Washington experts see risks in US-Iran showdown in Iraq
WASHINGTON - A potential showdown between the United States and Iran in Iraq would carry huge geostrategic risks, experts in Washington said.
To begin with, nobody in Iraq wants more wars.
“I think the Iraqis are in a very difficult position,” said Geneive Abdo, a resident scholar at the Arabia Foundation.
Because of sanctions that limit Iraq’s abilities to get electricity from Iran (though the energy sanction has been eased for Iraq), Iran’s proxies in Iraq and the Iraqi government’s inability to defend itself against Tehran, keeping Iraq from another conflict could be tough but it’s not good for either Iran or the United States to allow it to happen, Abdo said.
“We can’t put Iraq in the position of being in the middle,” Abdo said.
The United States has sent an aircraft carrier and bombers to the Middle East in response to word of threats against US interests in the region.
Rumours of threats came after the United States ended exemptions from sanctions for countries buying oil from Iran. US national security adviser John Bolton said mines “almost certainly from Iran” damaged oil tankers near the United Arab Emirates.
Since then, rhetoric between Iran and the United States led many to worry about military strikes. Abdo spoke at the Hudson Institute in Washington about the potential for military action in Iraq if the tensions escalate.
Abbas Kadhim, director and resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Iraq Initiative, said the Iraqi government would likely push for neutrality and work not to get involved.
“No one wants the conflict to occur,” Kadhim said. “Even the Iranians don’t want that.”
If Iran-connected factions in Iraq push for war that would be a “nightmare” for Iraq, he said.
“Iraq does not want to choose sides because either side they choose it will be really costly,” Kadhim said.
Iraq analyst Omar al-Nidawi said Iraq’s “most important enemy” is electricity as the summer comes, as well as recurring fires damaging its wheat crop.
“At the moment, pulling Iraq into the conflict would make a bad situation a lot worse for everyone,” Nidawi said.
He acknowledged that there are remnants of the Islamic State as well as remnants of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party that may be interested in a US war with Iran.
“These people are now agitating in both the region as well as lobbying here in the US to fight against Iran,” he said. They would like to re-establish their versions of a political system.
Iran does not want to see a war in Iraq because, as the US sanctions become stricter, the more Iran would need Iraq, Nidawi said.
Even so, not all of Iran’s proxies want to see military action from the United States.
“We tend to generalise about Iran’s proxies, that they’re puppets,” Abdo said. “It’s not as if some of the Shia militias under al-Quds’ influence are waiting for a conflict because they think it will benefit them.”
US policymakers should also be thinking towards the future, she said.
“Even if we just declared war on Iran’s proxies, there would be support for the Iranian regime that doesn’t really exist now,” Abdo said. “The regime wouldn’t really collapse.”
Michael Pregent, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, agreed, saying: “Any group that drags the Iraqi people into war” will see “the Iraqi people turn against them.”
This would be yet another “gift” to Iran from the United States, Abdo said.
“Why would we deliver a collapsed Iraqi government to the Iranians?” she asked.
Even as the Iraqi government doesn’t want to see problems within its borders, it also feels it can’t strike out against the Iranian proxies in Iraq by creating a strong security response to any threat of militia-led violence.
“The Iraqi officials have made it very clear that this can’t happen because of internal politics,” Abdo said. “The Trump administration is very aware that the Iraqis can’t do anything.”
Most of the time, the proxies work “hand in glove” with the Iraqi government, while being a “thorn in the side” of the government the rest of the time, Kadhim said.
The perception in Iraq is that some members of the US government would like to attack Iran or its proxies, Abdo said.
“We need to change that perception,” she said. “There needs to be something Iranians can at least use as some cover. So, rather than just how are the Iraqis or Iranians going to respond, we should be asking, ‘What can the Trump administration do to prevent them from responding?’”