The Risks of the US-Iraq Crisis

The attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad risks involving the entire Middle East – first and foremost, Iran

In recent days, the United States has found itself facing a serious crisis in Iraq. Last Tuesday, the American embassy in Baghdad was stormed by a number of protesters, in reaction to American raids, which had hit structures of the Shi’ite and pro-Iranian paramilitary organization Kataib Hezbollah the previous Sunday, killing 24 people. Washington’s move was itself in response to the attack that this same organization had carried out against American bases in Iraq last Friday, an attack that killed an American contractor and wounded a few soldiers. The embassy protests, which the Americans reacted to with tear gas, were broken up at the last minute, while the Pentagon – after an initial influx of 100 Marines – had already announced it would send another 750 troops to the territory. Donald Trump accused Iran of having “orchestrated” the siege, an accusation that the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei brusquely returned. If the situation on the ground seems to have calmed down for the time being, on the geopolitical front, tensions remain particularly high. Iraq is increasingly at risk of becoming a Middle Eastern powder keg.

The contest for this region remains more than a little complicated. Iraq is currently subject to pressing geopolitical influences of an opposing nature. In the forefront, the United States commands approximately 5,000 troops over the territory, dispatched since 2014, when the Obama administration began its campaign against Islamic State militants. Over and above the jihadi question, however, the Pentagon considers Iraq to be a strategic territory, not only due to its proximity to Syria but also, and most importantly, for the ability to keep Iranian influence in the Middle East in check. There is yet another actor that can boast of having a powerful say in Iraqi territory: the Islamic Republic. Tehran wields a profound influence over the area, in particular due to the number of Shi’ite paramilitary groups deployed on the ground. Iranian influence is also insinuated through strong ties of an economic nature and even by means of lobbying within the Iraqi parliament itself.

Squeezed between these two rivals, Baghdad sought to adopt a type of seesaw strategy, particularly during the first few months of 2019. On the one hand, it strengthened its own political and economic ties with the Islamic Republic, and on the other, last April began a diplomatic thaw with Saudi Arabia, considered a close ally by Washington. Not only this, but Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi has also signed a considerable number of economic agreements with Riyadh. Moreover, the Iraqi seesaw has a double function – the balance between the U.S. and Iran on the geopolitical front and energy provision. This equilibrium has begun to suffer ever-worsening blows since last October, when major protests started to take place in Iraq, mainly triggered by discontent with the corruption of the local political class, but which, in reality, hid a deep resentment toward Tehran’s influence over the territory. Indeed, let us consider that in November, the Iranian consulate in the city of Najaf was stormed and that the Revolutionary Guard was involved in fiercely repressing the demonstrators – a repression that, in recent months, has led to over 400 deaths. All this led to Mahdi’s resignation a few weeks ago and further underlines the internal divisions within Iraqi politics. Splintered into a number of factions, the result on a general level is two major blocs: one nationalist, the other pro-Iranian. And it was these pro-Iranians who were the authors of the assault on the American embassy a few days ago.

The headache for Trump is clear. Despite his aggressive posturing towards Tehran, the American president, in recent months, has never hidden the fact that he wishes to attempt talks with Iran. On the other hand, the very thing he fears most is an escalation that could lead the U.S. into a war with the Islamic Republic, a possibility that could cost him dearly in the middle of his campaign for reelection. Let us not forget, moreover, that Trump won in 2016, thanks, in part, to his promise to put a stop to the “endless wars” spread by Washington throughout the Middle East. Triggering a conflict with Tehran at this stage would not let him stay true to this fundamental campaign promise. It was for this reason that in Florida yesterday the president attempted to dismiss any talk of war: “I want peace. I like peace. And Iran should want peace more than anyone else,” he pointedly declared.

International and internal pressures remain problems, however. For months, Saudi Arabia has been asking for greater American involvement in the Middle East against Iran. A similar stance has been espoused by Republican hawks in the American Senate, such as Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, and Tom Cotton – hawks who have recently used strong language concerning Tehran. As a result, therefore, middle ground has been found: If, on the one hand, Trump predictably tries to avoid a conflict and keep the possibility of an agreement open, on the other, he has had to considerably increase the American military presence in the Middle East. This is despite his attempts during 2019 to withdraw from territories such as Syria and Afghanistan. With the Baghdad embassy crisis, moreover, Trump was faced with a political problem. The risk for him was that the event would be compared to two regrettable episodes in American history: the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis and the Benghazi attack in 2012. The former represented the political end for then-President Jimmy Carter, while the latter was a controversy that even today haunts Hillary Clinton (who was secretary of state at the time). Trump thus needed an energetic response, as much to protect himself from the Democratic Party’s barbs.

In light of all this, it is clear that Iraq runs the risk of becoming a powder keg along the lines of Yemen. The fear of its ruling class is precisely that the country could become caught up in a conflict between Washington and Tehran. As for Iran, it is riddled with internal divisions over the issue of relations with Washington. With regard to the generally more cautious line of President Hassan Rouhani, the Pasdaran* have been hoping for a tougher stance for months—as shown by the shooting down of an American drone last June—and are stoking the tension. Let us not forget, moreover, that, as mentioned, the Revolutionary Guard played a significant role in repressing last autumn’s Iraqi protests, without forgetting their ties to the Shi’ite paramilitary forces present on the ground (beginning with Kataib Hezbollah). The situation is thus made even more strained by the fact that parliamentary elections take place in Iran next February. In addition, the issue of troubled relations between Washington and Tehran goes beyond just the Middle Eastern zone. As it happens, joint naval exercises among Iran, Russia and China in the Gulf of Oman were concluded a few days ago. Beijing and Moscow, in other words, have no intention of just standing by and watching.

*Translator’s note: Pasdaran, meaning “guardians,” is another name for the Revolutionary Guard.

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