‘Iraqi Resistance’ Ready for ‘Wider War’ in Lebanon

Iran's acting foreign minister Ali Bagheri Kani and Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein arrive for a joint news conference in Baghdad, Iraq June 13, 2024. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Iran's acting foreign minister Ali Bagheri Kani and Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein arrive for a joint news conference in Baghdad, Iraq June 13, 2024. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
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‘Iraqi Resistance’ Ready for ‘Wider War’ in Lebanon

Iran's acting foreign minister Ali Bagheri Kani and Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein arrive for a joint news conference in Baghdad, Iraq June 13, 2024. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Iran's acting foreign minister Ali Bagheri Kani and Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein arrive for a joint news conference in Baghdad, Iraq June 13, 2024. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

When Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein warned of the outbreak of war in Lebanon, his disturbing words were expected to receive a stormy response from Iraqi factions loyal to Iran about preparations to support Lebanon’s Hezbollah. But this did not happen.

On June 13, Hussein was speaking in a joint press conference with his acting Iranian counterpart, Ali Bagheri Kani, and without prior context, he fired a “warning shot” about South Lebanon, while Baghdad is committed to the truce under a government that is increasingly admired by the Americans.

“If a war breaks out there, the entire region will be affected, not just Lebanon,” Hussein said.

For many, the words of the Iraqi chief diplomat were a “message” based on information provided by the Iranian visitor, Bagheri Kani, who, two weeks before his arrival in Baghdad, was holding “normal” meetings in Beirut and Damascus about the “close and lasting partnership.”

Two figures in the Coordination Framework told Asharq Al-Awsat that when Kani arrived in Baghdad, he spoke with Iraqi officials about “a possible war that Israel is planning in South Lebanon.”

In an attempt to understand the position of the military factions, Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to an Iraqi faction leader, who said: “We were asked about our position if the Lebanon front were to witness further escalation. We replied: We are ready, (...) we will go there.”

A diplomat confirmed that Bagheri had not made the request “in this manner,” while an Iraqi expert interpreted Hussein’s words as an attempt to achieve “political balance between the government and the resistance,” ruling out the chances of a “wider war”.

Who is seeking to expand the war, Iran or Israel?

For months, the regions of South Lebanon and northern Israel have been witnessing the most violent exchange of attacks since the 2006 war, within the framework of unconventional rules of engagement that make it a war in doses, with high costs, especially on the side of Hezbollah in the South.

Lebanese sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that the toll of the past months is equivalent to the damage of a comprehensive war.

Amos Hochstein, advisor to US President Joe Biden, who arrived in Israel on Monday, and from there to Beirut, conveyed a message to dissuade Netanyahu from any possible escalation that might push Iran to intervene directly in Lebanon, through its arms in Iraq.

Aqeel Abbas, a political science professor in Washington, believes that Netanyahu “wants this war more than Hezbollah and Iran,” because the latter wants to maintain the pattern of frequent strikes from South Lebanon to ease pressure on Hamas in Gaza.

Hezbollah itself also wants to maintain the “dynamic of deterrence” at its current level, as any open military operation by the Israelis will annihilate the Lebanese infrastructure, according to Abbas.

Iran waves the Hezbollah card

Before Bagheri Kani’s visit to Baghdad, Iran was transmitting messages to the Iraqis suggesting that it was facing three intractable problems: The vacuum left by the death of Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdullahian, the enormous pressure from the Americans and the West regarding the nuclear program, and Tehran’s position in the Gaza ceasefire deal, which will ultimately force it to abandon one of its axes in the region.

In this context, Iran is seeking to put the South Lebanon card on the table to improve its conditions in the negotiations. It is not clear how this hypothesis fits with the case of Hezbollah, as many observers say that the group is exhausted and limited in its movement. However, the Iraqi politician responded by saying: “No one has yet confirmed the fact that Hezbollah is exhausted, while it can at any time cause a harmful blow to the Israelis.”

To a large extent, Aqeel Abbas agrees with this suggestion, pointing to an Israeli and American concern over “Hezbollah’s military and technological capabilities,” even after months of attrition.

“Hands on the trigger, Lebanon”

When the Iraqi minister issued his warning on Lebanon, Baghdad was at a safe distance from the flames of the Gaza war in the region. The government was able to maintain the truce with the US forces for months, while Prime Minister Mohammad Shiaa al-Sudani tried to balance between Iran’s requirements and the ambitions of the factions.

Since the death of Raisi, the leaders of the Shiite parties and factions have not heard many important messages from the Iranians.

A Shiite faction leader in Baghdad, who spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat on condition of anonymity, said that unannounced visits by Iranian military figures to Iraq have decreased since Raisi’s death.

He noted that before Bagheri Kani’s visits to Baghdad and Erbil, the Iranians addressed direct questions to the Hezbollah Brigades and the Nujaba Movement about their willingness to participate in the South Lebanon confrontations with Israel.

The faction leader told Asharq Al-Awsat: “We told them, yes, of course. Hands on the trigger...”

Hezbollah does not want the Iraqis’ involvement

“Indeed, we are preparing for any emergency in Lebanon (...) we know what the crown jewel of the resistance in the region (Hezbollah) is facing,” said a field commander of an influential Shiite faction, which is active in Nineveh Governorate (northern Iraq). He also claimed that he informed the IRGC about his readiness to fight alongside the resistance in Lebanon.

It seems that Tehran wants the “concerned parties” to express this position publicly, while Hezbollah is under enormous pressure by the Israelis who are planning for a wider war with the aim of disintegrating the “resistance in South Lebanon.”

However, the participation of the Iraqi factions in a war alongside Hezbollah is not guaranteed. Even though the Iraqis are offering “human equipment,” the Lebanese faction has not informed any of the “resistance comrades” that they would be allowed to deploy in the field, on Lebanese territory.

The leaders of the two Shiite factions in Baghdad and Nineveh agree that “(Hezbollah) will not welcome the Iraqis, because it views them as unqualified, lack a cohesive entity, and are at best bad allies, with countless problems in decision-making.”

What increases the conviction that the Iraqi factions will not engage in the South Lebanon War is the rare understanding between the Iranians and the government in Baghdad to protect the existing formula of stability.

A senior official in the government of Adel Abdul Mahdi said: “Iraq is the crown jewel of the Iranians, more than Hezbollah, and they will not risk it in the South Lebanon war.” He added that Hussein’s words were a form of “pressure to prevent war, not the contrary.”

Abbas believes that Tehran does not want to facilitate [Donald] Trump’s victory by striking the Americans under the mandate of his rival, Biden.

In the context, the former Iraqi official stated that Iran wants to keep the war away from Iraq’s borders, because “they are now keener on calm in Iraq.”

The Syrian model in Lebanon

The former Iraqi official said “a comprehensive war is only present in the imagination of the Lebanese.”

However, if such a war erupted, “Hezbollah would not likely need the Iraqi brigades.”

But if war breaks out, “Iran will not leave Hezbollah alone. This will not happen (...). It will definitely do something,” said the official.

A pessimistic scenario indicates that the “broader” war will break out in South Lebanon, pushing Iran to resort to the Syrian model.

The Iraqi official said: “This would mean dividing the map of Lebanon according to certain calculations, between factions from Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan...”

However, there is no decisive information regarding a broader war in the South and the engagement of pro-Iranian Iraqi factions. Iran is trying to use all the cards with caution to make amendments in its favor in the “day after” the Gaza deal, and fears that the “arenas” it manages will spiral into a war in which it will lose the ability to maneuver.



How Iran's Khamenei Elevated Pezeshkian to the Presidency

FILE PHOTO: Iran's President-elect Masoud Pezeshkian and Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei attend a ceremony in Tehran, Iran July 12, 2024. Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS
FILE PHOTO: Iran's President-elect Masoud Pezeshkian and Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei attend a ceremony in Tehran, Iran July 12, 2024. Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS
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How Iran's Khamenei Elevated Pezeshkian to the Presidency

FILE PHOTO: Iran's President-elect Masoud Pezeshkian and Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei attend a ceremony in Tehran, Iran July 12, 2024. Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS
FILE PHOTO: Iran's President-elect Masoud Pezeshkian and Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei attend a ceremony in Tehran, Iran July 12, 2024. Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS

When intelligence officials briefed Iran's supreme leader Ali Khamenei in May ahead of a snap presidential election, their report was grim: angered by economic hardship and crackdowns on social freedoms, most Iranians planned to boycott the vote and turnout would only be about 13%.
That's when Khamenei decided to plan a carefully orchestrated election, setting the stage for a little-known but trusted moderate, Massoud Pezeshkian, to rise to the presidency in a race that would initially be dominated by hardliners, five people with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
Khamenei gathered a handful of his most trusted advisers to discuss his plan in at least three meetings in late May at his residence in a fortified compound in Tehran, according to the five people, who are two hardline sources, a top security official and two insiders close to Khamenei's inner circle.
The supreme leader was concerned low turnout would damage the clerical establishment's credibility and he ordered those present to find a way to steer the election, said one of the people, who was briefed about the meetings.
The election was called after President Ebrahim Raisi died in a helicopter crash in May. His death upset the plans of many fellow hardliners who wanted him to succeed the 85-year-old Khamenei and triggered a race among hardliners to influence the selection of the next supreme leader.
The meetings at Khamenei's residence included a small group of senior officials and security aides, his close ally and adviser Ali Akbar Velayati, as well as two senior commanders of the Revolutionary Guards.
Khamenei's aim was to preserve Iran amid domestic dissent and heightened tensions with the West and Israel over Gaza, exacerbated by the involvement of Tehran's allies Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, according to the five people, who were briefed in detail about what Khamenei said during the meetings regarding his plan and its goals.
One of the insiders briefed about the meeting said Khamenei believed Iran needed a president who could appeal to different layers of society, but would not challenge the ruling Shiite theocracy.
Several names were floated at the second meeting. Khamenei suggested Pezeshkian as a person who could foster unity among those in power, bridge the gap between the clerical establishment and the people, and ensure a smooth selection process for the next supreme leader, two sources said.
"It was a flawless plan by the supreme leader ... which guaranteed the survival of the Islamic Republic," said Tehran-based pro-reform analyst Saeed Laylaz.
"Pezeshkian will avoid any crisis at home, whether with the nation or the establishment," Laylaz said. "That will allow top leaders to decide about the succession and plan it in a calm atmosphere."
Khamenei's office, the public relations office for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Pezeshkian's office could not be reached for comment. Velayati's office declined to comment.
ELECTION ENGINEERING?
The new president is not expected to usher in any major shift on Iran's nuclear or foreign policy, or its support for militias in the region, but he will be closely involved in selecting the successor to Khamenei, who calls the shots on top state matters.
Pezeshkian's mild profile, the sources said, would appease disgruntled Iranians, ensure domestic stability amid mounting foreign pressure, as well as providing Khamenei with a trusted ally in the eventual succession process.
A regional source close to Iranian circles of power said Pezeshkian's election had been "engineered" to defuse tensions after a wave of popular protests sparked by the death in custody of a young woman in 2022 and stricter curbs on social freedoms imposed by Raisi.
The initial phase of Khamenei's plan was set in motion when then-lawmaker Pezeshkian - encouraged by pragmatic former officials with links to the supreme leader's office - registered to stand in the June 28 election, two sources said.
They said Pezeshkian was unaware of the behind-the-scenes decisions. One source close to him said he didn't even expect to be approved by the Guardian Council, an unelected vetting body of six clerics and six jurists aligned to Khamenei which has banned many moderate and prominent conservative candidates in the past.
Khamenei's plan was designed to appear fair and democratic, so two prominent hardline candidates, former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and parliament speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, were approved by the vetting council, the five people familiar with the matter said.
That meant hardliner votes would likely be split between them, making it harder for both to make it to a run-off.
Jalili belongs to the ultra-hardline camp of "Paydari", which advocates tougher social restrictions, self-reliance, a hawkish foreign policy - and is believed to have already chosen its candidate to succeed Khamenei, said former Iranian lawmaker Noureddin Pirmoazen, a reformer now based in the United States.
A win for Jalili, who opposed the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, would have sent a negative signal to the West as it piles pressure on Tehran over its fast-advancing uranium enrichment program, three analysts and two diplomats told Reuters.
"With the increased likelihood of Donald Trump's return to the White House ... the Islamic Republic needed a moderate figure to keep dialogue with the West open and reduce tensions," said one Western diplomat in the region.
A Guardian Council spokesman said: "It was a transparent and impartial election."
Jalili and Qalibaf could not be reached for comment.
A US State Department spokesperson said: "We can't speculate on specific theories of what may have transpired behind the scenes of Iran's recent presidential election. What we can say with certainty is that elections in Iran are neither free nor fair."
A White House National Security Council spokesperson did not respond directly to questions about the main points of this story but said Washington had no expectation the elections would lead to fundamental change in Iran's direction or more respect for the human rights of its citizens.
THE DESIRED OUTCOME
Pezeshkian, who is an Azeri ethnic minority, won the first round with a core of voters that analysts said was mostly urban middle class or young - groups widely disillusioned by years of security crackdowns.
But voter turnout was just 40%, the lowest for any election in the Islamic Republic, and the election went to a run-off between Pezeshkian and the fervently anti-Western Jalili.
Qalibaf, a security hawk, who has echoed the views of Khamenei on every major issue, such as backing the power of Islamic clerics, finished third.
Fearing Jalili's antagonistic domestic and foreign policy, many Iranians who voted for Qalibaf, or abstained, went for Pezeshkian in the second round on July 5, bumping up the turnover to almost 50% of Iran's 61 million voters.
Ultimately, Khamenei's plan achieved the desired outcome.
Pezeshkian, a 69-year-old heart surgeon, backed by reformists, moderate conservatives and ethnic minorities, won with 54% of the votes.
"I thank the supreme leader. If it weren't for him, I don't think my name would have easily come out of ballot boxes," Pezeshkian said on state TV.
Two sources close to Khamenei said Pezeshkian was referring to an order from the supreme leader to electoral officials to ensure votes were counted properly. The electoral authorities said there were no complaints about vote rigging.
Pezeshkian, loyal to Iran's theocratic rule, has pledged to pursue a pragmatic foreign policy, ease tensions over now-stalled talks to revive a 2015 nuclear deal with major powers, and improve prospects for social liberalization.
He has spoken up for the rights of women and ethnic minorities and criticized the establishment's handling of the death of Mahsa Amini, an Iranian Kurdish woman who died in 2022 while in custody for allegedly violating the Islamic dress code.
"They arrest a girl because a few strands of her hair are showing ... and return her dead body to her family," Pezeshkian said in 2022. "This behavior is unacceptable."
However, many analysts are skeptical about whether Pezeshkian can fulfil all his campaign promises as he has publicly stated that he has no intention of confronting Iran's powerful clerics and security hawks.