Tehran’s Ambassador to Baghdad Iraj Masjedi held a meeting with the leader of Harakat al-Nujaba, an Iraqi militia group fighting in Iraq and Syria, to discuss Iraqi and regional issues, Tasnim News Agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), reported. The two sides stressed the need to continue fighting against ISIS remnants not only in Iraq but also in Syria. Masjedi, who is the third consecutive Quds Force commander representing Tehran in Baghdad, praised the role of the Nujaba group in Iraq and Syria. “The Iraqis and even Iranians take a pride in the actions and policies of the Nujaba resistance movement,” Masjedi was quoted as saying to Kaabi. “The Islamic Republic of Iran will continue its support to regional countries and will assist them to foil the enemy’s plots,” the Iranian ambassador added. Kaabi also stressed that the “resistance groups” should receive international support to “destroy Islam’s enemies and their financial and weapons supporters.”  

Comment: All the three Iranian ambassadors in post-Saddam Iraq have been senior members of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force – reinforcing the notion that the IRGC, rather than the government in Tehran, is in charge of the Islamic Republic’s policies in regional countries. Masjidi a year ago replaced Hassan Danaeifar, who had served as Tehran’s ambassador to Baghdad for more than six years. Masjidi’s military role in Iraq dates back to the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, when he served as the chief of staff of the I.R.G.C.’s Ramazan Base outside the country under the leadership of IRGC commander Mohammad Bagher Zolghadr. The Ramazan Base was a central operational headquarter of the Quds Force and played an instrumental role in equipping, training and leading anti-Saddam Iraqi militant groups such as the Badr Brigade. The Quds Force operative then played a role in post-Saddam operations against US forces in Iraq.

Masjidi has also been a strong proponent of Iran’s assertive role in regional conflicts. “Aleppo, Fallujah and other regions in Syria and Iraq are the front line of the Islamic Resistance,” he said in June 2016.  In another speech last year, Masjedi claimed credit for organizing and supporting regional sectarian militiamen to fight Iran’s wars in the Middle East. “The front line for our combatants in the past [Iran-Iraq war] was Abadan and Khoramshahr and Mehran and Haj Imran; and now it is Mosul, Lebanon and Aleppo and Syria.” He further noted: “Today, the militants of Islam have stopped the enemy in other countries and with the help of popular forces in Iraq and Syria and regional mujahedin and armies such as Fatemiyoun [Afghan Shiite combatants], Zainabyoun [Pakistani Shiite militants] and Haidaryoun (Iraqi Shiite groups) within the framework of a great international power and alliance to fight against the Takfiri enemy.”

The appointment of Masjedi to Baghdad was an effort by the IRGC to further consolidate Iran’s influence in Iraq. With decades of experience in Iraq, Masjedi has the ability not only to bring Baghdad closer to Tehran diplomatically, but also to use IRGC’s decades-long links with Iran-supported Iraqi sectarian groups to make Baghdad a more pliant partner at the expense of Iraq’s stability and the interests of the United States and its regional allies. When Masjedi’s appointment was first announced, Atheel al-Nujaifi, the former governor of Iraq’s Nineveh Province, said the Quds Force commander’s role in Iraq will not be confined to diplomatic efforts, but that Masjedi’s military experience will elevate “Iran-Iraq relations to another level.”

The readout of Masjidi’s meeting with the leader of the Nujaba militia group also indicates that the IRGC may redeploy more Iraqi militias to Syria now that Iraq is moving toward stability. The Quds Force commander may have also discussed Iraq’s parliamentary elections, as major Iran-allied militia groups have formed a coalition to contest the vote slated for May 12.

Harakat al-Nujaba – also known as Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba – is a militia unit within the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces. The group operates both in Syria and Iraq under the leadership of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force. Kaabi makes no secret of his allegiance to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei or his close relationship with Soleimani. Kaabi once famously stated that his forces would topple the Baghdad government if ordered by Khamenei.