There is no doubt that Iran and the US are serious about negotiating a new nuclear deal and framework for co-existence and cooperation in the region. The agreement is supposed to represent a re-ordering of the region’s dynamics and produce a stability built on a geopolitical reality: That is, Iran has expanded its influence at the expense of its rivals. At the same time, both the US and Iran have sought to alter the realities on the ground to secure more advantageous terms at the negotiating table.
Since April, Iranian-backed militias are believed to have launched more than five separate drone attacks on US facilities. Iranian-backed militias in Iraq have consistently threatened to escalate against US troops and stated that they must leave the country. Biden in turn has responded on at least two occasions with unilateral air strikes.
The Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) – pre-dominantly made up of pro-Iran militias – has persistently flexed its muscle against the Iraqi government in Baghdad, which had placed its hopes on support from Washington in vain. However, when General Frank McKenzie visited Iraq in May, the sentiment was that it was a new sign of commitment from Washington that it would support Prime Minister Kadhimi’s attempts to rein in the power of the militias on Iraq’s politics.
The PMF – pre-dominantly made up of pro-Iran militias – has persistently flexed its muscle against the Iraqi government.
General McKenzie is a staunch advocate against the downsizing of the US military presence in the region, and in Iraq specifically. His visit was seen as an indication from Washington that there would be genuine commitment to Kadhimi’s government, regardless of the US withdrawal from other areas in the region.
Soon after the visit, a joint Iraqi-US force arrested Qasim Musleh, one of the senior leaders of the PMF, and a man accused of the murder of an Iraqi activist. The high-profile nature of the arrest, and its timing, caused shockwaves in Iraq. The state had finally mobilized against the militias, and the Americans had appeared to publicly support the move. The suggestion was that Kadhimi had been given assurances from Washington that he would receive the necessary support to resist the backlash from the militias, and more importantly, Tehran. Qasim Musleh was taken to the green zone and his arrest made headlines.
The reaction of the Popular Mobilization Forces was as expected. The militias rallied on Baghdad, overshadowing ongoing popular protests against the government. Videos emerged on social media of militias armed with heavy weaponry and tanks moving in on the capital and amassing outside the heavily fortified Green Zone. The militias issued an ultimatum to Al-Kadhimi, demanding the release of Qasim Musleh. The hashtag “Kadhimi Falls Tonight” began to spread on Twitter. The army was deployed in response to the militias, in a tense stand-off.
Kadhimi had hoped the US would then intervene to reinforce him, instead he found himself abandoned. After a series of back-door negotiations, Musleh was put before a judge believed to be associated with the PMF who declared that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him. In utter humiliation for Kadhimi, the Iraqi government, and Washington, Musleh was allowed to walk free. Worse, Kadhimi was later obliged to attend a parade by the PMF to publicly affirm their legitimacy.
The fiasco over Qasim Musleh demonstrated the limits of US support for Baghdad and is reflective of the intense clash between Iranian militias and US forces as they jostle for a more beneficial status quo. The US has no desire to commit the necessary resources that might equip Baghdad with what it needs to rein in the militias.
This lack of commitment does not necessarily come from a lack of interest. Instead, it stems from fears that such resources will end up in the very hands of the militias that Washington would like to see contained. Indeed, Washington is well aware of the sweeping influence the militias have over the security apparatus of the Iraqi state, and especially frustrated at the state of affairs despite almost two decades of military and financial investment spent trying to stabilize the country.
However, this reality has also emboldened Iranian-backed militias to operate with impunity and facilitated Iran’s ability to resist adverse terms from Washington. Iran knows the limits to which the US will commit to resisting it in the region. It is in this context that Iran uses Iraq to remind Washington that the Iran deal negotiations are not between a victor and a vanquished, but rather between a superpower that has failed to defeat a resilient foe on foreign soil.
When Washington exerts unfavorable pressure on the table, Iranian-backed militias frustrate the US on the ground by attacking American positions.
When Washington exerts unfavorable pressure on the table, Iranian-backed militias frustrate the US on the ground by attacking American positions. While these militias take great care not to cause extensive casualties that might force Biden into an open war, the attacks nevertheless deal significant blows to the image of the US as a hegemon power in the region. They also serve to remind US policymakers that they can either secure a deal with Iran through compromise, or remain embroiled in an unwinnable war that continues to drain US resources and is increasingly unpopular at home.
The attacks are meant to show that Iran is well-equipped to continue frustrating the US in the region for as long as it needs to, and that it is Washington that pays a heavier price in all scenarios. Iran understands that the US has no appetite for either a costly all-out war, or an expensive and lengthy war of attrition that has already discouraged Washington into engaging with Iran in the first place.
This does not mean that the US has sat idly and tolerated these attacks. While ignoring many of them, the Biden administration has retaliated twice with air strikes. The first took place in February in Syria on Iranian-backed militia positions, after rockets that killed a US contractor were fired on Erbil. The second air strikes took place on June 27 on the Iraq-Syria border in response to militia attacks on US positions at the important Al-Omar oil field in Deir Ezzour (which Iranian militias would ideally like to seize control of).
Biden is keen to draw red lines over Iran’s attempts to impose a detrimental status quo.
The tit-for-tat has been a hallmark of US-Iran relations over the years, but particularly so during the current nuclear negotiations, as both parties jostle to squeeze concessions from each other. Where Iran has sought to assert its perceived dominance which has forced Washington into talks, Biden is also keen to draw red lines over Iran’s attempts to impose a detrimental status quo.
In all this, Iraq’s glaring lack of agency has been laid bare for all to see. Baghdad openly condemned the most recent airstrikes on its border as a “breach of sovereignty” while Washington’s response was to assert the “legality” of the strikes.
Nevertheless, militia attacks on US personnel are expected to continue throughout the negotiations, without escalating in a manner that might force a serious military engagement. While the two powers negotiate at the table, the wrestling on the ground will continue as each seeks to force as many concessions from the other as possible. Biden is committed to reaching a deal, as is Iran. However, Biden wants an agreement that guarantees a halt on Iranian expansion, while Tehran wants a deal that recognizes its hard-earned foreign policy gains. The risk is that the continued tit-for-tat will eventually result in enough casualties to thwart the dialogue. Ultimately, this was always a high-stakes endeavor for both parties.