The Iranian-Arab Power Struggle Reaches The Pitch

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The Iranian-Arab Power Struggle Reaches The Pitch

For the first time since 1979, Iraq is set to host the Arabian Gulf Cup (AGC) of the Arab Gulf Cup Football Federation.

But a last-minute announcement, less than 48 hours before the opening ceremonies, might throw a wrench into the pitch, jeopardize the games, and with it, Iraq’s hopes to re-establish Baghdad as part of the Arab world.

Reportedly, the organizers intend to place a massive poster of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani in the stadium. This decision jeopardizes the opening of the tournament. Why?

This week, Iran marked the third anniversary of the death of Major-General Qassem Soleimani. The United States Air Force killed the commander of the Iranian al-Quds Force near the Baghdad airport on January 3, 2020.

For the Arab world, it was a cause for celebration. But for the Iranian regime, it was a massive blow.

The mullah regime in Tehran aspires to position itself as the regional superpower. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian elite al-Quds force, was the primary executor. He created and fostered Shi’ite militias – armies of terror – throughout the Middle East that have one goal. To act as executors for Tehran through spreading Iranian power and influence across the region and inextricably entrenching Iran as the most powerful entity from the Gulf to the Mediterranean. Soleimani was extraordinarily valuable to the regime because, under his command, Iran deepened its grip and influence in the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. In his quest for Iranian hegemony, he, and the militias under his command, are directly responsible for death and destruction on an enormous scale throughout the Arab world.

One of the epicenters of the Iranian-Arab power struggle, and a country that has paid an incalculable price, is Iraq.

For Iran, securing its control over Iraq is critical to its quest to be the regional superpower. Iraq is about 55/60 percent Shi’ite and 35/40 percent Sunni. One of the most powerful tools Iran has established to control Iraq has been to establish an array of Shi’ite militias and political parties comprised of Shi’ite Iraqis.

Iraq suffers from a litany of crises. But currently, one of the most important is the battle between Iraqis who see themselves as , first and foremost, Shi’ites, and therefore support – and want to be part of the Shi’ite world led by Iran; and those who first and foremost, see themselves as Iraqis and Arabs, and want Iraq to be an independent Arab state, and part of the Arab world. Iran’s deepening involvement in Iraq causes a political and sometimes violent power struggle between Shi’ite Iran supporters and Shi’ite Iraqi nationalists.

The kickoff of the 25th biennial games is scheduled to begin tomorrow, January 6th, in Basra, in southern Iraq. Eight regional teams—Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen—will participate in the tournament.

The prospect of using the tournament as an “ode to Soleimani” is a slap in the face to the Arab Gulf countries – many of whom have been the target of the al-Quds force – which directly and indirectly by proxy, launched missiles and attacking drones on Saudi Arabia, attacked shipping in the Gulf, provided military, intelligence, and logistical assistance to the Houthis – a coalition of Shi’ite tribes in Yemen, that has been fighting an Iranian proxy-war with Saudi Arabia since 2015.

The Gulf countries – especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – are of utmost importance to Iraq’s domestic and foreign interests. If Iraq hangs the poster of Soleimani in the stadium, there is a good chance these teams – and other Gulf countries – might withdraw from the tournament. This will no doubt muddy Iraq’s relationship with the Gulf powers. On the other hand, the current Iraqi government is strongly influenced by pro-Iranian Iraqi factors, which may insist on displaying the poster to send a provocative Iranian message. 

Iraq’s current Prime Minister – Mohammed Shia’ Al Sudani, who is close with the Iraqi pro-Iranian camp – is trying to navigate this complex labyrinth. As far as the ACG goes, he has less than 24 hours to neutralize this crisis that could even lead to the cancellation of the tournament. I estimate he will succeed in finding a solution.

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Avi Melamed
Avi Melamed
Avi Melamed is an expert on current affairs in the Arab & Muslim World and their impact on Israel & the Middle East. A former Israeli Intelligence Official & Senior Official on Arab Affairs, Fluent in Arabic, English, and Hebrew, he has held high-risk Government, Senior Advisory, Intelligence & Counter-Terrorist intelligence positions in Arab cities & communities - often in very sensitive times - on behalf of Israeli Government agencies. He is the Founder & CEO of Inside the Middle East | Intelligence Perspectives - an apolitical non-partisan curriculum using intelligence methodology to examine the Middle East. As an Author, Educator, Expert, and Strategic Intelligence Analyst, Avi provides Intelligence Analysis, Briefings, and Geopolitical Tours to diplomats, Israeli and foreign policymakers, global media outlets, and a wide variety of international businesses, organizations, and private clients on a range of Israel and Middle East Affairs.

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