Ominous developments – attacks on U.S. personnel in Iraq, U.S. retaliation and turmoil at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad – could drag Iraq deeper into the U.S.-Iranian confrontation and spark direct clashes between Washington and Tehran. Urgent steps are needed to break this predictable but perilous cycle.
For the past three months, a popular uprising has swept Baghdad and the southern governorates of Iraq. Its call for profound institutional reform, chiefly an end to corruption, has galvanised repeated spasms of protest in the past. This time, however, the movement is larger, more widespread and of longer duration. Authorities have met the demonstrations with severe violence, killing more than 450 and injuring thousands. The main perpetrators of the violence are Iran-backed paramilitary groups, part of a larger assembly of “popular mobilisation” forces (al-Hashd al-Shaabi) that legally are integrated into the state apparatus but in reality answer to their own separate command structures.
Street pressure precipitated the collapse of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s one-year-old government in early December. Since then, Iraq’s political class has tried to find a way out of the crisis, but it is caught in a vise between the protesters and the Iran-backed Hashd, whose political leaders play a significant role in the council of representatives. The result is political paralysis.
Hashd representatives blamed the U.S. and Israel for a string of unclaimed aerial attacks
The stalemate in turn has opened the way for Iran-U.S. tensions, which have been rising in the Gulf for the past two years, to manifest themselves directly in the Iraqi arena. Hashd representatives blamed the U.S. and Israel for a string of unclaimed aerial attacks targeting Hashd positions and warehouses in July and August, executed by drones. Then, unclaimed rocket attacks near the U.S. embassy and on Iraqi military bases, including one outside Kirkuk on 27 December that killed a U.S. contractor, prompted a strong U.S. response. On 29 December, the U.S. military struck bases of Kataeb Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria, killing some 25 of its fighters and commanders. This Iraqi paramilitary group is part of the Hashd, and as such also of the Iraqi military, and has helped suppress Islamic State (ISIS) remnants. It is also one of the Hashd units sponsored by Iran. All the main Iraqi political actors, including the president and outgoing prime minister, roundly condemned the U.S. action as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. Even Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the paramount Shiite religious authority in the world, who often abstains from commentary on current events, denounced the strike as “atrocious aggression”. He added that “only Iraqi authorities” should take measures to prevent “illegal practices by some sides”, an apparent caution to paramilitaries not to retaliate.
Nonetheless, the Iran-backed Hashd vowed revenge. On 31 December, a mob led by Kataeb Hezbollah supporters broke into the U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad. They made it as far as the foyer outside the main building before Iraqi security forces intervened to push them back and erect a steel barrier in front of the embassy door. At nightfall, a smaller crowd remained outside the compound, where Kataeb Hezbollah had set up tents, but on 1 January the Hashd ordered people to withdraw.
A Risky Dance
Iraq is only one theatre in which Washington and Tehran are performing their risky dance of mutual escalation. Although Iran certainly has helped raise tensions, the origin of the crisis is unmistakable: the Trump administration’s decision to exit the 2015 nuclear deal and instead exert “maximum pressure” on the Islamic Republic, primarily through ever tighter sanctions. Iran has responded to what it views as a form of U.S. economic warfare as Crisis Group repeatedly has warned it would: by both ramping up its nuclear program and engaging in more aggressive behaviour in the Middle East.
But for Tehran, Iraq carries special significance. It desperately needs a stable neighbour whose government and security apparatus it can shape as a way to relieve the pressure of U.S. sanctions. The mass protests erupted primarily because of Iraqi politicians’ failure to govern in the years since 2003, when the U.S. invaded and Saddam Hussein’s regime fell, not because of Iran’s role in Iraq in that period. Nevertheless, the unrest has posed a significant challenge to Tehran – and Iranian leaders have been quick to see a U.S. hand behind it. For weeks prior to the late December flare-up, Iran’s Iraqi proxies among the Hashd had started escalating their rhetoric against the U.S., furious over the fact that they had been unable to push through their nominee for prime minister to succeed Abdul-Mahdi. A key obstacle has been the president, Barham Salih, whom the Iran-backed Hashd accordingly have labelled a U.S. agent, threatening him with harm.
The tit-for-tat military attacks may now enable the Iran-backed groups to mobilise popular support for what would otherwise be a highly unpopular move: to kick out U.S. and other Western troops (who have been in Iraq at the government’s invitation) through a parliamentary vote, and establish a new government more amenable to catering to Iranian interests. In this sense, Iran has been trying to provoke the U.S. into helping it solve its Iraq problem. The Trump administration, by responding to the attacks in Kirkuk and elsewhere with airstrikes, has obliged.
Should this chain of events lead to a U.S. troop withdrawal and further instability in Iraq, however, both sides are likely to lose. Iran and the U.S. may be at loggerheads over the fraying nuclear deal, their respective Middle East policies and other matters, but they continue to share an interest in a stable Iraq that neither fully controls as a buffer between them. ISIS may have lost the territory it once ruled, but its remnants lurk; the availability of U.S. airpower is powerful insurance against a major ISIS resurgence, including for Tehran. As long as ISIS elements perdure, or any threat from Iraqi territory seems possible, the best scenario for Tehran is the pre-October 2019 status quo, possibly modified with a new Iraqi governing coalition and prime minister somewhat more beholden to it. Likewise, the U.S. would be better off with a continued presence in Iraq to counterbalance Iran’s unavoidable influence. For years, the U.S. was able to live quietly, if sometimes uncomfortably, alongside Iran in Iraq; directly challenging Iran’s role in a theatre where Tehran has far greater influence is almost certain to end badly for Washington.
In the medium term, a "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran and a continued U.S. presence in Iraq may not be compatible. As long as regional tensions between Washington and Tehran persist, their rivalry in the Iraqi theatre, even below the threshold of actual war, will keep the Iraqi political system dysfunctional and divided, and work against the U.S. presence's ostensible objective: the enduring defeat of ISIS, which can be achieved only through the sustainable stabilisation of the Iraqi state.
Most Iraqis have an interest in a U.S.-Iranian modus vivendi, too, as they never fail to point out, even if their voices cannot always carry over the rocket fire and rhetorical clatter between the two external adversaries. Their persistence suggests both the need and the opportunity for de-escalation, and a subsequent return to uneasy U.S.-Iranian cohabitation, as the least-bad option.
To restore calm, all parties will need to address two overlapping crises: the standoff between the U.S. and Iran and its local proxies, and the deep governance deficit from which Iraq has suffered since 2003.
The first step would be for Washington and Tehran to pull back from the brink: for Iran to press its allies to step away from the U.S. embassy compound and refrain from further attacks on Iraqi military bases at which U.S. military and/or civilian personnel are present; for the U.S. to indicate unambiguously that its military presence in Iraq is focused solely on completing the task of ridding the country of whatever remains of ISIS. The next step would be for both to agree on a role for the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) in shaping the effort to combat corruption – Iraq’s main internal enemy and the driver of the mass protests. UNAMI has already outlined proposals for doing so, and these plans deserve both Washington’s and Tehran’s full support. Next, both sides should agree to Iraq organising fresh elections based on a new electoral law, as political forces have already been discussing, with input from protest and civil society leaders. UNAMI, with its technical expertise and long history in Iraq, could lend a helping hand here as well.
In addition to avoiding a military confrontation, Washington and Tehran should together resolve to keep their rivalry out of Iraq as much as possible. They both would draw benefits that would far exceed any gain they might derive from the political and military crises that are now building in intensity.