Popular protests in Iraq's southern Shia heartland that have seen demonstrators push back against Iran's outsized influence in their country signal the collapse of Iran's strategy to present itself as a backer of Iraqi Shias, experts said.
Iran has long sought to consolidate its influence in Iraq by establishing loyalist militias and expanding influence over the Shia religious authority in Najaf.
Despite these efforts, Iran's influence remains marginal and tenuous, Iraqi Centre for Strategic Studies advisor Ghazi Faisal Hussain told Diyaruna.
Iraqi Shias have a strong Arab identity, he said, along with close ties to Najaf.
These ties "are deeply entrenched, despite Iran's continuous efforts and that of its agents to impose the doctrine of Wilayat al-Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist) at any cost on Shias, not only in Iraq but in the region and the world", he said.
Wilayat al-Faqih calls for allegiance to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The Iranian regime "actively promotes a false image that all Shias support Iran or pay allegiance to Khamenei, while in fact only certain individuals and groups have adopted the Iranian agenda", Hussain said.
The religious authority in Najaf stands firmly against Wilayat al-Faqih, and the seminary embraces moderation and loyalty to the homeland, Hussain said.
This approach is translated through "the wise positions" taken by Iraq's top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, he said.
During the popular protests in Iraq, for example, al-Sistani condemned attacks on Iraqi protestors and "supported the Iraqi people's legitimate demands for their rights", he said.
Al-Sistani's "patriotic and rational rhetoric, that was well received by Iraqis of all sects, had a calming effect and helped prevent the country from sliding into chaos, which is what Iran wants", Hussain said.
"These positions underscore the fundamental difference between the religious authority in Najaf and the religious establishment in [Qom] whose ideology and actions are met with caution by Iraqis and Iranians," he said.
Iran's waning influence
Iran's influence in Iraq's Shia-majority cities "has been significantly weakened", according to researcher Ghaith al-Tamimi, a former cleric at the Najaf seminary.
"People no longer believe in Iran's lies," he told Diyaruna, and cannot be fooled by the slogans the Iranian regime uses to defend its actions and ideology.
"Iraqi Shias are now the fiercest opponents of Iran's agenda, which has been exposed as an opportunistic attempt to submerge their national identity and strip them of their culture, history and sense of identity," al-Tamimi said.
The Iranian regime seeks to isolate Iraqi Shias from the region and international community "in an attempt to take over their resources and wealth", he said.
The popular protests sent a clear message of condemnation to the IRGC "and the support it provides to the militias that cater to Iran's interests and are directly responsible for repression and poverty", al-Tamimi said.
Iran has lost its ability to gain the support and trust of Iraqi Shias, as well as those in Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere, he said, as a result of its "interference and harmful policies that bring nothing but disasters and crises to the region".
Iraqis reject IRGC activities
Iraqis of all stripes renounce the IRGC's activities and those of its affiliated militias, former Iraqi MP Mithal al-Alousi told Diyaruna.
Iran-backed militias constitute a "global terrorist threat" because of their crimes and violations of international law that undermine regional stability and foment sectarianism, he said.
The destructive actions of the IRGC "has made it public enemy number one in Iraq, as it provides lethal weapons to Iraqi militias and helps them expand their influence and corruption in an effort to protect Iran's influence", he said.
As part of its support to these militias, the IRGC over the past two years has provided them with assistance and expertise to build an "integrated electronic system" in southern Baghdad's Jurf al-Sakhr, al-Alousi said.
This enables the militias to intercept communications from Iraqi institutions and spy on Iraqi officials, as well as foreign missions and embassies, he said, which is "a serious violation of the country's sovereignty and foreign relations".