The endgame of the US-Iranian tussle in Iraq

The United States cannot simply erase from its political, economic and military history all the strenuous efforts and blood and billions of dollars it has spent to possess Iraq.
Friday 22/03/2019
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (L) visits the historical-cultural complex, in which Former Supreme Leader of Iran Ruhollah Khomeini spent his exile time, March 13, 2019. (DPA)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (L) visits the historical-cultural complex, in which Former Supreme Leader of Iran Ruhollah Khomeini spent his exile time, March 13, 2019. (DPA)

Anyone following the contradictory statements of US officials about Iraq after Iranian President Hassan Rohani’s visit to Baghdad would think the United States is disoriented and getting restive and fretful.

The fact is, however, that it is the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi that is confused and fretful. Who will it get closer to? How much and in what way?

Brian Hook, the US special envoy for Iran, said: "US sanctions are depriving the Iranian government from the income that it uses to destabilise the region. Everyone must comply with them." He also warned "Baghdad not to allow Tehran to take advantage of Iraq to achieve its goal of circumventing US sanctions."

Then the US Department of State announced that Iraq would be afforded an exemption from the sanctions to allow Tehran to continue buying Iranian electricity for another 90 days. "We continue to discuss the Iranian sanctions with our partners in Iraq," the State Department said.

And then a third even sillier piece of news comes out. The Abdul-Mahdi’s media office stated that the prime minister had a telephone conversation with US Vice-President Mike Pence, during which "the two sides stressed the importance of strengthening bilateral relations to serve the interests of both peoples and to continue supporting the efforts of the Iraqi government to eliminate what remains of the Islamic State, in addition to helping to rebuild Iraq and stabilise the liberated areas."

The Iraqi statement said Pence praised "Abdul-Mahdi’s support of the rights of religious minorities, his following up on the Yazidi issue and his endeavours to rebuild the liberated territories and to resettle those displaced from their homes."

The thread that connects these conflicting statements is that United States will not leave Iraq -- whatever happens, whatever anyone says or will say -- whether through flattery and flirtation or through intimidation and the strength of its money, intelligence and weapons.

This is primarily because Iraq’s geopolitical position is vital for US interests in the region. Second, the United States cannot simply erase from its political, economic and military history all the strenuous efforts and blood and billions of dollars that it has spent in order to possess Iraq.

Not just counting from the beginning of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 but years before that even, specifically since the first days of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

Developments from the US war to liberate Kuwait led America decide to embrace the former Iraqi opposition, even though it knew that it is an Iranian-Khomeinian opposition affiliated with Syria and Bashar Assad.

The United States losing Iraq would mean a great loss in prestige in the world and in the eyes of its constituents. Losing Iraq would destroy much electoral capital for the Republican and Democratic parties.

Since the Beirut Conference, which coincided with the 1991 April uprising in Iraq, the United States, in its Democratic (Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) and Republican (George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush) variations, initiated a spending spree of funding Iraqi opposition leaders, their families, their parties and militias, turning a blind eye to their blunders and their ideological, tribal, and regional links.

It then picked them up from wherever they were in London, Beirut, Tehran, Amman and Riyadh and carried them on the backs of its 2003 invading forces to positions of power: presidents, prime ministers, ministers, generals, warlords, ambassadors, CEOs and businesspeople with investments everywhere, with only crumbs trickling down to their land and people.

The second obvious US motive in Iraq is that it is confident -- from its observations of regional and Iraqi developments and analysis of shifting regional power balances, such as the Iraqi awakening and popular rebuke of the backward, oppressive, opportunistic and greedy Iranian domination -- that Iran is not staying in Iraq indefinitely as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei fantasises and craves.

The United States is expecting an Iranian exit from Iraq, sooner or later, not necessarily because of the limited strength of the Iraqi people but because of internal factors in Iran, tied to its growing international isolation and the worsening of the sanctions’ effects, which will dry up public spending in a tense national context and harm its ability to spend on its armed militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Yemen.

A new and unique kind of war for Iraq, masked by the war on terror and the Islamic State and sugarcoated with the “restoring regional peace and stability” pretext, is latently raging between Iran and the United States on multiple fronts and battlefields.

Because the Abdul-Mahdi government and the former Dawa Party governments have neither the power nor the ability to truly and decisively deal with the two sparring powers jockeying for position in their territories and within their financial, military and security institutions, Iraq has no choice other than huddling down in the middle of this bloody fight and take punches from both parties.

Iraq knows and the Iraqi people know that they are in a gruelling and humiliating predicament. Even if they try to present themselves as a third player with sovereignty and agency in this complex game, they know they are caught in a much bigger game in which things will not turn out well for them.

The game continues apace and, at the end, only the strongest, most patient and manipulative will survive. As for the people in Iraq, they just spectate and wait.