US administration’s Iran strategy put to the test in Iraq
Last week, the US State Department announced the temporary closure of the US Consulate in Basra and the withdrawal of all diplomatic personnel stationed in the southern Iraqi city. The decision was triggered by a rocket attack which, according to US officials, targeted the US diplomatic mission without success. The rocket was most likely fired by one of the various pro-Iran militias that have emerged in Iraq since 2003.
The State Department decision has led to speculation about the messages it sends, not only about the US commitment to the stabilization of Iraq and efforts to contain Iran’s militaristic agenda, but also about the wider Iran strategy of the US administration. It could be viewed as a timely message from Washington to Baghdad, directed at the new Iraqi government, to rein in Iran’s proxies. In some quarters of the US political establishment, however, it has been classified as a sign of weakness in the face of the Iranian threat.
During the Obama years, there was a tacit understanding between the US and Iran on Iraq. Success in the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program was an absolute priority for the administration at that time, so tensions with Iran about other issues were avoided at all costs. The rise of Daesh, coupled with the US reluctance to get bogged down in another regional conflict, led to a pragmatic acceptance of Iran and pro-Iranian militias as a valuable force in the fight against the radical group. Many critics in Washington and the Middle East equated this understanding with a grand bargain that endorsed Iran’s hegemonic plans in the region. Looking at Iraq today, and also Syria, Lebanon or Yemen, the critics have been proved right, regardless of the merits of the nuclear deal.
But the scenario of US-Iran relations in Iraq is now markedly different. The Trump administration has withdrawn the US from the nuclear deal and a new round of tough US sanctions is set to be in place by early November. Daesh, although far from extinguished, is no longer seen as an existential threat to the survival of Iraq as a state. US-backed departing Prime Minister Haider Abadi, who oversaw the successful push against Daesh, has been sidelined, essentially a political casualty of events in Basra.
Since July, the prominent oil hub has witnessed major protests against an array of issues including corruption, unemployment and environmental degradation. The demonstrations turned violent, with several protesters killed. Even the Iranian Consulate was set on fire by protesters, who partly blame Iran’s interference in Iraq for Baghdad’s deplorable governance record.
The decision to close the US Consulate could naturally be seen as a precautionary measure taken directly from the safety handbook. As a leading global and regional player, the US has a long history of serious incidents involving ambassadors and diplomatic staff, most notably the hostage crisis in the US Embassy in Tehran that lasted for 444 days between Nov. 4, 1979, and Jan. 20, 1981. The memory of the attacks six years ago on the US diplomatic mission and CIA station in Benghazi, Libya, which killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens among other US personnel, is also very much alive in Washington.
The appointments of President Barham Salih and Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi are good news, representing the choice of a moderate, independent and capable leadership.
According to various reliable media sources, the rocket that led to the closure of the US Consulate in Basra did not cause any casualties or substantial material damage, nor did it land close to the US diplomatic mission. Still, it seems the incident is not an isolated one and there are reports of similar rocket and mortar attacks since the first incident in Basra.
A statement by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, issued the same day the closure of the Basra consulate was announced, also noted that the US Embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone has been repeatedly threatened by rocket fire.
Pompeo took to Twitter to warn Tehran: “We’ll hold Iran’s regime accountable for any attack on our personnel or facilities, and respond swiftly and decisively in defense of American lives.”
Iranian officials quickly rebuffed the accusation, and Iraqi officials stated the area was safe. Both have flimsy cases. Iran has a convenient record of denying it can control the actions of its proxies, while Basra is far from being an area the central government can claim it holds securely.
This week, a Wall Street Journal report made the case that there is a widening gap between the White House’s harsh and escalating rhetoric on Iran and its military presence in the Gulf. According to information provided by US officials and military experts, the US has been scaling back its military presence in the region by removing US ships, planes and missiles that would be needed in a potential conflict with Iranian forces or its local allies. Operational and financial reasons are among the possible factors, as well as a greater focus on Russia and China.
However, Michael Rubin, an expert from the American Enterprise Institute, deconstructed some of the arguments of the Wall Street Journal piece, pointing out that maintaining the presence of US ships at safe distance from the Gulf is a normal and strategically sound approach.
Despite the US secretary of state’s firm warning, and the harsh words from US President Donald Trump during his UN General Assembly speech, in which he chastised the Iranian leadership for sowing “chaos, death and destruction,” avoiding a war with Iran might be higher on Trump’s list of priorities than is generally assumed. Whether or not his anti-interventionist instincts will prevail is a different matter, considering the president’s unpredictability and the serious tensions in the region between the US and its allies on the one hand, and Iran on the other.
Politically, both Washington and Tehran have tried to influence the government-formation process in Iraq following the parliamentary elections in May. The appointments of President Barham Salih and Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi are good news, representing the choice of a moderate, independent and capable leadership. Iraq recently suggested that it could mediate between the Americans and Iranians. The proposal should be taken seriously by both sides.
• Manuel Almeida is a visiting fellow at the Middle East Center of the London School of Economics and Political Science, where his research focuses on the social contract in the Arab state and its impact on governance and sustainable development. He is also a partner at Firma, covering emerging markets and geopolitical risk.