Only a few months ago, Iraq had an opportunity to play a mediation role between the United States and Iran. Iraqi foreign minister, Mohammed al-Hakim, reportedly made the offer in May 2019 during a joint news conference in Baghdad while his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif was visiting Iraq.
One reason for Iraq’s mediation offer may have been the fear that the country could be the battleground for a U.S.–Iran war if ongoing tensions persist. Thus, mediating and helping the situation to de-escalate would be in Baghdad’s favor too. The fear has seemingly increased after the recent round of escalations between Washington and Tehran (following the killing of a U.S. contractor), which included the United States’ decision to assassinate Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.
Regardless of what the United States may say regarding their decision to assassinate Soleimani, Iraq did not need more problems.
Regardless of what the United States may say regarding their decision to assassinate Soleimani, Iraq did not need more problems. Before the escalations started, the country was already in turmoil as Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi had resigned and President Barham Salih had submitted a resignation letter to Parliament after several months of ongoing public protests.
Baghdad may have been united in playing a positive diplomatic role; however, growing U.S.–Iran tensions and Trump’s decision to assassinate Soleimani has created new division on whether U.S. forces should remain or leave the country.
Although the Iraqi parliament backed a recommendation by Abdel Mahdi that all foreign troops should be ordered out, most Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers boycotted the parliamentary session. In fact, a video was reportedly leaked showing Iraq’s Sunni Parliamentary Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi warning the largely pro-Iran Shi’ite majority in Parliament that they would be blamed if Iraq’s economy slided into the abyss for choosing to oust U.S. troops in retaliation for Soleimani at their own economy’s expense.
The U.S. response to Iraq’s parliamentary vote was a threat to use sanctions.
The U.S. response to Iraq’s parliamentary vote was a threat to use sanctions. President Trump warned that if U.S. troops were required to leave the country, Iraq’s government would have to pay Washington for the cost of a “very extraordinarily expensive” air base there. He added that if Iraq asked U.S. forces to leave on an unfriendly basis, “We will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”
On several occasions, Trump had indicated that he was not in favor of U.S. troops remaining in the Middle East for long as he saw no benefit from staying in those “endless” wars. One may wonder why he did not use the parliamentary vote as an opportunity to leave the country.
What seems to be the reason for the U.S. refusal to leave Iraq is Iran. Washington does not want Iran’s influence on the Baghdad government to grow. Therefore, continued U.S. presence in the country was, in one way or another, to counter Tehran. Leaving, especially at this particular time of heightened tensions, would be counterproductive.
In fact, two U.S. officials and an Iraqi government official familiar with the situation told Axios that the Trump administration tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade top Iraqi officials to kill a parliamentary effort to force the U.S. military out of Iraq.
Iraqi officials told the Wall Street Journal that the State Department warned the U.S. could shut down Iraq’s access to its central bank account held at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York; a move that could jolt Iraq’s already shaky economy.
After the vote, U.S. pressure on Iraq not to expel the troops continued. Iraqi officials told the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) that the State Department warned the U.S. could shut down Iraq’s access to its central bank account held at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York; a move that could jolt Iraq’s already shaky economy.
The WSJ also reported a few days later that the Trump administration was preparing possible cuts of $250 million in military aid to Iraq—funds already approved by Congress—if the Iraqi government were to expel U.S. troops and was reconsidering a broad spectrum of other economic and military assistance that were not yet committed.
Regardless of the validity of Washington’s reason to be anxious, the United States has to respect Iraq’s wish for sovereignty. On January 24, hundreds of thousands of protesters demanded that U.S. troops leave the country. If the U.S. insists on remaining and undermines the Iraqi government’s demands, it will only further raise the protesters’ anger.
Despite the fact that the U.S. State Department said the country would sanction Iraq if it chose to buy S-300s or S-400s from Russia, Badr al-Ziyadi, a member of the Iraqi parliament’s security and defense committee, told the As Sabah newspaper that Iraq plans on sending delegations to Russia, China, and Ukraine to inquire about purchasing advanced air defense systems. This move provides a glimpse of what the U.S. administration’s actions may have led to.
What remains to be seen is the extent to which the current American-Iranian tensions will have an impact on U.S.–Iraqi relations, especially their cooperation to prevent the resurgence of ISIS terrorist groups in the region.