as just another subjugation to colonial heteronomy. Concomitant centralization of bureaucracy translated into hasty capitalist developments, failing to attain even-handedly prosperity. Revolutionary discourse, heralding “Neither East nor West – but the Islamic Republic!” called for national independence through the resuscitation of what seemed to be “genuine Iranian.”[23] It was this vacuum into which Rūḥollāh Khomeynī injected his novel ideas. The model of Islamic republicanism mixed with Shīʿa nativism created a unique modern hybrid, which eluded any clear-cut classification but resonated well among most Iranians at its time.[24]

The external drivers that gave impetus to revolutionary Shīʿsm in Iran were non-existent in such form in Iraq. The country was under the sphere of pan-Arab socialism, which absorbed most revolutionary sentiment in its germinal form. With Arabist ideology at its core, Baʿathism downplayed denominational disparity at the expense of multi-ethnic inclusion (e.g. “the Kurdish Question,” grew into Baʿathist Iraq’s primary concern). However, Āyatollāh Khomeynī demonstrated how Shīʿa politicization and mobilization could topple a regime, which only a year before, US President Jimmy Carter called “an island of stability.”[25] In Shīʿa-majority Iraq, the Baʿathist leadership required a counter-narrative to Khomeynīsm.

Therefore, the Iraqi government depicted Islam as a religion genuinely intertwined with Arabism and Khomeynī as a “majūsī” (Zoroastrian magician), a “kāfir” (nonbeliever) and a “ṭāghūt” (someone who rebels against God).[26] These crafted narratives were not only adopted by Iraq’s Sunni minority but also by its Shīʿas. Accordingly, only a small number of Iraqi Shīʿas defected to fight alongside their Iranian coreligionists. In fact, despite Khomeynī‘s promise to liberate Iraq’s Shīʿas from oppression, they constituted the bulk of the Iraqi army and “fought with great determination against the Iranians.”[27] Besides anti-imperialism and anti-Semitism, anti-Iranianism became an essential ideological pillar of Baʿathist Iraq.

This ideologeme did not constitute a new product: During the formation phase under the British in the 1920s, Iraq retained a system from its Ottoman legacy that registered people as either having “tabaʿiyyah ʿuthmāniyyah” (Ottoman origin) or “tabaʿiyyah farsiyyah” (Persian origin). Sātiʿ al-Ḥuṣrī (d. 1968), the prominent Arab nationalist thinker and educationalist, laid the foundation for anti-Persian sentiment within Iraq’s future state apparatus. Influenced by German nationalist romanticism, al-Ḥuṣrī centered national identity on language and culture. Following Johann Gottfried Herder’s conception of a “kulturnation,” al-Ḥuṣrī advocated the ummah as something held together by shared language, culture, and folklore – not religion. He served as Iraq’s Director of General Education, expelling teachers and officials of tabaʿiyyah farsiyyah and significantly affected the country’s zeitgeist and generations after him.[28]

One can observe a re-emergence of a specific myth-symbol complex rooted in this legacy: Nationalist emblems, images, and slogans, as well as anti-Iranian elements, have visually dominated the October demonstrations.[29] This mobilization has forged a new frontier within the Shīʿa community, which seems to be defined by socioeconomic class identity instead of sectarian affiliation. Thus, this shift has impacted Iran’s ability to canvass for this population strata. Figures from surveys substantiate these trends: The proportion of Iraqi Shīʿas who hold positive views towards Iran decreased from 88 percent in 2015 to 47 percent in 2018. Simultaneously, those who have negative attitudes towards Iran increased from 6 percent to 51 percent. Those who consider Iran to be a “real threat to Iraqi sovereignty” climbed from 25 percent in 2016 to 58 percent in 2018.[30]

These figures show that, despite historically rooted Iranophobia, negative views towards Iran are cyclic, not linear. Anti-Iranian elements of the current protests are an expression of discontent about the Islamic Republic’s association with the post-2003 order. It is no secret that corruption, nepotism, favoritism, and clientelism has been a constant ill afflicting Iraqi politics.[31] It is these grievances paired with maladministration and societal war-fatigue that has alienated voters from the usual sectarian-driven campaigns. Economic well-being, essential state services, such as water and electricity supply, education, and better access to the job market, are now occupying the center stage.[32] To many Iraqis and outside observes, changing the status quo, however, is not in the interest of the government, as many consider it to be the nucleus of Iranian beneficiaries and marionettes. However, how accurate is that depiction?

A Shīʿa Government Controlled by Iran?

The established narrative seeking to explain the central power dynamics in post-Ṣaddām Iraq is that “a [Sunni] minority […] dominated or ruled Iraq for centuries until the US invasion brought [Shīʿas] to power.”[33] This Shīʿa-dominated government alienated the Sunni population from the state and opened the door for Iranian dominance.[34] This simplistic reduction does not live up to the far more complex reality of today. A summary of the 2018 parliamentary elections showcases the far-reaching fragmentation of ethno-sectarian blocs:

The “Alliance Marching Towards Reform” (Taḥālif Sāʾirūn lil-Iṣlāḥ, abbr. Sāʾirūn) received most of the votes, scoring 54 out of 329 parliamentary seats.[35] Sāʾirūn encompasses six parties, with the most protuberant being the newly established “Integrity Party” (Ḥizb al-Istiqāmah) led my Muḥammad Bāqir al-Ṣadr’s popular nephew Muqtadā al-Ṣadr. Further elements are the Iraqi Communist Party (al- Ḥizb al-Shiyūʿī al-ʿIrāqī) and the “Iraqi Republican Assembly” (izb al-Tajammaʿ al-Jumhūrī al-ʿIrāqī). The latter emerged from an Iraqi nationalist group led by the Sunni Saʾad ʾĀssim al-Janābī, who has been a constant advocate of ecumenical bipartisanship.[36] The electoral success of the symbiosis of communists, liberals, and Islamists symbolizes the peoples’ shift in demand for issue-based politics instead of sectarian-based politics. Likewise, it debunks the false dichotomous narrative of secular-nationalist versus pan-Islamist agendas.

The pro-Iran fraction is generally represented by the “Fatḥ Alliance” (Iʾtilāf al-Fatḥ), which, with 48 seats, came in second in the elections. The “Badr Organization” (Munaẓẓamat Badr) and its commander Hādī al-ʿĀmirī are currently spearheading this coalition. Despite self-imposed nationalist terms, several of the alliance’s figureheads are ruthlessly candid about their ties with the Islamic Republic and its revolutionary commitment.[37]

Ḥaidar al-ʿIbādī, the country’s prime minister from 2014 to 2018, became the third-largest force with his newly founded “Victory Coalition” (Iʾtilāf al-Naṣr), securing 42 parliamentary seats. It is hard to classify Naṣr’s ideological footprint since al-ʿIbādī has toned down Shīʿa Islamist traits as the coalition is trying to position itself as the only genuine moderate, nonsectarian, centrist choice.[38]

Former Prime Minister Nūrī al-Mālikī’s statist-populist “State of Law Coalition” (Iʾtilāf Dawlat al-Qānūn) suffered severe losses and only came in fifth with 25 seats. Despite the two major Kurdish parties – Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union Kurdistan (PUK) – the two other significant players are “The National Wisdom Movement” (al- Ḥikmah al-Waṯanī) led by Shīʿa cleric ʿAmmār al-Ḥākim and the “National Coalition” (al-Iʾtilāf al-Waṯaniyyah) run by former vice-president Iʾyād ʿAllāwī.[39]

Thus, it is factually correct that parties with a Shīʿa Islamist overtone occupy most seats in the Council of Representatives. However, it is not the lone factor shaping the political dynamics in the country. The Iraqi party system and landscape are complex and exceptionally erratic. Persistent factionalism and continuously changing alliances further complicate the already confusing plethora of 200 parties and 27 electoral unions.[40] Often, these impulsive shifts in partnerships are not the result of political or sectarian disputes, but internal power struggles, personal feuds, and opportunism.

For example, the chance to forge a Shīʿa majority bloc between Muqtadā al-Ṣadr and Hādī al-ʿĀmirī during the government formation process failed when both leaders tried to prevent Nūrī al-Mālikī’s political comeback by absorbing conservative Shīʿa Islamists.[41] In turn, al-Mālikī mobilized members from inside al-ʿĀmirī’s Fatḥ Alliance, such as al-Ṣadr’s former comrade-in-arms Qais al-Khazʿalī. Eventually, al-Mālikī successfully obstructed the materialization of an alliance between al-ʿĀmirī and al-Ṣadr, cementing an insurmountable intra- Shīʿa rivalry amongst two poles.

Eventually, Haidā al-ʿĀmirī, Nūrī al-Mālikī, and Qais al-Khazʿalī amalgamated Fatḥ and the State of Law Coalition into the “Construction Bloc” (Iʾtilāf al-Bināʾ), representing conservative Islamist tendencies. The bloc favors a statist policy and maintains considerable influence over the security sector and judiciary. Bināʾ has strong ties with the Islamic Republic and opposes the presence of US troops. In turn, al-Ṣadr, along with al-ʿIbādī and al-Ḥākim announced the formation of the “Reform and Reconstruction Coalition” (Taḥālif al-Iṣlāḥ wal-ʿAmar, abbr. Iṣlāḥ). The bloc invested much of its political capital to rally to the protest movement and to keep al-Mālikī at bay.[42] The rivalry between the two biggest blocs is not a Shīʿa-exclusive issue but at the core of Iraqi politics.

Cross-pollination among these poles does occur, and ideological stigmatization should be taken with a pinch of salt. Despite horizontal dissensions, vertical contestation within the blocs has caused frequent horse-trading games over the allocation of ministerial posts. Most prominently pointing towards this issue is the figure of Fāliḥ al-Fayyāḍ. The Fatḥ Alliance has repeatedly postulated to invest the national security advisor with the interior ministry. ʿĀdil ʿAbd al-Mahdī designated him in December, but Sāʾirūn legislators blocked the ratification. During his chairmanship of the “Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF)” (al-Ḥashd al-Shaʿbī), al-Fayyāḍ remained in good standing with Iranian bureaucrats and attained the endorsement of Tehran for the MoI designation.[43] Pressured by Sāʾirūn, the Fatḥ Alliance withdrew al-Fayyāḍ as its preference for the MoI in March 2019.[44]

This in-fighting exposes Tehran’s impuissance – and that of its Iraqi clients – to shape Iraqi politics ad libitum through the allocation of government positions. Additionally, the fragmentation of sectarian blocs has forced parties to adopt centrist, nationalist, and non-sectarian stances to be able to build multi-partisan coalitions. These spectral-syncretic attempts to offer electorates all-encompassing solutions create intraparty pluralism, preventing Shīʿa political heterogeneity and all-powerfulness. Contrariwise, it is this wide internal array that generates the prospect for Shīʿa supremacists to bandwagon with these big tent coalitions – a loophole Iran has been enthusiastically exploiting.

This loophole dates to the antagonism between Baʿathist Iraq and revolutionary Iran. After the 1990s had seen several bloody suppressions of revolts in Iraq’s Shīʿa-dominated South, prominent and vociferous Shīʿa exiles began to present themselves as Iraq’s long-oppressed but rightful rulers. To increase support for regime change, some of these expatriates tried to allay US concerns: Aḥmad ʿAbd al-Hādī al-Jalabī (d. 2005), leader of the exile “Iraqi National Congress” (al-Muʾtammar al-Watanī al-ʿIraqī), successfully persuaded neo-conservative in Washington that a Shīʿa government would be “moderate, pro-American, […] pro-Israeli and would in no way be an Iranian satellite”.[45]

Along with the US-led “Coalition Provisional Authority” (CPA), these returning expatriates significantly shaped Iraq’s modern political outline by introducing a power-sharing system based on an ethno-sectarian quota, known as “muḥāṣaṣah ṭāʾifiyyah.” The step was premeditated to achieve a functional form of government by proportional representation. However, the apportion of state institutions channeled access to economic capital to parties and elites upholding sectarian identity. Subsequently, identity-based mobilization soon catalyzed conflicts along ethnic and sectarian lines.[46]As Shīʿa Arabs constitute the majority of Iraq, the implementation of this quotas system worked in their favor. The influence of these Shīʿa exile communities is epitomized by ʿĀdil ʿAbd al-Mahdī and all former prime ministers. Ibrāhīm al-Jaʿfarī, Nūrī al-Mālikī, and Ḥaydar al-ʿIbādī stem from Iran-harbored Daʿwah. By contrast, ʿĀdil ʿAbd al-Mahdī was a charter member of SCIRI.[47] Hence, observers often cite the Daʿwah and SCIRI link as the transnational Shīʿa nexus between both countries.

However, this is misleading. SCIRI underwent an ideological transformation. In 2007, the party changed its name to the “Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI),“ stating that the new realities in Iraq made revolution obsolete. Since then, ISCI has been promoting a civic state and democratic parliamentarianism.[48] Also, the party enjoys relatively good relations with the United States.[49] Contrary to Daʿwah, ISCI supports a decentralized Iraqi state with an autonomous Shīʿa entity in the south. The party’s former armed wing, Munaẓẓamat Badr, disassociated from ISCI and underwent a conversion into an independent political party – still endorsing Iran’s state system. However, both are affiliated members of the Fatḥ Alliance.[50]

Within the Iran-affiliated Fatḥ Alliance, members tend to either prioritize Iraqi nationalist or Shīʿa (pan-) Islamist stances. Though transitions among those lines are fluid, the first pole (Daʿwah, ISCI) tends to have proximity to Grand Āyatu’llāh ʿAlī al-Sīstānī and thus, to marjaʿism. The latter (Munaẓẓamat Badr) tends to idealize ʿAlī Khāmeneʾi and velāyat-e faqīh. The alliance’s front-runner al-ʾĀmirī has attempted to tame these conflicting positions by stating that Iraq’s multi-sectarian population would not allow clerical rule. However, he was also quoted saying: He [Khāmeneʾi] is the leader not only for Iranians but [for] the Islamic nation. I believe so, and I take pride in it.”[51] The alliance has remained hesitant to take unequivocal stands on these decisive matters.

It should be added that, despite corroded state structures, rampant corruption, and evident shortcomings, Iraq’s parliamentary system is functioning, particularly when compared to other countries in the region. The 2018 elections showcased that Iraq is not a democracy in name only. Given the fragile security situation after the military defeat of the Islamic State, the elections were made possible by the safeguarding of parastatal militias.[52] Simultaneously, these militias are also accused of being Iran’s proxy tool. So how is this paradox explicable?

Are Shīʿa Militias Iran’s Trojan Horse?

The initial euphoria about the Islamic State’s defeat waned as concerns of Shīʿa militias seeking revenge upon the Sunni population soon circulated among Sunni Iraqis and analysts. Along with the fears came alarms of growing Iranian influence. Political columnist Charles Krauthammer, e.g., attributed the formation of the “Shīʿa Crescent” to these paramilitaries.[53]

These militias made the headlines again when, on September 14, 2019, missile strikes hit the Aramco oil processing facilities in Saudi Arabia. An unidentified Iraqi intelligence source submitted that “the strikes were launched by Iranian drones using Iraqi territory.”[54] Despite Prime Minister ʿĀdil ʿAbd al-Mahdī’s attempt to reaffirm Iraq’s “constitutional commitment to preventing the use of its territories for aggression on its neighbors,” the incident cast doubt on the country’s sovereignty. Iran-loyal proxies – namely the al-Ḥashd al-Shaʿbī – fell into disrepute to be the actual power brokers.[55]

This deliberately vague self-imposed title “Popular Mobilization Forces” and its unwary use within the media landscapes, has made for the misleading perception of the PMF as a monolithic institution. Empirically, the PMF constitutes an umbrella organization of ideologically highly diverse paramilitaries, leaving analysts struggling to gather accurate data. The number of subdivisions varies between 30 to 70, and the estimated troop strength waves between 60,000 and 150,000 fighters.[56] The PMF materialized after the mid-June 2014 “wājib kifāʾī” (collective obligation) fatwā issued ʿAlī al-Sīstānī, who intended to mobilize Iraqis to join the ranks of Iraqi army and police.[57]

However, many paramilitary groups had long been operating outside the legal state framework and used the opportunity to establish a long-term power base. These preexisting militias are also the most significant ones in terms of membership figures, influence, and Iranian support. These are the eponymous military wing of Munaẓẓamat Badr, “ʿAṣāʾib Ahl al-Ḥaqq,” “Katāʾib Ḥizbu’llāh,” “Katāʾib Sayyid al-Shuhadāʾ,” “arakat Ḥizbu’llāh al-Nujabāʾ,” “Katāʾib al-Imām ʿAlī” and “Sarāyā al-Salām.”[58] The first three pledged allegiance to ʿAlī Khāmeneʾi and the Iranian state doctrine of velāyat-e faqīh, elaborating a draft bill which upholds the transformation of the PMF into a twin model of the “Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).”[59]

These Iran-aligned militias are occasionally referred to as “al-Ḥashd al-Walāʾī,” as the latter adjective “loyalty” bears reference to the Iranian Supreme Leader. In line with their allegiance to Iran and the principles of the Iranian Revolution, these groups seek to establish a Shīʿa Islamic state of Iraq with strong bilateral bonds to Iran. Predictably, Iran sponsors the Walāʾī faction significantly. Support includes military equipment and advisors.[60] Some Walāʾī elements find themselves in the process of establishing political representation. Munaẓẓamat Badr has transformed into a fully-fledged party, and ʿAṣāʾib Ahl al- Ḥaqq’s political wing “Kutlat al-Ṣādqūn” run by Qais al-Khazʿalī.[61] These offshoots underpin Fatḥ’s politburo, which does not incorporate them into the polity but binds them to a particular playbook. Notwithstanding their bluntly expressed loyalty to ʿAlī Khāmeneʾi, these groups instead rely on Nūrī al-Mālikī and hence, favor a restoration of his rule. At this juncture, their room for maneuver remains politically and militarily restricted.

Agitating against these Iran-affiliated militias are what some academics term the “rebellious militias.” The naming is a reference to their rejection of external (Iranian) influence and their hesitancy to succumb to the federal administration.[62] This alliance’s central figure is Muqtadā al-Ṣadr and his formed “Sarāyā al-Salām” (the Peace Regiments). The group’s greatest hindrance is not human resources, but a lack of financial funding and military hardware. This bottleneck followed after al-Ṣadr had versed strident disapproval of the Walāʾī militias and Nūrī al-Mālikī’s extended arm over the security apparatus, leading Tehran to cut Sarāyā al-Salām off from subsidy.[63]

A third classification constitutes “al-Ḥashd al-Marjiʿī.”[64] The title refers to the theological concept of being tied to the religious authority of a marjiʿ – a position most Iraqi Shīʿas reserve for Grand Āyatu’llāh al-Sīstānī. Amongst others, “Sarāyā al-ʿAtabat al-ʿAbbāsiyyah,” “Sarāyā alʿAtabat alḤusayniyyah,” “Sarāyā al-ʿAtabat al-ʿAlawiyyah,” as well as “Liwāʾ ʿAlī al-Akbar” fall into this category.[65] The names bear reference to the four holy Shīʿa shrines “al-ʿAtabāt al-Muqaddasah” (The Holy Doorsteps) found in Najaf, Karbalāʾ, Kāẓimiyyah, and Sāmarrā. As these names indicate, these militias primarily converged to defend these shrines against Islamic State extremists, leading experts to classify the groups as apolitical.

In conclusion, the PMF’s eclectic ideological character constitutes a heteronym which does not allow any clear-cut definitions. As set out above, it is an overgeneralization to brand the entire PMF corpus an Iranian stooge. The fractions can either officiate as state-builders (as during the 2018 elections) or act as a state monopoly undermining force (as during the October uprisings).[66]

The Iran-affiliated militias do have a Trojan Horse-like character, as they serve as a proxy tool to counter Sunni jihadists and US presence – both Tehran’s primary concern. However, it would be a mischaracterization to label them a mere proxy and non-state actors. The Walāʾī militias feature a hybrid character as they often operate within the legal framework of the state and do not necessarily compete against its polity. They are officially subordinate to the security apparatus and receive salaries from the administration. Simultaneously, they rely on revenues from their external sponsors and would more likely respond to their local leadership than to government directives.

During the ongoing anti-government rallies, demonstrators have accused Iran-associated security groups of excessive use of violence.[67] However, these “hybrid militias” are only one component in the state’s violent crackdown on the protests, and it is crucial to recognize that they are not merely remote-controlled by Iran. Instead, they operate autonomously or act upon the tacit approval of their patrons within the political class. Their multifaceted footprint reflects a matrix-like web, which is roughly congruent with Iraq’s diverse Shīʿa community and their political advocates.

Conclusion and Prospect

Based on the findings of this study, four main points should be taken into consideration when assessing Iran’s influence on Iraq:

First: the sectarian narrative falls short: velāyat-e faqīh materialized within an explicitly Iranian context and appeared non-native and unauthentic to many Iraqi Shīʿas. Quietist marjaʿism with loyalties belonging to local marājiʿ and ḥawzāt characterizes Iraqi Shīʻism. In this decentralized, multipolar religious landscape, only ʿAlī al-Sīstānī ranks as an accepted authority, who has been conspicuous by recurring anti-Iranian rhetoric.  Likewise, the non-quietist schools showcase great discord and contrast with their Iranian equivalent. A ubiquitous Shīʿa body and a “Shīʿa Vatican” – on which Iran could build upon – remains the utopia of a few.

Second: national, linguistic, cultural, and tribal traits further aggravate the centrifugal forces evolving around spiritual leaders and religious centers. On a meta-level, revived nationalism resonates well among the Iraqi population –  including Shīʿas – and obstructs foreign monopolizing and usurpation attempts.

Third: political elites, ideologically domesticated in Iran, remain in high positions. However, their political failure has incapacitated their omnipotence and fragmented the usual ethno-sectarian blocs. Thus, there is no political majority nor central institution through which Tehran could control the proceedings. Iraqi society, as well as their political spokesmen, are heading towards nationalist, anti-Iranian tones.

Fourth: the PMF does not constitute a homogenous body. Even the Iran-affiliated militias demonstrate internal disunity. State and foreign sanctions impede their modus operandi, and the adaption of Iraqi-nationalist stances might become necessary to maintain popular support. Put into perspective, Tehran’s potential to shape Iraqi dynamics through armed groups persists. However, against the backdrop of popular uprisings in both Iran and Iraq, their initial street popularity could suffer if they remain reluctant to integrate into a Weberian civic state.

Diversity and discord amidst Shīʿas in Iran and Iraq are high, and therefore, the term “Shīʻa Crescent” is deceptive. The broad-brush reduction to “Shīʻas control Iraq,” and thus “Iran controls Iraq,” does not live up to complex reality. Thus, François Thual’s metaphor “denominational Polynesia” probably better illustrates the status quo of the Middle East Shīʿa community.[68] The growing status of Shīʿa Arabs of Iraq poses intraspecific competition as much as it presents an opportunity for Iran. It is as likely that Shīʻa Arabs of Iraq will rival Iran for the leadership of Shīʻa communities in the Persian Gulf as it is vice versa. The current anti-Iranian traits of several uprisings across the Middle East are a hint towards the latter.

Characterized by the topoi of deprivation, persecution, and martyrdom, the tragic course of ancient and modern Shīʿa history has shaped a collective consciousness among Shīʿas. Many are self-conscious about their position within the Muslim community, which has frequently been called into question by the Sunni mainstream. As such, they do have an attachment to Iran, and shared religious practices, as well as a similar culture, have facilitated intermarriages, family ties across borders, and bonds of business. However, all this does not translate to Iran wielding authority over these communities. A more precise analysis indicates that Iran has less political, theological, and socio-cultural influence than every so often portrayed by the media and policy-makers. Rather than Shīʿas themselves, it is all too often the Sunni portion of the population who declares their Shīʿa countrymen and neighbors to be “loyal to Iran, and not to the countries they are living in.”

The often-cited explanatory attempt of Iran’s ambitions to “export the revolution” is equally myopic. Since the realization of the Islamic Republic, Khomeynī and his successor had to trade off expansive revolutionary-ideological objectives against realist foreign policy demands of a nation-state. Its unwavering support for the secular-Baʿathist Syrian regime, e.g., shows that there is little Islamist agenda at play. Iran’s support is more an expression of its myriad security dilemmas in the region than its desire to become a hegemonic power.

Nonetheless, it is also a hard power-based realpolitik that is Tehran’s sharpest weapon in Iraq and the broader region. The pro-Iran militias and their political mouthpieces, constitute an essential instrument to maintain a clientist network, through which Iran wields significant – yet politically limited – influence. This pro-Iran network has become a core element in Iran’s defense strategy. From an Iranian perspective, US presence, Jihadist cells, and growing Iraqi nationalism – reminiscent of the 1980 expansionist demeanor – are the most critical threats to the Islamic Republic. However, it is this clientist network of corrupt elites along with the post-2003 political order which has taken Iraqis to the streets. Correspondingly, it is not an entrenched enmity towards Iran, which has boosted the anti-Iranian elements of the protests. It is Iran’s staunch support for the post-2003 order.

It is up to a new government to achieve an equilibrium between the protesters’ demands, the United States, Iran, and the Walāʾī militias, with the latter ones being the Achilles’ heel. Due to their accomplishments against the Islamic State, the PMF will most likely continue to insist on playing a pivotal role within Iraq’s future. Political reforms are necessary to make foreign revenues and support less attractive, ultimately transforming these hybrid actors into state actors. The prospect to maintain a position within the process of civic sate-building, harsher pursuit of corruption, along with improved state services would be a step into the right direction to achieve maximal consensus among the actors involved.


[1] Lackner, 2019, p. 82

[2] Gordon, 2012

[3] Melamed, 2016

[4] Cockburn, 2019

[5] Arango, Risen, Fassihi, Bergman, & Hussain, 2019

[6] Badie, 2017, p. 78

[7] Clawson, Ghaddar, & Uskowi, 2018

[8] Limbert, 2014

[9] Ahmad, 2019

[10] Mostofi & Afary, n.d.

[11] Turner, 2013, p. 199;, 2011

[12] Dogan, 2015

[13] Alizadeh, 2019

[14] Ram, 1994, p. 68

[15] Bahmanpour, 2009, p. 123

[16] Mneimneh, 2009

[17] Aziz, 1993

[18] Rayburn, 2014

[19] Aziz, 1993

[20] Louër, 2011

[21] Interview Mohammad Taqi al-Modarresi, n.d.

[22] (TRT World, 2019)

[23] Ostovar, 2016

[24] Cole, 2002

[25] Graetz 2011: 142

[26] Momen 1995

[27] Pollack 2002:143

[28] Mufti 1996; Makiya 1998

[29] Salacanin, 2019

[30] al-Dagher, 2019

[31] Abdullah, 2017

[32] Boduszyński & Lamont, 2019

[33] Trofimov, 2019

[34] Kymlicka & Pföstl, 2018

[35] Robin, 2018

[36] Wikileaks, 2006

[37] Sowell, 2018

[38] An-Nahar, 2018

[39] Blanchard, 2018

[40] Haddad H., 2019

[41] Al Jazeera, 2019

[42] Mansour, Iraq’s 2018 Government Formation: Unpacking the Friction Between Reform and the Status Quo, 2019

[43] Magid, 2019

[44] Nawzad, 2019

[45] Kadhum 2018

[46] Dodge 2018

[47] الجزيرة نت, n.d.

[48] Parigi, 2017

[49] Karouny, 2007

[50] Parigi, 2017

[51] Parker, Dehghanpisheh, & Coles, 2015

[52] Rudolf, 2018

[53] Krauthammer, 2015

[54] Mamouri, 2019

[55] The New Arab, 2019

[56] Mansour, 2018; Yeşiltaş & Kardaş, 2018

[57] Rudolf, Holy Mobilisation: The Religious Legitimation Behind Iraq’s Counter-ISIS Campaign, 2018

[58] Yeşiltaş and Kardaş 2018; Mansour & Jabar, 2017

[59] Steinberg, 2017

[60] Haddad F., Understanding Iraq’s Hashd al-Sha’bi, 2018

[61] Jakes, 2019

[62] Alaaldin, 2017

[63] Mansour 2017

[64] Haddad, 2018

[65] Mansour & Jabar 2017

[66] Rudolf, 2018

[67] Reuters, 2019

[68] Tabarani, 2008, p. 380

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Konstantin Rintelmann
Konstantin Rintelmann
Konstantin Rintelmann is graduate from the University of Münster, Germany, with a double BA degree in Islamic-Arab Culture and Islamic Theology. He majored in Shiism and Iranian history and later obtained an MA degree in Middle East Politics and Security Studies with distinction from the University of Bradford, UK. He was awarded the prize ‘Best Dissertation’ for his critique “Diversity, Discord, and Discourse: A Dissection of the ‘Shīʻite Crescent’ and the Sectarian Narrative” by the Division of Peace Studies and International Development. He has traveled the Middle East extensively over the past years and hopes to continue research on identity, sectarianism, nationalism, and Iraq-Iran relations.