Secret Partner? Behind Iraq's Silence on Alleged Israeli Strikes on Iranian Targets

Silence following attacks leaves room for speculation about Baghdad's relations with Israel. But larger questions of Iraq's dependency on both the U.S. and Iran remain

Shi'ites Muslims march in a Jerusalem Day parade in Baghdad, Iraq, May 31, 2019.
Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters

“Baghdad’s silence on Israeli raids against Iraqi soil raises eyebrows,” read the headline of an article by Iranian journalist Ali Mousavi Khalkhali published on the Iranian website Iran Front Page. His bewilderment was shared by around 80 members of Iraq’s parliament, who urged the government to condemn, or at least respond in some way, to the two strikes attributed to Israel  last month – one on the Amirli base in Saladin Governorate and one on the Abu Montazer al-Muhammadavi base in Diyala Governorate, better known as Camp Ashraf.

Iraqi journalists have reminded Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi that he swore Iraq would never become a launching pad for attacks on Iran. They have also recalled the recent statement by Iraq’s ambassador to Washington, Fareed Yasseen, who said, “There are objective reasons that may call for normalizing relations with Israel.”

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These two messages revolve around a few central questions: Is Iraq a new Israeli front in its war against the Iranian threat, as implied in press briefings by Israeli intelligence officials? Or is Iraq a hidden ally, which, even if it won’t participate in the war on Iran, also won’t interfere with foreign efforts – Israeli, American or Saudi – to fight Iran on its territory?

Even if there’s no clear answer, European diplomats say Israeli officials have been holding secret meetings with Iraqi government officials for some time now. Some of these meetings have even taken place in Israel.

The Iranian journalist also cited visits to Israel by Nadia Murad, the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize laureate; and Lamiya Aji Bashar, winner of the 2016 Sakharov Prize; as well as by three other Iraqi delegations over the past year, as proof that Iraq maintains “normalized” ties with Israel.

His list of evidence continues: Khalkhali also said that Maryam Rajavi, leader of the Iranian opposition organization Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, visited Israel just before the attack on Iraq and asserted that the timing was no accident. Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, he said, is an important source of information about events in Iran for both the American and the Israeli governments.

Members of the group (which the American government designated as a terrorist organization until it was taken under the wing of U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton and of President Donald Trump’s friend and advisor Rudy Giuliani) lived for decades at Camp Ashraf.

After both Iraqi and Iranian forces attacked the camp, the Iraqi government expelled its residents in 2016. It then transferred control of the base to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Israel says the base is now being used to store Iranian ballistic missiles that were apparently slated to be transferred to Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon or else used to attack Israel directly from Iraq.

The story of Rajavi’s visit has since been debunked. An investigative report by the Daily Beast found that information about the alleged visit had come from the Twitter account of France’s consul general in Jerusalem, Pierre Cochard, a seemingly credible source. But it turns out this account never belonged to Chochard despite seeming strikingly authentic, and was used to push the false story about Rajavi.

Nevertheless, in Iranian and Arab media, the visit has become a fact that serves as proof of cooperation between Mujahedeen-e-Khalq and Israel, in which the former gives the latter information about what’s happening on Iranian bases in Iraq. It also begs more questions, each one developing the story.

Location of two reported Israeli strikes against Iran targets in Iraq
Google Maps

Who, for instance, helped the fighter jets, which in at least one case (according to foreign media reports) were F-35s? When operating in stealth mode and without external fuel tanks, the F-35 doesn’t have the range to reach Iraq from Israel without refueling in midair.

Another question touches upon the long flight path, which presumably passed through Syrian and Iraqi airspace. That would have exposed the planes to Russian and Syrian radar if they weren’t in stealth mode. If they were Israeli planes, they most likely would not have flown via Jordan; Amman would never authorize such a flight, and it would violate Jordanian sovereignty and further disrupt the already tense bilateral relationship between the two countries. This would leave no other choice but to fly over Syria.

In Iraq, meanwhile, the attacks sparked demands that the country purchase anti-aircraft missiles and otherwise improve its air defense systems, which are decades out of date. Members of parliament also demanded that Iraq take back control over the parts of its airspace currently overseen by the United States.

The last question, though, is what purpose the attack served. There’s nothing new about the presence of Iranian Zelzal and Fateh-110 missiles, which have ranges of 200 to 700 kilometers and are capable of hitting Israel. In August 2018, Reuters reported that Iran had been moving dozens of missiles into Iraq for months and had also restarted operations at missile factories in Al-Zafaraniya, east of Baghdad, and Jurf al-Sakhar, near Karbala. The report also revealed the existence of a third missile plant in Iraqi Kurdistan. The factories date back to the days of Saddam Hussein’s rule, but they were revived in 2016.

In May 2019, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid a hasty visit to Baghdad to tell Iraq’s prime minister to stop letting Iran bring missiles into the country and to remove the Iranian missiles that were already there. According to several reports, including one that cited former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Alawi, Israel gave Pompeo photographs of the missiles and launch pads, and said in no uncertain terms that it would take action against them if Iraq didn’t remove them itself.

So why did Israel refrain from attacking those missiles until now? Israel believes Trump gave it sweeping authorization to defend itself last December, when, after returning from a visit to American forces in Iraq, he said, “We give Israel $4.5 billion a year. And they’re doing very well defending themselves.” This remark was a response to criticism that the planned withdrawal of American forces from Syria could endanger Israel’s security.

Iraqi Shi'ite Muslims march during a parade marking al-Quds Day (Jerusalem Day) in Baghdad, May 31, 2019.
Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters

While Washington doesn’t want to be seen as attacking Iran itself, it wouldn’t be alarmed by a strike on missile stockpiles in Iraq. But it apparently asked Israel to let it try diplomatic pressure before resorting to military action. Inter alia, America demanded that Iraq put a halt to the operations of pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias and stop buying electricity from Iran. Additionally, even though Trump extended the exemption he gave Iraq from complying with sanctions on Iran until September 15, he demanded that the Iraqi government locate alternative sources of natural gas and electricity.

But it hasn’t been all talk: Last week, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on four Iraqis – the former governors of Nineveh and Saladin governorates and two Shi’ite militia commanders – due to their work on behalf of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in Iraq. Congress also intends to pass legislation imposing sanctions on anyone who works to undermine Iraq’s stability. The law would allow the administration to sanction companies and individuals inside and outside Iraq that seek to serve the Iranian government and undermine the Iraqi government.

The Iraqi government has publicly declared that it’s not party to the war between America and Iran. But despite saying it opposes sanctions on Iran, it agreed to comply with them. Moreover, in early July, it ordered all members of Shi’ite militias to enlist in the Iraqi security forces by July 31, thereby implementing a decision made back in 2016 to subordinate the militias to full Iraqi control.

This order, though welcomed by Washington, is meaningless in practice. The militias will remain loyal to Iran, and if necessary, they will take their orders from Tehran, even if that means contradicting their Iraqi chain of command. The demand to stop buying electricity and gas from Iran is also unfeasible, because Iraq, which has invested more than $120 billion in its electricity system since 2003, suffers from chronic power shortages, especially in its southern regions. It depends on electricity from Iran, especially for Basra, which also supplies power to other parts of Iraq.

Earlier this year, electricity shortages sparked violent demonstrations in the city of Basra. Alongside slogans denouncing the Iraqi government, there were quite a few slogans denouncing Iran, which has Iraq by the throat. But anyone concerned about the Iraqi government’s stability can’t expect it to halt the power supply from Iran, as that would bring hundreds of thousands of Iraqis into the streets.

Granted, Saudi Arabia has offered to provide electricity in Iran’s stead. But until a reliable power line is built between the two countries, Iraq will continue to need Iranian power.

Aside from electricity and gas, Iraq also imports most of its consumer goods from either Iran or Turkey. Bilateral trade with Iran currently totals around $12 billion a year, and the goal is to increase it to $20 billion. Just last week, Iran and Iraq signed an agreement to open a joint commodities exchange and set up joint investment funds.

Saudi Arabia is using massive soft power on Iraq. This week, it announced that the two countries have signed a military cooperation agreement, though the details aren’t yet clear. Last year, Saudi Arabia promised to donate $1 billion to help Iraq build a sports complex, open four consulates in Iraq and reopen a border crossing between the two countries that had been closed since 1990.

But Saudi and American diplomacy will have a very hard time severing Iraq from Iran, and not only because Iraq is so economically dependent on Tehran. Their shared Shi’ite faith, which nourishes a shared cultural infrastructure, coupled with Iraq’s fears of being taken over by Sunni Saudi Arabia and the deep anti-Americanism of large parts of the public, will all oblige the Iraqi government – most of whose ministers are Shi’ite, even if they don’t necessarily support Iran – to weigh its steps very cautiously.

Ostensibly, the attacks on the missile stockpiles should make it clear to Iraq that if it doesn’t end Iran’s military penetration, it could well become the stage for an international war. But this heavy hint could boomerang if, due to domestic political pressure, Iraq instead decides to serve as Iran’s shield.