As the battle for Fallujah in Iraq continues the Iranians are attempting to take credit for the operation. Pictures have been posted in the press and on social media of Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ General Qasim Suleimani in the area and consulting with elements of the Hashd. This is part of Tehran’s continuing propaganda operation to portray itself as the savior of Iraq and the main opponent of the Islamic State. To discuss this campaign is Dr Raz Zimmt a research fellow at the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University and the Forum for Regional Thinking and editor of “Spotlight on Iran.” He recently wrote about this topic in “Iranian Participation in the Liberation of Fallujah” for the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center. He can be followed on Twitter at @RZimmt
1. How many Iraqis knew who General Suleimani was before the fall of Mosul in June 2014?
Not too many. For many years, Qasem Soleimani was careful to keep a low media profile and was almost unknown even to the Iranian public. His presence in Iraq was actually formally denied by Iran until summer 2014.
He was certainly known by high ranking Iraqi officials and among Iraqi Shi'ite militias as the IRGC/Qods force under his command was involved in the campaign against the United States since the beginning of the American occupation of Iraq in 2003.
As part of Iranian involvement in Iraq, the Qods Force provided most of the Shi'ite militias with money, equipment and weapons. It also coordinated and organized sending Hezbollah operatives to Iraq to support the fighting against the United States.
It was only gradually that his public exposure increased, first in the western and later also in the Iranian media. The fall of Mosul forced Iran to dispatch arms and advisors to Iraq under the command of Soleimani, who directed the Iraqi military campaign fought by Iranian-supported Shi'ite militias in coordination with the Iraqi government.
It was his involvement in the campaign against ISIS, the successes attributed to him and his extensive media exposure which made him so popular both inside Iran and abroad.
2. How has Iran made Suleimani the face of its propaganda campaign in Iraq and how is that playing out in the current Fallujah operation?
Iran has promoted Soleimani's image by using both traditional media and social networks which began to post dozens of pictures and videos showing his activity in Iraq following the fall of Mosul and his frequent visits to Iraq, usually accompanied by members of the Iranian-supported Shi'ite militias.
This campaign seems to be intentional, aimed at strengthening the deterrent image of Iran and the IRGC as the most influential factors in the Middle East, operating with determination against Iran's enemies. Iran also uses Soleimani's image to fend off criticism against its meddling in the Arab states' internal affairs by highlighting his continued involvement in the battle against ISIS.
The use of Soleimani in Iran's propaganda campaign is evident in the current Fallujah operation, where a significant disparity exists between the degree of involvement of the IRGC and the Iraqi Shi'ite militias supported and directed by Iran, and the way that involvement is reported by the Iranians. While the Iraqi security forces (especially the counter-terrorism forces) have a main role in the fighting, Iranian media has emphasized the role played by Soleimani and the Shi'ite militias, which seems to be limited to besieging Fallujah.
To reinforce Iran's self-aggrandizing propaganda, sources affiliated with the IRGC posted pictures to the social networks showing Soleimani in the Fallujah area. In several pictures he appears with senior Iraqi Shi'ite militia commanders and the Iranian media claimed the pictures were taken in the operations room from which the Fallujah campaign was being conducted. However, all the commanders seen in the pictures belong to Shi'ite militias, which indicate it was not the operations room used for the entire military operation, but rather only for the missions carried out by the Shi'ite militias.
The fact is that in the last year the IRGC and Soleimani himself were much more concerned with the developments in Syria. Iran, however, is still determined to position itself as a central factor in the continuing campaign against ISIS in Iraq and emphasizing Soleimani's personal involvement in Fallujah is intended to signal that Iran still plays an important role in Iraq.
Soleimani has actually become a symbol of Iran's regional power and the Iranian regime has, therefore, a vested interest in glorifying him both at home and abroad, even when the degree of his actual involvement in conducting the war in Iraq has significantly decreased.
3. In recent months there have been signs of tension within Iraq over Iran’s role. When the Sadrists took over the Green Zone they chanted anti-Iranian slogans and a social media campaign started against Gen. Suleimani. Then two pro-Suleimani campaigns began on Twitter and people in Basra drove trucks through the city flying Iranian flags. How do you see Tehran’s influence playing out in Iraq?
ISIS's dramatic achievements in Iraq, beginning in 2014, were a significant strategic challenge for Iran. The occupation of Mosul and the takeover of extensive areas in Iraq threatened Iraq's territorial integrity and placed a hostile, violent force on Iran's border. ISIS's victories forced Iran to deploy both weapons and advisors to Iraq led by Soleimani, who coordinated with the Iraqi government and led the military campaign in Iraq using the Shi'ite militias. He paid frequent visits to Iraq, led in planning the campaign, supervised the delivery of military support and intelligence from Iran to Iraq, coordinated the joint fighting effort of the Iraqi army and the Shi'ite militias directed by the IRGC, and maintained constant contact with senior Iraqi officials both in the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish leadership in northern Iraq.
However, the series of setbacks ISIS has suffered in 2015 made it possible for Iran to divert most of its attention to Syria. The combined military successes of ISIS, Al-Nusra Front and other rebel organizations in northern and northwestern Syria in 2015 raised doubts in Iran as to Assad's ability to remain in power over time. That forced Iran to significantly increase its support for the Assad regime and deploy more IRGC fighters to Syria. The fighting in Syria, which had claimed the lives of more than 400 Iranians, led to the increased personal involvement of Soleimani, to a great extent at the expense of Iraq.
Iran's assistance to the Shi'ite militias still continues, however, as well as Iranian involvement in Iraqi politics. This intervention has increased internal criticism inside Iraq against Iran. Initially, while ISIS retained its power and the weak Iraqi army found it difficult to combat it, the contribution of Soleimani and the IRGC to the campaign was greatly appreciated by senior Iraqi officials. However, when the situation on the ground changed to the detriment of ISIS, the political winds in Iraq changed as well and the Iraqi political-religious leadership has been showing increasing signs of aversion to Iran's growing influence, especially to Soleimani's personal intervention in the country's internal affairs. Their aversion is based on a genuine desire not to turn into an Iranian satellite, Iraq's fundamental desires for continued American support in the campaign against ISIS, and for maintaining correct relations with the Sunni Arab countries.
Nevertheless, Iran is still determined to continue its involvement in Iraq through the use of its proxies, despite its potential negative and risky consequences: deepening the Sunni-Shi'ite schism, Sunni alienation towards the central government and an increase in Iraqi concerns regarding Iran's influence.