How worrisome is Iranian control of Iraq for the US?

One reason Iran can play hardball in nuclear negotiations is that they perceive America’s willingness to abandon Iraq as a sign of weakness to take advantage of, demanding maximal sanction concessions with minimal reciprocity. There is something unseemly about the world’s superpower begging a third-rate Islamist regime to accept hundreds of billions of dollars in sanctions relief in exchange for guaranteeing them a military nuclear capability with international legitimacy in less than 10 years. If you don’t believe me, just read the text of the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). 

A case in point is that Iranian-controlled militias are attacking American bases in Iraq with impunity. It is evident that the Biden administration will not use military force to stop Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s goal is to have a nuclear umbrella to make it invulnerable to attack, and to create a permanent Iranian proxy next door in Iraq — bringing it one step closer to destroying Israel. Just this week, Iranian Brig. Gen. Abolfazl Shekarchi, spokesperson for Iran’s armed forces, said, “We will not back off from the annihilation of Israel, even one millimeter. … We want to destroy Zionism in the world.” 

Naysayers claim that any kinetic response would draw us into more conflict in Iraq, but the opposite may be closer to the truth. Iran backs down when America shows strength. When America assassinated Gen. Qassem Soleimani, one of Iran’s most notorious terrorists, the Iranian response was muted. This, despite the hand-wringing of those who called it “reckless.”  

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The Middle East is a notoriously challenging place to predict outcomes, and any action can backfire. American strategic interests are a game of benefit and risks. But by not responding to Iranian attacks against American bases, international shipping, or against our allies, we make the world a more dangerous place. American allies worldwide lose confidence in the U.S. as a reliable friend.  

But does America need to have a presence in Iraq to advance its security interests? What does the U.S. get — and what would it lose — if it abandons Iraq as it did Afghanistan?

According to David Pollack of the Washington Institute, there are many reasons the U.S. should stay in Iraq: “A host of crucial multilateral interests are baked into the U.S. presence, from keeping the Islamic State down to protecting vulnerable regional allies, to preventing Iran from taking Iraq's oil revenues.” 

In addition, ISIS is waiting in the wings in Iraq, and Iranian control of Iraq would destabilize a vital American ally in Jordan. If Jordan falls and Iraq is under Iranian control, Israel will strike in Iraq, as it does today in Syria, to prevent arms shipments. This would increase the chance of a regional war. After the Afghanistan withdrawal, the U.S. has become dependent on a strong Israel, especially for intelligence. Lastly, Iranian control of Iraq could siphon off Iraqi oil for Iran’s benefit, supplying needed revenue to Iran’s conventional and nuclear arms machines. 

Iranian domination of Lebanon, Yemen and Syria will pale when compared to turning Iraq into a permanent Iranian proxy. Only conquering Saudi Arabia and taking over Islam’s most holy sites of Mecca and Medina would outshine a Persian satrapy of Iraqi Arabs. 

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Iran’s attempted assassination of the Iraqi prime minister this fall echoed the Iranian-directed assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in 2005. This year’s assassination attempt was a clear signal to both America and Iraq that Iran lays claim to be the ultimate power in Mesopotamia, demonstrating U.S. power’s impotence to the world. 

The U.S. has failed the test with its non-response to this assassination attempt; the Iranian drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil fields; Iran’s attack on international shipping in the Persian Gulf; and the recent attack on the American base in Al-Tanf, Syria, a strategic corridor to impede Iranian precision-guided missiles entering the Levant.

Although withdrawal is cheered by America’s progressives and isolationists, this lack of action can lead to more threats against American interests. The small American presence in Iraq and Syria, numbering around 3,000 troops, has disproportionate leverage for American interests. Over the past couple of years, American casualties in Iraq and Syria have been few, allowing us to minimize the arc of Iranian expansion at a relatively small cost. In the aftermath of Afghanistan and the abandonment of the Bagram air base, these small forces are especially valuable.  

But is America willing to pay the price to keep Iraq out of Iranian orbit? And are Iraqis interested in Iran controlling their lives?

According to Hussain Abdul-Hussain, a research fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, “Iraq’s top Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, last month called for the disbanding of all militias. This would involve the state disarming the pro-Iran Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). In turn, this would neuter Tehran’s most reliable partner in Iraq, Kataeb Hezbollah, the most dangerous alternative to state power in the country.” 

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Iraq is a mess, but it does have relatively free elections. After this year’s parliamentary election, when the Iranian-sponsored Fatah party lost decisively, they created chaos by claiming the election was stolen and activating their militias. The problem is that most Iraqi political parties have their own militias. That won’t dissuade Iran from threatening Iraq. Iran’s attempted drone assassination of the Iraqi prime minister drew a muted response from U.S. and European diplomats, who care primarily about the nuclear negotiations with Iran. This could signal Iran to up the ante in both hegemony and negotiations.  

Liberal internationalists in the Biden administration put diplomacy first, which can be a legitimate strategy. But they also must realize that to be perceived as more than a paper tiger, you need staying power in Iraq and a credible threat of force in the case of Iranian nuclear weapons. A few thousand non-combat U.S. troops afford disproportionate influence in Iraq, advancing American interests. They should not be withdrawn.

Eric R. Mandel is director of the Middle East Political Information Network (MEPIN). He regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides, and is the senior security editor for the Jerusalem Report/Jerusalem Post.