Will Iraq find itself caught in the middle of a US-Iran showdown

Iraq’s lack of autonomy undermines the prime minister’s official “taking no sides” approach.
Sunday 19/05/2019
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi (R) and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a meeting in Baghdad, May 8. (AFP)
Between a rock and a hard place. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi (R) and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a meeting in Baghdad, May 8. (AFP)

As the drums of war intensify against the backdrop of brewing hostilities between the United States and Iran, observers question the likelihood of another Gulf War. Iraq, an important pillar of Iran’s foreign policy approach more so than other battlegrounds where Iran exercises power, is where a showdown is likely to flare.

Iraq, in contrast to Gulf countries, has responded to escalating tensions with a de-escalatory narrative voiced by Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. It recasts Iraq’s image as a neutral ally to both Iran and the United States.

Other figures across Iraq’s political spectrum reinforce a view that Abdul-Mahdi is yet to endorse — for Iraq to assume the role of political mediator — as Iraqi Ambassador to Russia Haidar Mansour Hadi expressed May 16 at a news conference in Moscow.

Iraq remains caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, forced to bend to the will of two antithetical powers. If the threat of confrontation crystallises, it will be in Iraq, should Iran test the strategic weight of its militias inside Iraq.

The two rivals are aware of the erosion of US power in Iraq, a playing field the two share but where Iran holds greater leverage.

Recent unclaimed attacks on oil tankers off the UAE coast and Aramco’s pumping stations resuscitated fears of US-Iranian showdown.

Iran was accused by Washington and Riyadh and blamed by US President Donald Trump of framing the attack. Yet, US officials quoted by Reuters said the attacks on the vessels could have been undertaken by pro-Iran Shia groups from Iraq.

Baghdad insists that neither side favours the warpath but the same cannot be said for Iraqi militias under Tehran’s influence.

During an unannounced visit to Baghdad, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is alleged to have handed a flash drive to Abdul-Mahdi containing recordings of pro-Iranian militias preparing an attack on the United States, Al-Monitor reported.

The Guardian’s Middle East Correspondent Martin Chulov reported that Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani “summoned the militias under Tehran’s influence three weeks ago” in preparation of “proxy war.”

This places into context the evacuation order of non-emergency staff at the US Embassy in Baghdad and Erbil.

Iraq today, as the Trump administration perceives, is an extension of Iran’s extraterritorial reach into Arab states — a post-2003 reality that successive US administrations have failed to tamper.

Iraq’s lack of autonomy and the absence of a unified centre of political decision making undermine the prime minister’s official “taking no sides” approach, should Iran-loyal Iraqi militias attack, as they have repeatedly threatened.

The United States is not alone. It was recently joined by historic ally Britain in condemning Iran for the threat it poses to the wider region.

War will be contemplated by the United States only if the probability of success is high, which requires public support that the United States has lost, due to mismanaging its 2003 war on Iraq.

Instability in Iraq allowed for more entrenched Iranian involvement in the politics of its Arab neighbours, which the United States potentially may have underestimated or turned a blind eye to for as long as it served US regional interests.

While direct military confrontation is neither side’s first choice, a confrontation will rest on Iran’s next steps and whether patrons, as they regularly threaten, are committed to attacking US forces in Iraq.

Undeniable at this stage is that a new chapter in the long-spanning history of US-Iranian political provocation is being written.

However, the likelihood of a showdown is uncertain even if Iraq bears the brunt or cost of the proxy war that many fear is looming.