On Monday, Iranian Ambassador to Baghdad Iraj Masjedi traveled to the holy city of Karbala and held meetings with senior Iraqi government officials and religious leaders, the Iranian media reported. In a meeting with Sheikh Abdul Mahdi Karbalai, the representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highest Shiite religious authority in Iraq, Masjedi discussed joint Iranian-Iraqi projects for holy shrines in Iraq as well as preparations for this year’s Arba'een Pilgrimage in Karbala. The top Iranian official in Iraq also met with other top Iraqi religious figures in Karbala, including Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi al-Modarresi and Ayatollah Sayed Mortada Al-Qazwini.
In a separate meeting with Karbala Governor Akeel al-Turaihi, Masjedi stressed that Iran and Iraq should explore ways of further boosting bilateral cultural, political, economic and religious ties. Masjedi, who has decades of experience in Iraq as a senior Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.) commander, emphasized that Tehran will do its utmost to improve security in Iraq. “Iraq's security is Iran's security and vice versa,” he noted. He warned against foreign countries’ attempts to undermine “brotherly” relations between the two neighbors.
Earlier today, Masjedi also spoke to a gathering of Iranian officials in Iraq. And at a press conference in Karbala, he called on all Iranian citizens living in Iraq to vote in Iran’s May 19 presidential elections at designated polling stations inside Iraq.
Comment: Iraj Masjedi, the third consecutive I.R.G.C. Quds Force commander serving as Iran’s envoy to post-Saddam Iraq, assumed his new role in Baghdad last month. His appointment signified the I.R.G.C.’s increasing influence in the Arab country. Masjedi’s two predecessors, Danaeifar and Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, were also senior Quds Force officials. The Quds Force is the I.R.G.C.’s external operations arm and is designated by the United States as a terrorist entity.
Masjedi served in the I.R.G.C. for 35 years, and his last position was to oversee Iran’s military role in Iraq and Syria as a senior aide to Quds Force Commander Major General Qassem Soleimani. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Masjedi organized anti-Saddam forces from inside Iraq, and he has played a key role in mobilizing Iraqi Shiite militia organizations in Iraq since the U.S. intervention in 2003.
Masjedi’s close links with Iraqi sectarian groups such as Harakat al-Nujaba and Asaib Ahl al-Haq have raised the concern that his appointment may further inflame sectarian tension in Iraq, particularly after the Islamic State is defeated. In a speech earlier this years, 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.”
But Masjedi’s efforts in Iraq will not be confined to security matters. As he pointed out during his first meeting as Iran’s ambassador to Baghdad with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on April 24, Masjedi wants to improve Iran’s economic and trade ties with Iraq. He will certainly try to leverage his influence with the Iraqi government to secure more projects for I.R.G.C.-affiliated companies. In addition, he is reportedly trying to ensure that Iran-linked Iraqi militia leaders secure key security and political positions in post-Islamic State Iraq.