Iran’s stranglehold on Iraq

While Iraq has faced several devastating political developments in recent decades, none have been more detrimental in the long term than Iranian influence. Tehran’s control over the government has trapped the Iraq state, leading to persistent stagnation and hardship.

Mustafa Al-Kadhimi in Iran, behind him Ayatollah Khomeini’s portrait - government Iraq
Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi has the military resources necessary to challenge the Iran-backed militias but, wary of a civil war, he chooses to tolerate their reign of terror © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • Iran has thoroughly infiltrated the Iraqi state
  • Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi reluctantly tolerates this
  • Without a strong anti-militia front, nothing will change

To what extent is Iran to blame for Iraq’s frozen economic development, mass youth unemployment and severely lacking government services? Can Iran be blamed, for example, for the absence of extinguishers in a Baghdad hospital where 82 patients perished in a fire this April? 

In July of this year, another 92 people died in a similar incident in a Nasiriya hospital. In both cases, there was “no money” for extinguishers. But Iraq earns around $5 billion per month in oil revenues. Is Iran causing the endemic corruption paralyzing Iraqi politics, which led to these incidents and myriad other tragedies? Is Tehran behind the widespread terrorizing of peaceful demonstrators, the numerous kidnappings and murders and the extensive networks of extortion? 

While Iraqis are capable of creating a thoroughly corrupt and inept state on their own – and have done so in the past – Iran is currently greatly contributing to the Iraqi state’s malfunction by interfering with economic, political and security matters.


Even under the monarchy, there was much corruption in Iraq, and under Saddam Hussein too. Following the 2011 American withdrawal, however, the situation went from bad to worse. In 2020, the country ranked 160 out of 180 in the Corruption Perceptions Index. 

Iran has a lot to gain from a corrupt Iraqi political elite; corrupt politicians do not have much grassroots support. They depend on locally hired guns or on the long arm of an outside protector, or both. In Iraq, the former is the pro-Iranian militias, and the latter is the dense network of the Iranian intelligence apparatus in Iraq. But a politician cannot rely on bayonets alone to remain in office. An easy way to create a large number of dependent civilians is to hire people at the expense of the state. In Iraq, some 60 percent of the active workforce are state employees. Only three out of four such workers are believed to actually perform work. This also explains the inadequacy of the civilian Iraqi officialdom, as appointments are rarely meritocratic. 

Iran has a lot to gain from a corrupt Iraqi political elite.

Corruption also explains why the national Iraqi military, armed to the teeth with American weapons, disintegrated when faced with the much smaller and barely armed Islamic State (IS). The government often finds it impossible to pay salaries. Despite annual oil revenues of between $50 and $100 billion, the first financial initiative of Mustafa Al-Kadhimi as prime minister in May 2010 was to send his treasury minister hat in hand to Saudi Arabia asking for a $3 billion loan to pay state employees. He never made such a request to Iran.

But the question is whether this official corruption can be attributed to Iran. After all, the post-Hussein political class that was ushered in by the American overlords is certainly able to create this immense corruption on its own. But the Iraqi officialdom and parliament tolerate, even encourage, Iran’s appropriation of the country’s wealth. 

Iraqi politicians understand that to enjoy some of the fruits of this graft they need to pay Tehran for protection. Otherwise, most Iraqi politicians and administrators would be swept away, as mass demonstrations in recent years have made clear. This explains the politicians’ silence when militias murdered at least 600 peaceful anti-government and anti-Iranian demonstrators and wounded at least 20,000. 

The militias, too, benefit greatly from this Iraqi-Iranian symbiosis. Politicians, administrators and militias are allowing Iran to devour their country to the detriment of all other Iraqis.


Ahead of the 2018 parliamentary elections, the militias murdered, kidnapped and threatened grassroots leaders. The result was a record low turnout, and the pro-Iranian lobby won the day. 

Politicians considered unfriendly to Iran won votes, but far fewer than the pro-Iranian ones. Overall, when the parliamentary vote is of great importance to Iranian leaders, they can easily form a majority. For example, the Iraqi parliament voted on January 5, 2020, to expel all American soldiers from Iraq, even though it was clear to all that American military help against IS was still imperative. This was a nonbinding vote, but ever since Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi has been under pressure from both Iranian and Iraqi politicians to get rid of the American soldiers. So far, he managed to slow down the withdrawal by agreeing with United States President Joe Biden on evacuating only combat troops, but Tehran will continue to insist. 

Messrs. Al-Kadhimi and Biden face a daunting dilemma. Both would like to retain the anti-IS U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq. Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi needs them not only to fight IS, but also as a sword of Damocles to hang over the militias. For President Biden, keeping a small force in western Iraq serves as proof that the U.S. is not forsaking its allies, and also supplies the American troops in northeastern Syria. But Iran wants them out and the militias are attacking. 

An even more significant decision was made by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in March 2018, when he declared the pro-Iranian Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) an integral part of Iraq’s armed forces. Iraq already had a large standing army that took orders from the prime minister. The militias, too, obeyed orders, but only as long as they did not clash with those of Tehran. With this decision, Mr. al-Abadi, believed to be a pro-American politician, burdened the Iraqi budget with an additional $2 billion in salaries, and legitimized Iranian security supremacy inside Iraq. 


Iraq’s corruption has worsened under the rule of the PMU. While some militias had already existed in the 1980s, fighting alongside the Iranian army against Iraq, most were created in 2014. Out of genuine fear, people responded to the call of Grand Ayatollah Sistani to protect the nation against IS. But he created a monster. Today, he is calling upon them to retire or take orders only from the Iraqi government, but to no avail – the genie is out of the bottle and Iran will not allow anyone to put it back in. 

There are in Iraq no less than 50 different pro-Iranian militias. The registered number of militiamen is around 160,000, but many of them are only drawing salaries, rarely showing up. They are badly trained but well equipped and paid by the Iraqi treasury.

Often, the militias attack American and coalition forces hosted in Iraqi and Kurdish military camps.

Being in a militia has advantages. Recruits may need to serve far from home for a time, but the salary is as high as that of regular soldiers, and the duties less demanding. They earn the respect of many Shias as heroes fighting IS. In the Sunni areas, they treat the civilians harshly, but this is a Sunni problem.

Often, the militias attack American and coalition forces hosted in Iraqi and Kurdish military camps. Occasionally, they also attack the International (“Green”) Zone in Baghdad. They frequently murder and kidnap peaceful street demonstrators and political opponents. On July 6, 2020, for example, Hisham al-Hashimi, a gifted researcher who advised Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi on counterterrorism, was assassinated outside his home. A subsequent BBC investigation reported that the PMU’s Hezbollah Brigades were implicated. No one was ever arrested. Mr. Al-Kadhimi cannot even protect his personal friends and advisors.

The militias are extorting protection fees from private businesses. They control the streets of Baghdad and defy state police. They also control most of the border checkpoints. To the extent that importers pay taxes, they pay it to the militias. The state is losing billions every year. 

The most recent sign that militias rule the land occurred in June 2021. On May 26, Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi ordered the arrest of powerful militia commander Qasim Muslih, charged with the extrajudicial killings of peaceful protesters and attacks on an Iraqi air base hosting U.S. and international troops in Iraq. In ordering the arrest, PM Al-Kadhimi pitted the Iraqi state directly against the Iranian-backed militias. This arrest was naively interpreted as the beginning of his victory over the militias. However, a few days later, Mr. Muslih was released. 

Shortly after, the prime minister and the whole Iraqi security establishment participated in a mass parade celebrating the seventh anniversary of the PMU. Implying displeasure at the militias’ disobedience, Mr. Al-Kadhimi stated that the PMU needs to serve the state. But he then praised their role in fighting IS. The PMU’s response was to attack an American target in the Kurdish capital of Erbil later on the very same day.

When Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi came into office in May 2020, he assembled the most important PMU commanders and demanded that they place their forces effectively under his command. They reacted with an attack on Baghdad’s International Zone and from there things went from bad to worse. 

Could the prime minister fight them? He has a regular army of some 160,000 men, the same number as the PMU. Most of the officers are loyal to the government and the top brass are the prime minister’s personal friends. He has a small air force that comprises 40 helicopter gunships and 26 jet fighters, and some 300 M1 Abrams battle tanks. He cannot conquer Tehran, but he could defeat the militias. Yet, he is reluctant to risk a new civil war, this time Shia against Shia. As a result, he and his government have become the militias’ hostages.


On July 11, 2021, the Iraqi minister of water resources reported that all water flowing from Iran to Iraq had been stopped. Iran had drained or diverted the course of several important rivers flowing into Iraq. Iran and the Middle East as a whole suffer from severe water scarcity. Still, Tehran’s unilateral water policy is illegal and cruel. 

Iranian export dumping is paralyzing the Iraqi private sector. Iraq’s markets are flooded with untaxed Iranian light industry products, like cheap, often unsafe medicines, low-quality electrical appliances, fruits and vegetables. There are no laws protecting Iraqi industry and agriculture. With official corruption and the criminal protection fees that Iraqi entrepreneurs are forced to pay, Iraqi business is depressed, and light industry and agriculture cannot compete. As a result, youth unemployment is soaring.

It seems that Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi is not even contemplating a confrontation with the militias.

Iraq depends on Iran for electricity and gas. Despite spending $62 billion since 2003 on electricity generation, by the end of 2020 imports accounted for 42 percent of daily electricity consumption – almost entirely from Iran. Iraq has the 12th-largest proven natural gas reserves in the world. Yet it depends on Iran for about a third of its natural gas consumption. This energy import is being paid for with oil revenues. However, the Iraqi government frequently falls behind on its payments, at which point Iran cuts off the flow of energy until Baghdad coughs up the funds. This happened, for example, in July 2018 and again in summer 2019, when Basra was left without electricity for weeks. 

In Tehran’s eyes, controlling Iraq is key to Iran’s national security and regime survival. This calculation will change only if the Iranians need to send army divisions to fight the Iraqi military to protect their proxies in Iraq. However, it seems that Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi is not even contemplating a confrontation with the militias, in which case Iran has nothing to worry about.



On October 10, Iraq will go to general elections. The United Nations and the U.S. strongly favor holding the vote, and both have promised to help keep it free and fair. However, with a few leaders of the anti-Iranian demonstrations already assassinated, the elections could easily be hijacked by the militias again. 

Without an aggressive, coordinated American-Iraqi front against the militias, very little will change in Iraq. Such a front seems distant. Against his will, Mr. Al-Kadhimi is Iran’s ideal prime minister. His pro-American credentials protect him against accusations of being an Iranian agent and his collaboration with Iran, however reluctant, makes him Tehran’s best servant. 

French President Emmanuel Macron, who attended the recent regional summit in Baghdad, is interested in business contracts for his country’s firms. If the French or any other Western investors are ready to pay bribes and protection fees, they will be able to do business in Iraq. Iran wants low-level chaos that keeps the government weak, but not the disintegration of Iraq or civil war. Iraq, as we know it today is therefore safe and will continue to plod through in this manner for the foreseeable future. Most Iraqis will continue to suffer. Young generations in the provinces will sink into despair or leave if they can. Oil revenues will continue to flow to Tehran through the decisions of the Iraqi political class. However, much of it will also find its way into the pockets of politicians and militias, paid for enforcing their reign of terror.

Two recent events demonstrate the decline of the Iraqi democracy and the ascendancy of Iran in Iraq. On October 1, some 1000 demonstrators marched in Baghdad to commemorate the October 2019 anti-corruption and anti-Iranian rallies. Many demonstrators called to boycott the coming elections.

A few days earlier, on September 24, some 300 Iraqi notables, both Sunnis and Shia, held a conference in Erbil. They called for Iraq to join the Abraham Accords and establish diplomatic ties with Israel. Pro-Iranian militias threatened their lives. This was to be expected. What was unexpected, however, was for a self-styled “democratic” government to falsely declare the conference was “constitutionally” rejected and to issue arrest warrants against participants.

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