Iran’s popularity in Iraq plummeted to near zero after its violent treatment of protesters, a new academic report has said.
Despite being seen as the “winner” after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, Iran’s continued interference has led to increasingly hard feelings towards Tehran.
In particular the violence meted out by Iran-backed militias, including assassinations, has seen trust evaporate, the report by the London School of Economics' Middle East Centre said.
“Anti-Iranian sentiment has effectively undermined Iran’s claim that its activities in Iraq are at the behest of the people,” it stated.
Approval ratings for Iran reached a high of 86 per cent in 2015 during the fight against ISIS.
But the latest polling among pro-reform protesters in Iraq showed only 1 per cent trusted Iran, compared with 7 per cent who trusted the US, and 30 per cent who trusted the UN.
But Iran’s influence still extends over the political elite, militias and at a grass-roots level, the report written by Dr Jessica Watkins said.
The Tehran regime relied on “patronage networks” that would not be “easily dislodged” by military operations.
“Over the past 17 years, the Islamic Republic has gained extensive leverage over Iraq’s national security and political decision-making at local and national levels,” the paper said.
But within Iraq, Iran’s public image had suffered enormously since mass public protests against its influence broke out across the country in October 2019.
The violence of Iran-backed militias had led to the groups being regarded as “predators rather than liberators”, the report said.
Iran’s influence, including the allocation of public-sector jobs, was “a core source of grievance motivating the Iraqi youth protest movement”, the report said.
The young protesters wanted an “end to cronyism and corruption within public office”, and for the government to address unemployment and poor public services.
“In this respect, they favour the same type of transparency and accountability within government that western states seek to promote," the report said.
"However, the US and its allies are also widely distrusted.”
America appears to have concluded that, aside from military action against Iran or its proxies, “it can do little to confront Iranian smart power and has significantly downgraded its diplomatic relations with the government of Iraq”.
Relations with the US plunged after President Donald Trump ordered the assassination of the Iranian commander Qassem Suleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis.
But the appointment of Mustafa Al Kadhimi as Iraq’s Prime Minister in May, after six months of paralysis, showed that the American conduct “has not negated US influence over domestic affairs”.
The US assassinations had also produced a “charisma deficit” in the paramilitary leadership, where the ability of their replacements to command equal loyalty was “doubtful”.
While Iranian allies in Iraq have publicly deferred to the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, some have capitalised on his name to raise funds and popularity.
The paper cautioned that when Mr Al Sistani, 88, passed away, his death would create a vacuum in religious authority, which Tehran would probably seek to exploit.
At home, Iran is increasingly coming under public pressure to cease its funding of causes abroad at a time of severe domestic economic hardship.