BAGHDAD — As the administration of US President Donald Trump looks ahead to a post-Islamic State (IS) status in the Middle East, it is clear there are concerns over the potential military role the armed organizations backed by Iran could play.
Stuart Jones, the top US diplomat for the Middle East, recently told the Associated Press the United States “is still forming a ‘comprehensive Iran policy’ that addresses Iran's support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government and militant groups in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.”
Meanwhile, according to Kuwaiti Al-Rai newspaper, Trump promised Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates, during the prince's May 15-17 visit to Washington, that the United States is working to impose sanctions on the Iranian allies who are involved in terrorism — including allies in the Iraqi and Lebanese governments.
A Saudi delegation to the United Nations earlier this month also expressed concern that Iranian militias continue to pose a threat to stability in the region.
It's evident the United States and the Gulf states are worried about the wide Iranian influence in these countries, be it through political leaders, armed organizations or militias. In Lebanon, the biggest player is Hezbollah, backed by Iran. In Iraq, there are armed parties and factions known for their close relationship with Tehran and for receiving financial and political support from it.
Rayan al-Kaldani, the leader of the Babylon Brigade, which is a part of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), told Al-Monitor, “The relationship between the PMU and Iran is not based on dependence, as the Gulf states like to promote.” He noted, “Tehran helped Iraq in its war on [IS], and this has been recognized by the Western parties themselves.”
He added, “Regional states such as Turkey and [those in] the Gulf that deem the PMU to be a terrorist organization are putting pressure on Washington and luring it with money to impose sanctions on PMU leaders.”
The fruits of that strategy seem to have matured in Lebanon. On May 19, Washington and Riyadh announced the inclusion of Hashim Safi al-Din, the head of the executive board of the Lebanese Hezbollah, on the “joint blacklist of terrorism.”
In the same context, the United States is trying to cut off communication between the Shiite militias affiliated with Iran to confine their action. Iranian media outlets deemed the US raid on a convoy of Syrian forces May 18 “a US insistence to prevent any contact between Baghdad and Damascus.” Meanwhile, Western experts confirmed May 20 that “the air raid reveals the US military plans in the region.”
Abu Ala al-Walai, one of the leaders of the Iranian-backed armed Shiite organizations in Iraq and the secretary-general of Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, announced May 19 that “the US Air Force targeted PMU forces near the Iraqi-Syrian border.”
It is well known that the Gulf states and US cricles accuse many PMU leaders of being linked to and supported by Iran. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a PMU committee head in Iraq, said in an April 23 video that he has ties to both Tehran and Iranian Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani.
Akram al-Kaabi, the leader of the Iraqi Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, seemed more explicit about his relations with Tehran when he visited in September and said there was a need for “the Iraqi PMU to fight in Syria.”
Qais al-Shathir, a parliament member with the Coalition of Iraqi Forces, told Al-Monitor, "The relationship of Iraqi political parties and politicians with Iran is not hidden, as these receive material and moral support from it.” He added, “The potential US sanctions against these do not serve the interests of Iraq.”
Also, "The majority of those referred to as having a close relationship with Tehran are popular in Iraq, are part of the political process and have contributed to the battles against IS," he said, noting that Washington should think twice before taking on those groups.
However, Jassim al-Moussawi, a writer, political analyst and head of the Media Monitor Center, told Al-Monitor that such pro-Iranian groups could be successfully targeted for sanctions because "some Iraqi Sunni leaders sought to internationalize what they say are crimes committed by the PMU in the areas liberated of IS.” This could "serve to legitimize any sanctions against them.”
Moussawi said, “Washington could exert pressure on the Iraqi government to extradite those wanted by law and prosecute and prevent PMU leaders from traveling based on international lists of wanted people. It could also impose other measures such as freezing assets and resorting to prosecutions.”
However, Moussawi said, “I don't think that Iran and its allies inside Iraq will take the matter seriously because going too far in this direction would cause unrest in Iraq again and directly expose Washington's interests in Iraq to Tehran's local allies."
But there are already accusations that Iran has widely deployed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and PMU factions on the Iraqi borders with Syria and Jordan. This has prompted Gulf leaders to petition Washington to classify Iran-backed militias as terrorist groups.
Both the United States and regional players believe the post-IS phase will require joint action to encircle armed groups and militias both in Iraq and Syria, knowing that these groups have grown in number and gained important combat experience during their war against IS, thus posing a threat to US interests in the region and to the Gulf states allied with Washington.