Iran building a dangerous route to instability as Iraq’s election looms

Islamic State is teetering on the edge of defeat. That, anyway, is the consensus opinion among many of those involved in the conflict. The fall of Mosul and the driving out of the jihadi resistance after nine long months was heralded by a broad, and unlikely, grouping of nations. While their interests converged on this event, in the long term these countries are involved in a battle for influence that will yet see more instability in the region.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the Iraqi military were congratulated by the US, its allies and its rivals; regional powers Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel all praised the Iraqi success. Given the complexity of the network involved in the fight against IS and their conflicting relationships, this is no small feat.

However, as the campaign advances on Raqqa and the fight against IS reaches its final stages, the real priorities of those backing the anti-IS coalition will emerge. These geopolitical ambitions will lead to further disagreements as territory formerly controlled by the extremist group gets carved up, and will manifest themselves as both the US and Iran line up to back opposing candidates in Iraq’s general election next year.

Iran’s motivations are clear. A road from Tehran to Beirut, traversing politically malleable client states in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, would change the dynamics of Iran’s operations in the region and increase its power. For the region this will lead to more instability and chaos at a critical time.

Many are concerned that this route is already secured, and will come into effect once peace is held. “Today the resistance highway starts in Tehran and passes through Mosul and Beirut to the Mediterranean,” Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader, said last week. The signs are ominous for those seeking to curtail Iran’s malicious influence in the Middle East.

One of Iran’s major challenges in maintaining its influence over its proxy allies has been the supply of hardware. Current methods of flying arms are less efficient, Iran’s line of control broken up by the emergence of IS.

Securing Mosul and the surrounding area would make it much easier for the Islamic Republic to send arms and material through northern Iraq and Syria to the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. This would further antagonise Israel and consolidate the ascendancy of the Shiite militia force in Lebanon.

To help it to secure the Iraq branch of this road, Iran has operated mainly through majority-Shiite militias known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Forces. The militias, a re-energised form of those that battled against US and UK troops after the fall of Saddam Hussein, work alongside Iraqi troops and Kurdish militants, but the US accuses them of being a proxy for growing Iranian influence in Iraq. The focus of their operations, around Mosul and to the south along Iraq’s western border with Syria, adds to this suspicion; these positions are closest to those of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, making a military link more plausible.

In addition, Nouri al-Maliki, the former Iraqi prime minister with close ties to Tehran, is expected to launch a challenge to the US-favoured Abadi in next year’s election. Maliki was accused by the US of stoking sectarian divisions in post-conflict Iraq, policies some blame for the rise of IS. A victory would further reinforce Iran’s control of the route, while Maliki may not shrink from kicking the US out of strategically important areas formerly held by IS.

The ball is now in Washington’s court. The US needs to decide if it will commit fully to protecting the Middle East from the spread of Iranian influence. If it is to do so, then putting all its efforts into supporting Abadi in this election will be a positive step, while showing its allies that it takes its responsibilities in the region seriously.