Iraqi Shi’ite Militias Distance Themselves From Iran, Fearing Abandonment

Iran's talks with Saudis raise prospects of rapprochement

The schism between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims has caused tensions for centuries, and has recently been seen as a source of tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iraq, which borders both nations and has populations of both types, has a group of Shi’ite militias that are formally aligned with Iran, and were instrumental in fighting against ISIS.

Iraq, which worries about hosting potential fights, has tried to bring the Saudis and Iranians together to talk, which is going a lot better than anyone expected. That’s good news for everyone, except maybe the militias, who were awash in funding and support because of the tensions.

Indications are that the militias are distancing themselves from Iran now, sort of a silent protest to the talks, and based on the belief that the Iranians will cut them loose the first chance they get if they start getting real diplomatic progress.

That might be a fair assessment, as for months Iran has been grousing to Iraq about the militias not being very well under control. Orders to stop hitting US targets in anticipation of new talks there were ignored by several militias, with Iran openly threatening to disavow some of the groups if they didn’t knock it off.

This is something that’s not so unusual, with an armed faction in the pay of a nation seeing the writing on the walls and trying to undermine diplomacy with some unilateral action of their own. This often makes it hard to reverse course on proxy conflicts.

If anything this is something the US and Iran have in common, as while Iran tries to keep militias from foiling things, the US is contending with Israeli delegations lobbying heavily against diplomacy, and sabotaging Iranian interests.

Iran probably isn’t going to cut loose all of the militias at once, even if their importance drops drastically in the case of a deal with the Saudis. If anything this is likely to be a loyalty test for those factions, where the Iranians find out who they can trust.

Author: Jason Ditz

Jason Ditz is Senior Editor for He has 20 years of experience in foreign policy research and his work has appeared in The American Conservative, Responsible Statecraft, Forbes, Toronto Star, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Providence Journal, Washington Times, and the Detroit Free Press.