Iran is continuing efforts to encourage anti-Americanism in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, to secure its own influence and interests.
Dozens of Iran-aligned Muslim scholars from several countries, mainly in the Middle East, gathered Feb. 21 in Baghdad to participate in a forum of the fourth International Conference of Resistance Axis Scholars, an organization that brings together Muslim academics, both Shiite and Sunni, who believe in the goals of the Axis of Resistance led by Iran.
Unsurprisingly, anti-American sentiment dominated the forum. One slogan displayed behind the speakers read, “The exit of American forces is inevitable." The meeting focused on several issues: Iraq's sovereignty and the presence of US forces, the state of the Muslim community in general and the Palestinian struggle.
A poster displayed asked the scholars to help rally Iraq to expel US forces from its land as well as from other Islamic and Arab countries, using "all available methods" — implying violence is acceptable.
Among the speakers was Mujtaba al-Husseini, representing Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Husseini read a message from Khamenei to the delegates that emphasized that they should "always be aware of the enemy‘s movements and resist its injustice and tyranny.”
Husseini also mentioned Qasem Soleimani, the late commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who commanded Iraq's Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). Both men were killed in an American drone strike Jan. 3 in Baghdad.
Husseini said, “We saw how all the people embraced the two martyrs … and condemned US policies."
Iranian Ambassador to Iraq Iraj Masjedi also attended. Masjedi, a commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) who became a politician, had played a key role in assisting Soleimani with implementing Iran’s plans in Iraq. These efforts are part of a campaign to reduce pressure on Iran in Iraq and the wider region.
Soleimani's loss has had a grave impact on Iran's ability to advance its plans.
Iran tried to compensate for that impact by attacking military bases in Iraq that hosted US forces, but the subsequent downing of a Ukrainian airliner by an IRGC anti-aircraft system brought the regime a great deal of discredit among its public. The attack killed 176 people.
Iran’s influence in Iraq seems strained. A public protest movement that strongly rejects Tehran’s interference in the country shows no signs of waning.
The void left by Muhandis’ death has especially put Iran in a difficult position in Iraq. Finding a successor has been problematic, leaving the PMU factions without a unifying figure who can convey Iran’s instructions to Iraqi commanders.
On Feb. 20, the PMU appointed Abdulaziz al-Mohammadawi as its new chief of staff. Mohammadawi is a commander in Kataib Hezbollah, the most secretive Shiite militia in Iraq, which has very close ties to the IRGC and the Lebanese Hezbollah.
It took only two days for the four so-called shrine units of the PMU — powerful nationalist factions aligned with Ali al-Sistani, the highest Shiite authority in Iraq — to express their deep dissatisfaction with this appointment. These factions are known for their opposition to foreign influence, including Iran's.
In their joint statement issued Feb. 22, the shrine units — the Abbas Combat Division, Imam Ali Combat Division, Ali Akbar Brigade and al-Marja’ya Brigade — stated, “This appointment needs to be done in accordance with the due legal processes currently unavailable, due to the fact that the incumbent government is a caretaker one and that the new Cabinet has not been appointed yet."
Hassan al-Hajjaj, head of the Basra Center for Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor the shrine units threatened to withdraw from the PMU if Mohammadawi's appointment stands. Hajjaj, who is close to the shrine units, said, “The prospect of the Sistani-aligned units leaving the organization threatened to undermine the legitimacy — and consequently the existence — of the PMU, leading to great pressure on Mohammadawi to abandon his plans to become the chief staff of the paramilitary force."
In this environment, Iran is trying to exploit its relations with the clergy in Iraq and beyond to divert pressure onto the United States. Tehran knows well that in a conservative country such as Iraq, public leaders turn to the clergy for advice. Iran is hoping the men of faith can provoke people and organizations to demand the departure of US forces.
But this strategy seems doomed to fail without Sunni support. Iran's Sunni population faces a great deal of discrimination, so any Sunni cleric in Iraq that aligns himself with Iran loses his credibility to a great extent. Sunni clerics that have forged ties with Iran are not among those revered by the wider Sunni population. None of the major Sunni religious institutions in the region have ever had friendly relationships with Iran.
As for the Shiite clergy, Sistani's position as the most revered Shiite cleric has been clear since 2003, the year Saddam Hussein was toppled and Iran started its strategy to increase its influence in the country. He has repeatedly expressed his discontent with any foreign interference, and it is very unlikely that lesser-known clerics can persuade a large Shiite population to abandon Sistani’s advice.