‘Caught in a geopolitical struggle’: US-Iran tug of war in Iraq

With ISIL largely defeated, there are serious questions as to why the United States needs to keep 2,500 troops in Iraq, particularly since their presence could provoke a major military confrontation with Iran.

Paramilitary forces carry coffins of members of Kataib Hezbollah who were killed by US air strikes in Najaf in December 2019 [Alaa al-Marjani/Reuters]

Iraq is increasingly becoming a theatre of conflict between the United States and Iran with deadly air raids on pro-Iranian militias only the latest example.

While Iraq’s government condemned the air strikes, a change of course is unlikely as both sides’ presence is pivotal for their respective foreign policy objectives, analysts say.

The US Air Force conducted attacks last week on the facilities of pro-Iranian militias in the Syrian-Iraqi border region. From there, the militias launched drone strikes on US targets throughout Iraq.

Stephen Zunes, professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, told Al Jazeera the confrontation in Iraq between American and Iranian-aligned forces intensified after the former administration of Donald Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the JCPOA.

“There has been a low-level conflict between the United States and Iran since the 1980s but it has accelerated since the US reimposed sanctions on Iran in 2018 despite Iranian compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” said Zunes.

Iran might now be hoping to exact a price from the US with an increase in attacks over Washington’s decision to effectively destroy the seven-nation agreement while inflicting such severe economic harm on the country, Zunes said.

The targets hit by the US air raids had been used by a number of armed groups, including Kataib Hezbollah, Iraq’s premier militia, operating under Iran’s direct command.

Kataib Hezbollah and other militia demand the withdrawal of the remaining US forces that support the Iraqi army in the fight against the armed group ISIL (ISIS).

At least four Iraqi militiamen were killed along the border with Syria, while no American troops were wounded. But the incident shows how fragile the situation has become and how the remaining 2,500 US servicemen find themselves increasingly at risk of attacks in the region.

Naturally, the most effective means of ensuring the safety of US service members would be to bring them back home to the United States, Zunes argued.

“The Iraqi parliament voted last year for US forces to leave the country, but [US President Joe] Biden has refused to honour their request,” said Zunes.

Precarious situation

With ISIL largely defeated, there are serious questions as to why the US needs to keep 2,500 troops in Iraq, particularly since their presence could provoke a major military confrontation with Iran, Zunes added.

However, Washington finds itself in a precarious situation, as it appears to be the last line of defence against Iranian hegemony in the Middle East.

Already Tehran exerts significant influence in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, primarily made possible by Iran’s alliance policy, beginning as early as 1982, when Lebanon’s Hezbollah was established with the active help of the Revolutionary Guard.

By now, this alliance includes Syria President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and armed groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Furthermore, militias from Pakistan and Afghanistan have been connected to Iran’s Quds Force (QF).

For the US, Iran’s military might and asymmetrical warfare amount to a geopolitical conundrum. Protecting American troops has become a tightrope act, and Biden has to manoeuvre cautiously.

“Biden has shown himself willing to use force against Iranian-backed militia, yet also recognises that threatening Iran or provoking war would play into the hands of Iranian hardliners,” said Zunes.

In the middle of the conflict stands Iraq.

“The continuous clashes are hence also a reflection of how Iran and the US are competing to assert their influence on the future direction of Iraq,” Zunes added.

An Iraqi soldier stands guard in front of smoke rising from a fire set by pro-Iranian militiamen and their supporters in the U.S. embassy compound, Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020. U.S. troops
An Iraqi soldier stands guard after a fire was set by pro-Iranian militiamen in the US embassy compound in Baghdad in January 2020 [Nasser Nasser/AP]

On the payroll

Unsurprisingly, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi sharply condemned the recent US air strikes. They represented “a blatant and unacceptable violation of Iraqi sovereignty and national security,” said the prime minister in Baghdad, adding Iraq refuses to use its territory “to pay bills”.

However, his critique failed to address the fact that Iraq has been unable to stop attacks on US interests by Kataib Hezbollah, which as part of the country’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), are essentially on the government’s payroll.

Because of devastating US sanctions, the pandemic, and lower oil prices, Iran was forced to decrease its financial support for militias across the region. As a result, forces under the umbrella of the PMF have relied more on Iraqi government funding.

Being incapable of stopping neither Iranian nor US actions on its soil, Iraq now faces several challenges that can undo progress made in recent years. Moreover, the upcoming election adds yet another dynamic to the problem, Simon Mabon, professor of international politics at Lancaster University, told Al Jazeera.

“Iraq’s slow path towards elections exacerbates increasingly precarious political, social and economic conditions that have fuelled protests across recent years. Fundamental to this are competing visions of the nature of Iraqi politics and the role of religion – and Iran – in the political sphere,” said Mabon.

A rift within Iraq and the country’s direction remains omnipresent.

“While some groups are pushing for the de-sectarianisation of Iraqi politics – the reimagining or removal of religion and religious actors from political life – others are vehemently opposed to such processes,” Mabon said.

Underpinning much of this anger was frustration at Iranian influence and the actions of the Iranian-backed militias, which have embarked on a systematic campaign of violence against those who oppose their vision, said Mabon.

‘Paying a devastating price’

Iraq hence finds itself in the ungrateful position of being in the middle of US-Iranian tensions.

“With US strikes against facilities in Iraq [and Syria], once again Iraqis are caught in a geopolitical struggle and are paying a devastating price,” said Mabon.

Moreover, the most recent airstrikes come at a time when international negotiations are under way on a possible US return to the JCPOA.

The exacerbation of the conflict was thus also about a broader political game between the US and Iran over both the JCPOA and also efforts to recalibrate relations between Tehran and Washington, Mabon said, particularly with the regime’s new leadership.

“Coming at a time when the Islamic republic has voted in a new president, this period of recalibration is key in shaping the future of relations between the two states and regional politics broadly,” said Mabon.

Both sides are highly cognisant that the current developments could affect the JCPOA negotiations.

Zunes said, however, the likelihood of the US leaving the negotiating table remains rather inconceivable, and that would only occur if there was no hope of further progress towards an agreement.

In the eyes of the Biden administration, the Iran nuclear deal remains a signature piece of its foreign policy, and the JCPOA’s primary goal remains.

“Biden recognises that renewing the deal will prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, which is critically important for the United States,” said Zunes.

While Biden, like virtually every US official, was undoubtedly hostile to the Iranian regime, he understands it is in the best interests of the US and the Middle East as a whole to return to the nuclear accord, Zunes concluded.

Source: Al Jazeera