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In Iraq, Iran Is Facing a New Strategic Dilemma

Tehran is attempting to retain its influence by experimenting with new methods of fighting. If it won't use more force, Iran may lose its grip there

Zvi Bar'el
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An Iraqi protester hits a poster of Iranian Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, November 3, 2019
An Iraqi protester hits a poster of Iranian Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, November 3, 2019 Credit: AP Photo
Zvi Bar'el

The four Katyusha rockets that hit a military base next to Baghdad International Airport this week mark a new trend in the battle Iraq has been waging since early October.

The six soldiers injured in the attack belong to the elite forces of a U.S.-trained anti-terror unit. Inside the base, American forces and diplomats live next to Iraqi forces.

It was the ninth attack in the past six weeks against American facilities within Baghdad’s Green Zone, where government offices and U.S. command headquarters are located. No organization claimed responsibility, but the American administration attributes them to pro-Iranian forces.

Similarly to the first decade of the second Gulf war, the American enemy is close to home and can be confronted with minimal power. In those days, whoever wanted to hurt the Americans did it through terror attacks and roadside bombs. These days, a new trend is evolving: Attacks via rockets and mortars. The American ability to respond to these attacks is limited. Should Washington decide to launch a violent confrontation on Iraqi soil against pro-Iranian forces, Baghdad might demand that the Americans leave its territory. The White House is concerned that in such a case a public protest will be sparked and potentially inspire the Iraqi government to cancel its defense pacts with the U.S. administration. 

Iraqi protester in a Money Heist outfit stands behind a Shiite Muslim cleric during an anti-government demonstration, Basra, November 29, 2019
Iraqi protester in a Money Heist outfit stands behind a Shiite Muslim cleric during an anti-government demonstration, Basra, November 29, 2019Credit: AFP

Simultaneously, The New York Times quoted U.S. intelligence sources which said that Iran deployed short-range ballistic missiles in Iraq that could hit neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel. This may not be the first time that Iran has deployed ballistic missiles in Iraq, but it seems that this time Iran is taking advantage of the unrest that has gripped the country for the past two months to bolster its forces and respond to an addition of 14,000 American fighters in the Gulf region.

However, Iran’s ability to expand its military presence in Iraq has faced a public outcry that has led to the deaths of more than 450 people and thousands of injuries. The calls to kick Iran out of Iraqi territory, the temporary closure of the border crossings in southern Iraq, the two incidents of torching of the Iranian consulate in Najaf and the violent confrontations between demonstrators and pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias are only part of the expressions of rage against Iran. Sizeable Iraqi tribes who had previously backed Iran have recently joined the protests. As recently as July, a large delegation of tribal leaders met with the Iranian ambassador in Iraq to express their unqualified support for Iran.

“We are prepared to defend the Islamic Republic because a war against Iran is a war against Iraq,” they declared. “Iran proved that it stands beside the oppressed nations of the world and especially beside the Palestinian people.”

The tribal solidarity has begun to crack and even unravel. Some leaders of the important tribes realized that to preserve their status they must defend their sons being killed and injured by pro-Iranian militias during demonstrations. Some of those tribes had joined the Iraqi army when it was led by the late Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and after the fall of his regime in 2003 they supported the Shi’ite government and a close relationship with Iran. Now, they are caught in a dilemma, with some of their sons joining the Shi’ite militias operating under Iran’s directions despite their being part of the Iraqi army, and others demonstrating against the regime. This dilemma threatens Iran’s ability to dictate the way they fight against the popular protests, which have made the anti-Iranian discourse their main focus.

The leader of the caretaker government in Iraq, Adel Abd al-Mahdi, who has resigned as prime minister, is trapped by a combination of internal and external pressures that do not allow the government to implement reforms or make decisions that could calm the rebellion even temporarily. There is a fight over finding a consensus candidate to lead a new government, which would prepare for parliamentary elections.

Rebel leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who this week demanded that a prime minister be named from the ranks of the protest movements, faces down Iran, which seeks to dictate how the new government will look. Iran fears precisely such proposals, as it is liable to find itself facing an anti-Iranian prime minster who enjoys widespread popularity. The problem is that the protest movements have no consensus or recognized leader, and there is no party or other group that these movements are prepared to authorize to represent them.

At the same time, some of the protest movements do not regard al-Sadr as an authentic leader despite the fact that his forces, known as the Peace Companies, joined the protesters to protect them from Shi’ite militia fighters.

"The Iraqi people need leadership" : A poster of Iraqi Shiite cleric and political leader Moqtada al-Sadr wearing military fatigues, Baghdad, October 24, 2019
"The Iraqi people need leadership" : A poster of Iraqi Shiite cleric and political leader Moqtada al-Sadr wearing military fatigues, Baghdad, October 24, 2019 Credit: AFP

The bitter confrontation between al-Sadr and his rival, Qais al-Khazali, who established the pro-Iranian Asaib Ahl al-Haqq militias and strives to establish an Iraqi regime similar to that in Iran, expand the political struggle and turn it into a fight between Iran’s opponents and supporters. Iran has always tried to prevent such a development in an effort to shirt the image of a country pulling the strings in Iraq and working against the interests of the Iraqi people.

After the Iraqi chief-of-staff informed protesters on Tuesday that “Iraq’s army and security forces stand by you and to defend you until your constitutionally-protected demands are achieved,” Iran realized it faces a much harder challenge than suppressing demonstrators. If Iran decides to send more forces to Iraq to suppress the demonstrations it is liable to find itself facing the Iraqi army and not just civilian demonstrators.

Iran will have to decide soon whether it is prepared to risk the establishment of a government of technocrats, which would significantly erode its political influence in Iraq and be tantamount to admitting that Shi’ite militias have failed to preserve its interests in Iraq, or to intervene more aggressively as it did against the Iranian protesters.

Past experience may indicate that Iran also knows when to pull back when circumstances are unfavorable, but when it is in a fight to save its position in Lebanon and Syria and its own streets are restless, it may actually be liable to flex its muscles more violently to defend that position.

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