Dlawer Ala'Aldeen
Former Minister in the Kurdistan Regional Government

US-Iran Battlegrounds: From Yemen to Iraq

Iran’s relentless pressure on the US, via Arab proxies across the Middle East, has been mounting for some time, but intensified since the 7 October war in Gaza and may escalate after the latest attack on the Houthis in Yemen. While the Houthis have been firing drones and missiles at ships and installations of US-allies, the Iraqi pro-Iranian armed groups, known as Fasail Al-Muqawama Al-Islamiya, have launched more than 120 attacks directly at US forces in both Iraq and Syria. So far, the US has tolerated the pressure and carried out measured retaliations against Iran’s proxies only, far away from Iran’s borders. They clearly wish to avoid all out escalations, while hoping Iran would agree a security compromise one way or another.

Evidently, Iran is determined to sustain the pressure, and ultimately drive the US military presence out of the region, particularly in Iraq and Syria. They not only consider such US presence a strategic threat to their national security, but also a barrier for their hegemony in the Levant and beyond. Pushing the US out of Iraq will also help weaken the US support to the Gulf Arabs, and possibly facilitate a restructuring the region’s security architecture on Iranian terms.

Obviously, the Iranians do not underestimate the Americans’ determination to stay in the region, or their readiness to act and react militarily. Hence, they try to avoid direct military confrontation with the US forces, by limiting it to their own dispensable Arab proxies. However, Tehran sees an opportunity, during this election year, to force the US into a hasty and humiliated withdrawal from Iraq, akin to their exit from Afghanistan. Afterall, the US strategic priorities appear to focus on challenges at home, in Europe and in China. Iraq maybe important to the US but is not a top priority.

In consequence, Iraq is now caught between the hegemony of a powerful neighbor (Iran) which has undermined its sovereignty; and the overwhelming power of a global superpower (USA) that can penalize it into failure. Interestingly, Iran is not against the US diplomatic and economic presence in the Iraq, as this serves their interests best. Iran uses Iraq to access the western world, bypass the US sanctions and support their own Arab proxies across the Middle East. The US, on the other hand, does not wish to withdraw its 2,500 troops from Iraq at this critical time, on Iranian terms. To the US, their military presence in Iraq is of great strategic importance for fighting ISIS, keeping a close eye on Iran and providing support to their Syrian bases. They have also provided the much-needed security umbrella and military infrastructure for the operation of other coalition partners who have supported Iraq during difficult times.

The Iraqi Government, under Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani, is clearly gravely concerned about the intensifying US-Iran rivalry in Iraq, which is distractive and undermines Iraq’s state authority. Iraq’s political leaders know that their country is nowhere near ready to see the US and the coalition partners leave. It is still not able to prevent security threats from ISIS or from the more sophisticated Fasail armed groups. Importantly, Iraq is no Iran; it is too fragile to survive a penalizing financial and diplomatic isolation that goes with an unfriendly US withdrawal.

Furthermore, the prospect of the US withdrawal is extremely worrying for the Kurds and Sunni Arabs, who believe that they will be next on the firing line. Their parties (and leaders) have been continuously targeted politically in Baghdad by pro-Iranian parties who dominate the legislative, executive and judicious branches, and recently took full control of the provincial councils across Iraq (except in Kurdistan). Alarmingly, the Fasail have dropped bombs close to Kurdish leaders’ offices, which clearly act as a warning sign of what might come next.

It is no secret that the pro-Iranian non-state-actors are now acting as the state, imposing policies while hindering reform. Pro-Iranian members of the Coordination Framework have overtly supported the Government’s approach to solving the crisis, but are believed to have fueled a populistic anti-coalition campaign. While the Prime Minister has described the attacks on the US presence as “terrorism”, many members of the Coordination Framework have considered them as legitimate and righteous.

The Iraqi government has no choice but to pursue a realistic process that puts Iraq’s interest first and ring-fence Iraq from the transcontinental rivalries. Iraq can and must negotiate a deal with the US and the broader coalition, without imposing arbitrary timelines or deadlines. They must engage in a comprehensive dialogue, covering all sectors of engagement, including the security, economic, environmental, social and cultural issues. In return, the US should exercise a strategic patience and give the Iraqi government space to achieve the common goals in its own way and in its own time. Pressuring a Shiite-led government into picking sides will not lead to Iraq choosing the US over Iran.

Finally, the Iranians should not undermine the Iraqi state any further, otherwise, they risk escalating the situation beyond even their control and to their own country’s detriment. They are known to dread the prospect of dealing with the more hawkish Donald Trump, should he wins the next US presidential elections, therefore, they would be better advised not to weaken the incumbent Biden Administration’s hands, or misread the US determination to both stay in Iraq and avoid the repeat of Afghanistan scenario.