Trump’s Iran strategy through Iraq causing a stir

Although Trump thinks in transactional terms that is not how the rest of the world thinks.
Sunday 24/02/2019
US President Donald Trump speaks to military leadership members during a visit to al-Asad Air Base in Anbar, last December. (DPA)
Callous statements. US President Donald Trump speaks to military leadership members during a visit to al-Asad Air Base in Anbar, last December. (DPA)

US President Donald Trump’s decision to keep US troops in Iraq is not only aimed at having a residual force there to train the Iraqi Army and strike any resurgent Islamic State (ISIS) elements that may emerge but also to “watch Iran,” as he said in a recent interview.

In other words, he sees the US military presence in Iraq to keep eyes on Iran as part of his strategy to keep Tehran boxed in. However, regime change in Tehran may be what he and his advisers are really after.

Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, has said Trump’s tough sanctions on Iran are meant to squeeze Iran “until the pips squeak.” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, as a congressman before working in the Trump administration, is on record stating that Iran is “intent on destroying America.” Last May, after Trump announced his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, Pompeo listed 12 demands on Iran that he undoubtedly knew Tehran was not going to accept.

Although the Trump administration has insisted publicly that it is not pursuing regime change in Iran, few believe it. Early in the administration, a memo circulated in the White House, a report in Politico said, discussed ways of fomenting popular unrest in Iran with the aim of establishing a “free and democratic” country. The memo reportedly said the “very structure of the regime invites instability, crisis and possible collapse.”

Trump has consistently taken a hawkish position on Iran. In his 2018 speech before the UN General Assembly, he said he was imposing severe sanctions on Iran backed by the tacit threat of force. Implicit in his message was that US policy is aimed at undermining the regime in Tehran.

The problem for Trump is that by bringing Iraq into the Iran equation he has helped to undermine the US position in Iraq.

Iraqi politicians reacted angrily to Trump’s comments not only about “watching Iran” from Iraq but keeping control of the Al Asad Airbase in western Iraq where many US troops are stationed.

Iraq’s Shia-dominated government, which wants to maintain friendly relations with Iran for political and economic reasons, has tried to strike a balance between Washington and Tehran and is very sensitive to the notion that it is in any way assisting the United States in an anti-Iran campaign.

Even the normally US friendly Iraqi President Barham Salih, who is of Kurdish background, stated: “Don’t overburden Iraq with your own issues… Do not pursue your own policy priorities [against Iran in Iraq]. We live here.”

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is also someone with generally friendly relations with Washington, said: “Talking about military bases in Iraq for the purpose of confrontation complicates the relationship with neighbouring countries” as well as questioning the sovereignty of Iraq.

Both Salih and Abadi were reacting to strong condemnations of the United States by Iraqi politicians in parliament, some of whom have called for US troops to leave immediately.

Seeing how Trump’s statement touched off a political firestorm, acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan travelled to Baghdad on February 12 and tried to cool the controversy by stating: “We understand that that we’re [in Iraq] by invitation, that we jointly share resources… we clearly recognise [Iraq’s] sovereignty.”

Trump’s comments about the military base sounded like those of an early 20th-century imperialist. He said the United States had “spent a fortune” building this base, which he visited in December, and “we might as well keep it.”

Although Trump thinks in transactional terms that is not how the rest of the world thinks. He is ignorant of modern Middle Eastern history, in which the issue of foreign military bases was a hot-button political issue for nationalists throughout the region.

Unfortunately, this is not the first gaffe Trump has made that has justifiably riled Iraqis. The day after his inauguration in January 2017, he delivered a public speech at CIA headquarters during which he lamented the fact that the United States after 2003 did not take Iraqi oil but said “maybe you’ll have another chance” to do so. And Trump’s failure to meet with Iraqi officials in Baghdad before his visit to the troops at Al Asad in December was also received very poorly in Iraq.

Trump would do well to read a little history. The ill-fated Portsmouth Treaty of 1948 is worth studying. British and pro-British Iraqi officials negotiated a defence treaty that allowed for a long-term British military presence in Iraq but when the treaty was announced there was such widespread opposition to it in Iraq that it was never ratified. Ten years later, Iraq experienced a violent, anti-Western military coup.

The lesson is that Trump needs to tread delicately with Iraq and be much more careful about what he says. Many Iraqis quietly want the United States to stay in Iraq to train the Iraqi military, be a hedge against a possible resurgence of ISIS and a balancer to Iran’s influence in the country. However, any more gaffes would undermine those US supporters.