This article was originally published in The Hill.
In the Middle East, Iran is in a regional struggle with the United States, which it believes is becoming increasingly isolated in international affairs. It seeks to use the opportunity, after the defeat of ISIS, to leverage its allies in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq to pressure the United States in each country. This was on display in mid-March when Iran’s president paid a historic three-day visit to Iraq.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also went to the Middle East in late March, to pressure Iran. But Iran has its sights on removing U.S. forces from Iraq and frustrating U.S. sanctions by using Iraq as an economic outlet.
Iran’s narrative regarding Iraq and the Middle East is steeped in decades of history. This is partly because Iran is celebrating 40 years since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. In a recent interview, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the special aide for international affairs to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, said the United States has been seeking to change the Middle East for the past three decades. “Not only has the U.S. not achieved this result, but the reverse has been the outcome,” he said.
In a similar tone, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted on March 22 that the United States “is the single biggest source of instability in the MidEast.” He claimed that U.S. “recklessness” represents an empire in decline.
Iran’s goal is to achieve unparalleled influence in Iraq. According to Iran’s state news agency, Zarif said on the eve of Rouhani’s trip to Iraq that there is an “inseparable union between the Iraqi and Iranian people.” He asserted that Iraqi Shi’ite paramilitaries, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), are a part of this unity because of the Iran-Iraq war. That might strike some as strange, since only a small number of Iraqi Shi’ites sought to join the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the 1980s. However, today some of those men lead paramilitary groups that are connected to political parties. For example, Hadi al-Amiri, head of the Fatah list in parliament, was a commander of the Badr unit during the war, a group he still runs.
Iran’s strategy in Iraq is multi-layered. First, it wants Iraqi leaders to believe it is in their best interest not to get involved in a competition between the United States and Iran. After President Trump said the United States would withdraw from Syria and use its presence in Iraq to “watch” Iran, Iraqi President Barham Salih criticized Trump’s comments, saying he doesn’t want Iraq “overburdened” by these tensions.
Similarly, former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Nouri al-Maliki, both of whom the United States supported, recently traded accusations in Iraqi media over who was at fault for bringing U.S. troops back to Iraq in 2014 to fight ISIS. For an ally that received $3.5 billion in equipment from the United States during the war on ISIS, the degree to which Iraq’s leaders view the United States at arms length is perplexing. It is also symbolized in the optics of the Iranian presidential visit and Trump’s visit: the Iranians met with tribal and religious leaders, and signed agreements; Trump went to a U.S. military installation.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said the same thing in a speech on March 21, claiming the United States is using sanctions to isolate Iran economically but the experience of the war in the 1980s led Iran to be better than “all regional countries, in terms of military and defense capabilities.” Thus the Iranian leader posits that Tehran is both a victim of sanctions and the strongest country in the region.
Zarif argues that “those who are looking to create a rival Iraqi government” will be frustrated in Iraq, a theme he repeatedly has stressed. The United States “cannot stop” Iran-Iraq relations, he said.
Iran also wants its allies among the Shi’ite paramilitaries to pressure the United States. On March 5, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, a militia that is part of the PMF. Unsurprisingly, Nujaba’s spokesman responded in Iranian media with claims it is resisting the United States and Israel throughout the Middle East. And, Amiri said recently that he opposes the U.S. presence in Iraq.
It appears that Washington must tread carefully. With ISIS defeated in Syria, U.S. forces in Iraq are an essential part of containing any ISIS attempts to return. But America must not mistake giving military aid to Baghdad as a stand-in for a warm alliance. Washington has allies in Iraq, especially in the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, but Iran is investing for the long term.
The United States should be concerned about Iran’s strategy in Iraq, and seek to confront it. Rhetoric about “pressuring” Iran works only if Iran actually feels pressured on the ground.
Reprinted with author’s permission from Middle East Forum