Indeed, Trump has overlooked the participation of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in battles alongside the federal Iraqi forces to retake Kirkuk from the Kurds and other Kurdish-claimed regions in northern Iraq, bearing in mind that the US Treasury Department has now targeted the IRGC as a supporter of designated groups and stepped up its sanctions against Tehran’s elite force. Clearly, the state of division within the Kurdish ranks, with accusations of betrayal and treason, is a key factor that led to the current outcome in Iraqi Kurdistan. Clearly, too, the Trump administration was furious with Masoud Barzani for rejecting a compromise deal to postpone the referendum for a year — which Washington brokered as the best possible option and formalized through a UN Security Council resolution — and decided to let him bear the consequences of his mistakes alone. The situation in Iraq today indicates the presence of a secret thread not only in Kurdistan but also across the rest of Iraq, in which Abadi’s ties to Iran and the PMF overlap with his relations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the Trump administration.
There is something curious about the Trump administration steering clear of criticizing Abadi’s policies, to the extent of declining to place the PMF, which are backed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, within Iran’s violations. That despite the fact that Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force, continues to publicly tour all parts of Iraq. There is something curious too about the shift taking place in Iraq’s military and civilian ties with the Gulf, toward more normalization and collaboration after a 25-year estrangement. Here, US and Gulf strategies in Iraq overlap in a striking fashion, bearing in mind that Trump’s new strategy on Iran has been welcomed in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Arab countries, though it has caused concerns in countries such as Lebanon that fear the repercussions of a renewed US-Iranian clash.
Betting on Trump’s strategy carries risks, however. His announcements about Iran and its adventures outside its borders need to be coupled with mechanisms and timetables, and a Plan B. The US president himself faces political risks if his promises and pledges turn out to be impracticable.
For instance, it will not be easy to implement Donald Trump’s vow to delegitimize the Iranian regime, as Trump characterized it deliberately in a departure from the position of his predecessor Barack Obama, who legitimized the Iranian regime from the UN General Assembly. Obama was meeting a key Iranian demand, and implicitly pledging that the US would not assist Iran’s opposition. But what can Trump, who has suggested he would do the opposite, do to match his words with deeds, not least because of his domestic woes?
Trump did not officially designate the IRGC a terror organization, merely announcing new sanctions. On the same day, however, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control designated 11 entities and individuals “for engaging in support of designated Iranian actors or malicious cyber-enabled activity,” including arming the IRGC, which “played a central role in Iran becoming the world’s foremost state sponsor of terror,” according to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Trump and Mnuchin cited the Revolutionary Guards’ support for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories, as grounds for the sanctions.
What will Trump do in the event of an Iranian backlash against his targeting of a key political and military arm of the regime in Tehran? Does he have a comprehensive plan and concrete steps for how to target the IRGC, which is overtly active, in addition to Iran, in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq, where the group and its proxies are capturing territories liberated by the US-led anti-Daesh coalition? The answer is not clear. There is a kind of contradiction between the verbal pledges of the administration and what is taking place on the ground. Former President Obama had empowered the IRGC in part through the international resolutions that accompanied the nuclear deal. And President Trump inherited a stronger and toothier IRGC.
According to senior figures in the Trump administration, the Treasury Department will clip the wings of the IRGC and its supporters through expanded sanctions based on its support for terrorism, and this will claw back some of what Obama had conceded as a byproduct of the nuclear agreement. Obama had agreed to unlock Iranian assets in advance of the implementation of the deal even though he knew the IRGC would be the key beneficiary of the windfall, and agreed to suspend UN resolutions prohibiting Iran from sending troops or proxies outside its borders.
The US president’s tough new moves against Tehran do not seem to extend to the activities of the Revolutionary Guards and their proxy militias in Iraq — and it is the Kurds who have paid the price.
Now, Donald Trump believes he can reverse this through measures like the ones included in his new strategy. But does that mean he could support local opposition and regional actors to enlist in that effort, and is it not too late for this, especially in Syria? The US president may have some answers to this, but he has not revealed them yet. The new strategy may have been developed while bearing in mind that the political game could require its instruments to be kept hidden.
This week, US envoy to the UN Nikki Haley called for holding Iran accountable for violating a number of resolutions that do not just concern the nuclear deal and the ballistic missile program, but also the fact that it has sent weapons to Yemen, Syria and Lebanon, and that Qassem Soleimani has flouted the internationally imposed travel ban.
Haley said Resolution 2231 bans the transfer of conventional weapons from Iran. “Yet today we see Iran identified as a source of weapons in conflicts across the region, from Yemen to Syria and Lebanon. The Iranian regime has been a key source of arms and strategic military support to the Houthi rebels, both directly, through its military, and indirectly, through its Hezbollah proxy forces. Not only is this a violation of Resolution 2231, it also violates Resolution 2216, which imposes an arms embargo on the Houthi rebels. Iran has repeatedly and brazenly violated not one but two UN Security Council resolutions in Yemen.”
Today, among the strongest opponents of new US attitudes on Iran are the European allies, who want to hold on to the nuclear deal without reforming it, and do not admit that they were Obama’s accomplices in empowering the IRGC across the spectrum. But this continuation of their opposition will depend on how serious the Trump administration will be beyond verbal pledges. For the time being, all sides are in the same trench with regard to Iraq, where all indications suggest the international community is ready to celebrate victory against Daesh, while nodding in sympathy for the Kurdish self-inflicted reversal of statehood dreams, and being ready to support Prime Minister Abadi while turning a blind eye to Iran’s involvement in Iraq. Until further notice at least.
This in and of itself places immense responsibilities on the shoulders of Haider Al-Abadi — who acts as if he gives the orders to the PMF to withdraw from the northern cities (among them oil-rich Kirkuk) recaptured by the federal army from the Kurds, and that the PMF obeys his orders. But if Abadi falters before the formidable PMF, Iran will be ultimately be the victorious party. It won’t be easy for Abadi not to falter, because Iran will not willingly abandon the Iraqi pie.
The Trump administration has omitted to mention the PMF or Iraq to preserve the priority of defeating Daesh. It has abandoned the Kurds and converged with Tehran, Baghdad and Ankara over the referendum, to the dismay of Irbil. Today, the Trump administration is tacitly supporting the military measures taken by Abadi to retake Kirkuk, because the Trump administration and some Gulf countries believe Iraq could be reclaimed from Iran’s sphere of influence by supporting a strong central government under Abadi’s leadership.
It is too early to wager on the weakness of the PMF, the IRGC or Hezbollah. The clear losers in Iraq now are the Kurds, who overplayed their hands and overrelied on allies, led by the US primarily, and Iran and Israel sometimes. Everyone has now forsaken them. Worst of all is that the Kurds are their own worst enemy. It is unfortunate that all these events were triggered because a people decided to determine their own fate through a vote, and their dream was subsequently frustrated by regional and international players — but most of all by a stubborn miscalculation that could not have come at a worse time.
• Raghida Dergham is a columnist, senior diplomatic correspondent, and New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is the founder and executive chairman of Beirut Institute. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an honorary fellow at the Foreign Policy Association and has served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum. Twitter: @RaghidaDergham