The Trump administration recently issued a warning to the new government of Iraq, stating that if Iranian-aligned politicians are seated in any “significant positions of responsibility,” then the U.S. would decrease military support and other assistance.[i] While pushing back on Iran is welcome, cutting US military assistance and foreign aid would precipitate a self-fulfilling prophecy for a country that has just recently shown it is ready to reject Iranian infiltration into its society.[ii] The White House’s policy, premised on the basis that Iranian involvement in Iraq is so pervasive that the U.S. should reduce military support and other assistance, not only seems premature but will likely precipitate the very conditions the policy aimed to counter in the first place. Therefore, the most pressing issue facing US policymakers today regarding Iraq is striking the right balance between political and economic support while simultaneously pushing back against Iranian penetration. While the ends of US strategy in the region have been anything but clear, the newly appointed government of Iraq should be given a chance to lead the country down an independent path.[iii] Such a goal requires the U.S. to maintain its current level of support and to engage with the new government to fight corruption and provide essential services to its citizens.
Recently, US policies and goals in Iraq have been more clearly stated by what America doesn’t want. The US doesn’t want to see Iran make further gains in Iraqi society, including in its religious, economic, and political sectors.[iv] It doesn’t want the country to fall back into the hands of a non-state terror group like Daesh, and it doesn’t want the country to be plagued with fundamental development problems, such as access to simple necessities like clean water and consistent electricity. But what does the U.S. want to see happen in Iraq? Or, at the very least, how can we proactively ensure that what we don’t want doesn’t happen? Formulating clear policy goals that avoid these undesirable end states has been a Sisyphean task haunting previous US administrations. But the U.S. can further its interests, as well as Iraq’s, without seeking a panacea. As Dr. Kenneth Pollack has recently stated, US engagement on a small number of projects could do wonders for stabilizing the country.[v] This would allow for the proper conditions to begin rolling back corruption, solidifying the security environment, and supporting the strong nationalist sentiment of the Iraqi people.[vi]
While it’s difficult to imagine the May 12 elections going any worse than they did, including low voter turnout and an entire warehouse of ballots going up in flames, the final outcome allows for cautious optimism.[vii], [viii] Bahram Salih was elected President and immediately nominated Adel Abdul Mahdi as Prime Minister to form Iraq’s next government.[ix] Abdel has a reputation of being a moderate and is widely respected throughout Iraqi society, as well as in the West.[x] Furthermore, it is believed that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a prominent Shi’ite cleric in Iraq was the one who influenced this deal by calling for new faces, effectively ending the hopes of Maliki and al-Abadi to lead the new government.[xi] Yet, some analysts and policy makers have jumped to a different conclusion that Iranian QUDS force leader Qasem Soleimani personally brokered this deal.[xii], [xiii] While Iran did influence the process through its proxies, it’s important to keep in mind that Shi’ism is not a monolithic ideology and not all its practitioners take their cues from Tehran, as demonstrated by Iraqi religious leaders in Najaf and Karbala adamantly protecting religious independence and freedom.[xiv] The leap to assuming that Soleimani is responsible for the new government formation implies that the Iraqi government will be beholden to Tehran. It’s a serious charge and ultimately one that needs more evidence.
This is not to say that Iran won’t exert influence on the new government. The Iranian sponsored Fatah Alliance is expected to take 48 seats in the new parliament, with the Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) party likely to secure 15 of those seats.[xv], [xvi] The leader of AAH, Qais al-Khazali, is known to have killed Americans and collaborated with Iran against coalition forces, introducing many deadly weapons onto the battlefield, including extended force penetrator IEDs.[xvii] While profoundly concerning, Iranian influence vis-à-vis AAH can be checked by societal pressures—as evidenced by recent protests in Basra—executive pressure from Prime Minister Mahdi, and US congressional pressure. In fact, both houses of the US legislature have already proposed more surgical tools to stem the tide of Iranian influence besides the Whitehouse’s cuts to topline support to Iraq. H.R. 4238 and a related bill in the Senate, S.3431, would sanction AAH among other known Iranian proxies, while instructing the Department of State to publish a global list of armed groups, militias, or proxy forces receiving logistical, military, or financial assistance from the IRGC.[xviii]
Perhaps the best case to be made against supporting the new Iraqi government would be based on a scenario in which Iranian-backed MPs secure a disproportionate number of open ministerial positions. While AAH and other Iranian factions have submitted bids for numerous positions, historically these positions have been given out on a proportional basis.[xix] Prime Minister Mahdi has publicly stated that he wishes to form the government by 24 October, so the level of potential Iranian penetration—in terms of number of ministries held by Iranian sympathizers and their respective level of importance—remains uncertain.[xx] If Iranian-backed parties win an unacceptable number of positions, this would, of course, necessitate a reevaluation of US support. However, until the ministerial positions are filled, there is not enough evidence to prompt a dramatic shift in US support for Iraq.
[i] Katie Bo Williams, “US Official: We May Cut Support for Iraq If New Government Seats Pro-Iran Politicians,” Defense One, September 26, 2018, https://www.defenseone.com/threats/2018/09/official-us-may-cut-support-iraq-if-new-government-seats-pro-iran-politicians/151597/.
[ii] Isabel Coles and Ali Nabhan, “Iraqi Protesters Torch Iranian Consulate,” Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2018, , https://www.wsj.com/articles/iraqi-protesters-torch-iranian-consulate-1536356602.
[iii] Anthony Cordesman, “America’s ‘Chaos Strategy’ in the Middle East and South Asia,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, February 26, 2018, https://www.csis.org/analysis/americas-chaos-strategy-middle-east-and-south-asia.
[iv] Tim Arango, “Iran Dominates in Iraq After U.S. ‘Handed the Country Over,’” New York Times, July 15, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/15/world/middleeast/iran-iraq-iranian-power.html.
[v] Kenneth M. Pollack, “Iraq on Fire – Again,” American Enterprise Institute, July 2018, http://www.aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Iraq-on-Fire.pdf.
[vi] Eli Lake, “America’s Opportunity in Iraq,” Bloomberg, October 7, 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2018-10-07/iraq-s-new-government-deserves-american-support.
[vii] Editorial Board, “Iraq’s Two New Leaders Offer a Glimmer of Hope,” October 3, 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2018-10-03/salih-and-abdul-mahdi-as-iraq-s-new-leaders-offer-glimmer-of-hope.
[viii] Ahmed Aboulenein, “After Ballot Box Fire, Iraqi Cleric Sadr Warns of Civil War,” Reuters, June 11, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-election/after-ballot-box-fire-cleric-sadr-says-iraqis-should-unite-idUSKBN1J70T0.
[ix] Ali Nabhan, Ghassan Adnan, and Isabel Coles, “Iraq’s New President Nominates Prime Minister,” Wall Street Journal, October 2, 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/iraqs-new-president-nominates-prime-minister-1538517911.
[x] Kenneth M. Pollack, “Opinion | Iraq Gets a Government—and It Was Worth the Wait,” Wall Street Journal, October 5, 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/iraq-gets-a-governmentand-it-was-worth-the-wait-1538780073.
[xi] Eli Lake, “America’s Opportunity in Iraq.”
[xii] Michael Pregent, “@MPPregent,” Twitter (blog), October 3, 2018, https://twitter.com/MPPregent/status/1047577653295894528.
[xiii] Marco Rubio, “@marcorubio,” Twitter (blog), October 3, 2018, https://twitter.com/marcorubio/status/1047484635268218884.
[xiv] Michael Rubin, “Iraq Proves the US Should Stop Demonizing Shi’ism and Understand It,” Washington Examiner, October 9, 2018, https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/iraq-proves-the-us-should-stop-demonizing-shiism-and-understand-it.
[xv] “Iraqi Court Approves May 12 Poll Results,” Al Bawaba, August 20, 2018, https://www.albawaba.com/news/iraqi-court-approves-may-12-poll-results-1175934.
[xvi] Phillip Smyth, “Iranian Militias in Iraq’s Parliament: Political Outcomes and U.S. Response,” June 11, 2018, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/iranian-militias-in-iraqs-parliament-political-outcomes-and-u.s.-response.
[xvii] Michael R. Gordon and Ben Kesling, “Declassified Interrogation Reports Show How Much Iran Shaped Iraq War,” Wall Street Journal, August 30, 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/declassified-interrogation-reports-show-how-much-iran-shaped-iraq-war-1535621245.
[xviii] Ted Poe, “Iranian Proxies Terrorist Sanctions Act of 2017,” Pub. L. No. H.R. 4238 (2017), https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/4238/actions?q=%7B%22search%22%3A%5B%22khazali%22%5D%7D&r=1.
[xix] “Iraqi PM-Designate Abdul-Mahdi Begins Assembling His Cabinet,” Rudaw, August 10, 2018, http://www.rudaw.net/english/middleeast/iraq/071020182.
[xx] “New Iraqi Premier Wants to Form Cabinet by Oct. 24,” Al Bawaba, October 11, 2018, https://www.albawaba.com/news/new-iraqi-premier-wants-form-cabinet-oct-24-1198350.