Iranian militias in Iraq going rogue?

Vahid Salemi

A lot of attention is currently being focused on Afghanistan for obvious reasons, but there’s still plenty of trouble to go around in Iraq. The terrorist group known as the Iran expeditionary Quds Force is still deploying militia units in Iraq for the purpose of attacking American and allied forces in both Iraq and Syria. That’s nothing new, and we frequently launch strikes against them to minimize the risks they pose. But now there are reports that discipline among the militias isn’t what it used to be. Their leaders in Tehran recently ordered the militias to “maintain calm” and stand down until they see how the nuclear deal talks with the United States pan out. In response, the Quds Force launched three missile attacks on us in just the past week, showing that they don’t plan on taking orders from their masters. (Associated Press)

Iran’s expeditionary Quds Force commander brought one main directive for Iraqi militia faction leaders long beholden to Tehran, when he gathered with them in Baghdad last month: Maintain calm, until after nuclear talks between Iran and the United States.

But he was met with defiance. One of the six faction leaders spoke up in their meeting: They could not stay quiet while the death of his predecessor Qassim Soleimani and senior Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a U.S. drone strike went unavenged.

Militia attacks have only been increasing against the U.S. in military bases in both Iraq and Syria. Three missile attacks in the last week alone resulted in minor injuries, stoking fears of escalation.

The Associated Press goes along with the party line, describing the terrorist forces as “Iranian-aligned Iraqi militia groups.” But there’s not very much about them that’s rooted in Iraq. They are trained, equipped and paid by Iran and are often led by Iranians. As noted in the linked report, they are also ready to go after Israeli assets when the opportunity presents itself.

Whether having some of these militias going off the script is good news or bad news for the United States and our allies is sort of a coin toss. The groups clearly still hate America and are seeking to drive us out of the region, but those are usually the orders they receive from Tehran anyway, so it’s sort of a wash. The fact that they’re attacking when being told to stand down seems mostly like business as usual.

The more interesting angle to this story is the suggestion that the Iranian leadership wanted the militias to stand down for the specific purpose of waiting to see what Joe Biden does. Clearly, they see Biden as someone they can “work with” in terms of achieving some sanctions relief and other concessions. But so far, the back-channel talks between Washington and Tehran haven’t really produced much of anything for either side. No sanctions relief has been offered (that we know of, anyway) and Iran continues to develop its nuclear program.

What else does Iran have to offer? In public, they always pretend that the militias in Iraq and Syria are independent actors, while everyone knows that they would soon cease to exist without Iran’s ongoing support. But now they don’t even have the option of putting a hold on the militia attacks. If they can’t keep their dogs on a leash, of what value would any assurances from them of ending the hostilities mean? (Not that should be foolish enough to believe them anyway.)

In one bit of related news, we’re seeing reports today out of Afghanistan, that the Islam Qala border crossing with Iran, located in Herat province, has fallen to the Taliban. The Afghani government forces that had been manning the station fled over the border into Iran. The Taliban now controls more than 80% of Afghanistan and they are openly attacking the remaining government troops in provinces outside of Kabul. What the Taliban’s relationship with Iran will look like when this is all over remains unknown, but the unrest in that region is still spreading.