DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — CIA Director Mike Pompeo confirmed that Iranian Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani was in Kirkuk against the backdrop of Iraqi moves to restore Baghdad's authority over the city and surrounding disputed areas. Many analysts in Washington take that as a sign that Iraq and largely Shiite militias — the so-called Hashd al-Shaabi — were operating under the orders and guidance of Iran.
This may be overstated for two reasons. First, Soleimani acts not only as an operative but also as Iran's most trusted diplomat and, second, Soleimani was coordinating with the Kurds and so the narrative of pro-American Kurds versus pro-Iranian Iraqis simply doesn't make sense.
True, Iran's influence in Iraq is serious and presents a challenge both to U.S. and Iraqi interests, but exaggerating Soleimani's role based on photos he tweets out may actually play into Soleimani's strategy.
At first glance, it seems strange that Soleimani, given his position as Iran's chief operative in the covert world of terrorism and special operations, would allow his photo to be taken. That he does so, however, is the rule rather than the exception. In 2015, Iran released a Soleimani documentary, proudly announced on his now-defunct website. Soleimani's penchant for photos in the field has become so pronounced that many analysts — especially in Gulf Cooperation Council countries — suspect he might be laying the groundwork for a presidential run.
But Soleimani's photos also have another purpose: to suggest that Iran's role is more pervasive and effective than it actually may be. It's an influence operation, plain and simple, and one in which Iran often engages.
In Beirut, Baghdad, and Basra, I've found donation boxes belonging to the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee, a charity funded by Iran's supreme leader and designated by the U.S. Treasury Department for activities that are decidedly uncharitable. When I have called out Lebanese and Iraqi officials on how they can deny Iranian influence when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-linked charity manages to drill boxes into public streets in the center of major cities, the response is always the same: The Iranians do so without permits or permission, but countering the move is simply not a fight either Lebanon or Iraq are willing or able to pick.
That, of course, is an acknowledgement of Iranian power. But what is Iran's point? After all, in all my years traversing the Middle East, I've never seen anyone put money in those collection boxes, nor has anyone I've met. Frankly, after billions of dollars in sanctions relief and ransom payments provided to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the last years of the Obama presidency, they do not lack money. The answer is simply that Iranian officials want to project an image of all-pervasive presence and influence.
It's not just Soleimani or the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee. Consider this 2015 photo, supposedly from the Ashura Brigade Situation Room from which the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps supposedly controlled unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, in support of efforts to defeat the Islamic State. Of course, when the Iraqi military and Hashd al-Shaabi subsequently liberated Fallujah and Ramadi, there was no mention of Iranian UAVs. They played no effective role. But ask many Iraqis, and it was the Iranians who best supported Iraqi forces, both on the ground and by air.
Indeed, the majority of Iraqis believe the U.S. supported ISIS and it was Iran who defended Iraq from them. The reason for such a conspiracy is multifold. In the wake of the ISIS's rise, Iran provided Iraq with weapons and aircraft within a couple days but, in order to display its displeasure with then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the Obama administration delayed meaningful U.S. support for weeks if not months.
In effect, it was like a friend's house caught fire. One neighbor turned on his hose and helped dump buckets of water on the blaze, while the other stayed at home and watched "Keeping Up With the Kardashians." Of course, the Obama administration subsequently did help, but air support does not provide the same photo-ops that ground operations do. And even after U.S. Special Forces eventually returned to help on the ground, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and various Iranian outlets countered this simply by repeating the mantra that the U.S. sponsored ISIS.
That may have been nonsense — after all, the Iranian-backed Bashar Assad regime in Syria did not once bomb the ISIS capital at Raqqa in its years of monopolizing Syrian airspace — but lies absent an effective response become conventional wisdom, especially when most Iraqis and Iranians (rightly) believe NATO member Turkey was culpable in ISIS's rise.
So, back to the photos of Soleimani in Kirkuk: They are real and that's a problem. But, buying into the image of Soleimani's all-pervasive presence and influence in Iraq may actually be fulfilling the goals of Soleimani himself. Just because Soleimani takes a photo does not mean he is in direct control; it only means that he wants people to believe he is in direct control.
That doesn't mean the U.S. shouldn't try to counter Soleimani. Snatching him when, in contravention to U.N. sanctions, he is outside Iran would be a good place to start even considering the blowback which would surely follow. But getting dragged into an intra-Kurdish squabble or allowing Kurds to cynically and hypocritically play the Iran card against Iraq is simply counterproductive.
Michael Rubin (@Mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official.
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