Iran is not making a U-turn in Iraq

Switching support from Maliki to Abadi does not represent a real policy change for Iran.

Last week, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei endorsed Haider al-Abadi as Iraq’s new prime minister, saying that the change in leadership could help to “untie the knot” in Baghdad. Iran’s decision to back Abadi was neither a surprise nor an indication that Iran is making a U-turn in Baghdad. The former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, had outlived his usefulness for Iran. Haider al-Abadi may be better placed to secure Iranian interests.

The formation of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq has weakened Iran’s regional positioning. Sharing as it does a common border with Iraq, Iran has more to lose from escalating terrorism and unravelling in Iraq than it does in Syria.  But Iran shifting its support from one Shia figure in Iraq’s central government to another is not an indication of weakness. The timing of the shift may perhaps even create space for some limited co-ordination between Iran and the West in combating IS.  

Iran’s policy in Iraq has never been about specific personalities.

Iran’s policy in Iraq has never been about specific personalities. Iran has generally been open to a more inclusive central government in Iraq, as long as the administration remained Shia-dominated and Tehran-friendly. Unlike in Syria, where it sees Bashar al-Assad as an essential figure, Iran believed that viable alternative candidates existed in Iraq who could both keep the Iraqi state apparatus under control and remain allied to Iran. 

Besides the formation of IS, two events particularly influenced Iran’s decision to abandon Maliki. First, there was the “Sistani factor” and the general Shia discontent. Iraq’s foremost Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, gave strong warnings that Maliki had lost legitimacy among all Iraqi factions, and Tehran took note of his message. Iran’s leaders also paid close attention to the large numbers of defections from Maliki’s Shia Dawa party. As long as Maliki had the loyalty of the majority in his own party, Iran remained loyal to him as well. But as this loyalty withered over the last month, so too did Iran’s.

Second, Iran’s security establishment came to believe that Maliki had become too stubborn at a time when IS was gaining new territory. Qassem Suleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force and arguably the Iranian strategist with the deepest understanding of Iraq’s political and military landscape, grew tired of reasoning with Maliki. Reportedly, Suleimani lost patience when Maliki refused to accept Iran’s proposal in early August to resign with the option of handpicking his successor.


By early August, exhaustive consultations were taking place in Tehran on a potential successor to Maliki.


By early August, exhaustive consultations were taking place in Tehran on a potential successor to Maliki. Iran wanted to find a competent Shia candidate who could repair the central government’s damaged relations with the Kurds and Sunnis. In the final days before Maliki’s resignation, members of the Dawa party travelled to Iran to present Abadi’s case. Although he was at this point an outsider in the race, Abadi was seen as competent and amenable to both the United States and Iran.

Abadi comes from the same political roots as Maliki. He is unlikely to bring about a radical shift in Baghdad’s relationship with Tehran. Abadi revealed his realpolitik leanings in an interview in June, when he said that if the US would not provide Baghdad with air strike assistance, his government would look to Iran to fill the vacuum. Although some members of the Dawa party favour distancing from Iran, it is unlikely that Abadi will do so at this fragile moment for Baghdad.

In time, Abadi’s moderate tone could bring about the formation of an inclusive government capable of addressing the legitimate needs of all Iraqis. Iran is willing to make some compromises to prevent further disintegration in Iraq and to avoid the establishment of a permanent IS presence in the country. Iran sees that Sunni tribes have entered into pacts with IS out of extreme discontent with the current situation. This has made it clear to the Iranian leadership that resolving Baghdad’s political deadlock is an urgent necessity rather than a secondary option. Especially important is the need to include Iraq’s Sunni minorities as part of a newly shaped unity central government in Baghdad.

Despite Sunni hostility, Iran has accumulated considerable influence among Iraq’s majority Shia population since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

However, this does not mean that Iran will let go of the interests it has secured in the last decade. Despite Sunni hostility, Iran has accumulated considerable influence among Iraq’s majority Shia population since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Tehran has strengthened its economic and political ties with Iraqi Kurds. In addition, the Iran-controlled Iraqi Shia faction, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, enables Tehran to implement its hard security policies in Iraq as and when it chooses. Iraq also provides Iran with valuable access routes to Syria and to Hezbollah, which form a useful security shield against Israel. Both the US and the various Iraqi political factions are aware that Abadi is unlikely to undercut Iran’s vital strategic objectives.

Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, is believed to be the man working out Tehran’s strategy for resolving the political deadlock in Iraq and responding to IS. He is a trusted confidant both of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and of Ayatollah Khamenei. As an Arab-Iranian with ties to Saudi Arabia, Shamkhani is popular among the Gulf States as an interlocutor with whom they can do business. Shamkhani is likely to set up more of a presence in Iraq, aiming at reconciliation with Sunni tribes as well as intelligence co-ordination with the Kurds and with the newly formed government in Baghdad.

Both in Tehran and in the West, alarm has been caused by IS’s success in expanding into Diyala on the Iran-Iraq border and in delivering severe blows to the Peshmerga Kurdish fighters in Iraq. In spite of its anti-US rhetoric, Tehran appreciates that the US has aided Iranian security through its fight against the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Saddam. Likewise, the US air strikes against IS over recent weeks have benefited Iran. The overspill of IS from Syria into Iraq has created another occasion on which Iranian and Western strategy towards a common concern could overlap.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Deputy Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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