Analysis: Tehran’s Push to Force U.S. Exit From Iraq
While Iranian-backed parties are moving to form a government in Baghdad that could force the U.S. to exit the country, they face growing public anger in oil-rich Basra over governance failures.
Anti-government demonstrators in the port city have set ablaze the offices of Iranian-backed militias and the Iranian consulate. Tehran and its militias claimed that the U.S. and regional allies, as part of a broader conspiracy to topple the Islamic Republic, took advantage of the protests to instigate the attacks. The U.S. missions in Iraq were then targets of rocket attacks. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) also launched ballistic missiles against Iraq-based Kurdish insurgents. Washington condemned the launch and accused Tehran of ordering its Iraqi proxies to launch the attacks against the U.S. facilities.
Tensions between Iran and Iraq have escalated in recent weeks. Iranian government officials and their Iraqi allies were furious when Iraqi Prime Minister Hayder al-Abadi declared he would comply with U.S. sanctions against Iran – he later walked back and said that Iraq would only honor sanctions on dollar transactions.
In Iran, following a massive drop in the value of the national currency, reports of a rise in Iraqi sex tourism and shoppers crossing the border to buy Iranian goods en mass have triggered significant negative public reactions toward Iraq as well as the Islamic Republic.
Iraqis in Basra have also taken to the streets to express anger at the Iraqi state and their eastern neighbor. They are dissatisfied about poor governance, and blame Iran for its involvement in Iraqi politics and support of militias. Earlier this month, protests escalated, civil functions came to a standstill, several demonstrators were killed, and crowds on September 6 torched the offices of many political parties including those of IRGC-backed militias. Left unaddressed, the grievances that drive popular anger set the stage for more protests and unrest, as discussed in greater detail in The Basra Exception by Carnegie.
On the night that Basra protesters cheered as offices were set on fire, IRGC-backed “resistance groups” released a public statement accusing the U.S. of instigating the attacks against their offices. “We and mujahid forces are ready to surpass these conspiracies… We look with rage at the illegal presence of foreign forces in Iraq,” the statement read, which were publicized in IRGC-linked news agencies.
On September 6, Iraqi media reported that three mortar shells landed inside the Baghdad Green Zone near the U.S. embassy. No group immediately claimed responsibility.
The following day, Basra protesters torched the Iranian consulate there and called for Iran to “get out.”
Then, on September 8, the media reported another mortar strike against Basra airport, where the U.S. consulate is located.
That development, however, was eclipsed by reports of ballistic missiles striking the positions of Iranian-Kurdish insurgents in Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) territory. (For more, see FDD’s Long War Journal report Analysis: Iranian Missile Strikes Against Kurdish Dissidents in Iraq).
The IRGC in a public statement accused “foreign intelligence services” of supporting the Kurdish insurgents. KDPI relaunched “armed struggle” against the Islamic Republic in 2016.
In a phone call with KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani on September 10, Vice President Mike Pence condemned the missile launch.
The following day, on September 11, the White House issued a public statement accusing Iranian-led militias of launching “life-threatening attacks” against the U.S. missions in Iraq.
“Iran did not act to stop these attacks by its proxies in Iraq, which it has supported with funding, training, and weapons,” the statement read.
On September 14, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went above the earlier White House statement and said that Iran had ordered the attacks on the U.S. missions. He specified that Iran ordered “Katyusha attack” against the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and “action” against the consulate in Basra. The U.S., however, has yet to publicize its evidence.
Tehran’s denial of involvement in the attacks should be taken with a grain of salt. There are two suspects: Sunni or Shiite jihadists. The former ones claim virtually every attack on U.S. forces, and have not done so in this regard. Sunni-jihadist activity has been virtually non-existent in Basra for sometime. That leaves Shiite jihadists, which have freedom of movements in areas close to the Green Zone and U.S. embassy in Basra that permit them to shell those targets. Following the torching of offices in the city, the IRGC-backed groups communicated motives for striking U.S. positions. Rocketing the Green Zone were signature attacks of Iranian-led groups in Iraq during the last decade’s Coalition-led war in Iraq. Tehran is furthermore continuing its plausible deniability with regards to attacks on U.S. targets including in Iraq. The policy is intended to reap the benefits of the attack while shouldering away the potential consequences and injecting uncertainty in the adversaries’ calculation.
Tehran views Iraq developments as part of a perceived U.S. effort of regime overthrow. That threat perception has increased in recent months as the U.S. exited the Iran nuclear deal and has waged an economic warfare to pressure it into conceding on 12 policy demands. Many policymakers and commentators in Iran perceive that as an overthrow policy, though the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the IRGC frame that as a next phase in a policy pursued by every U.S. administration since 1979. Iranian officials framed incidents such as reports on sex tourism and the torching of the Iranian consulate as components of that conspiracy.
Iran will likely continue to redouble efforts to shape a ruling coalition in Baghdad that could force the U.S. to leave. The IRGC-linked Fatah coalition has made that objective clear in talks with Iraqi media. Abadi’s chances of re-election tanked after major stakeholders including Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani said they would not support a second term. Iraqi news agencies report that Sairoon and Fatah are in talks (again) to form a government. Fatah’s candidate for Parliament Speaker, Mohammad al Halbusi, won the most votes on September 15. Negotiations continue over the next president and prime minister.
If Tehran and its allies are successful, they could hold votes for a U.S. exit of Iraq, dealing a massive blow to the U.S. regional strategy against the Islamic Republic. Iran and its allies, however, would still face daunting challenges that threaten gains: if the incoming Iraqi government is unable to reform in a way that addresses public grievances, then the likelihood of protests in a strategic area that challenge the system’s viability increases even more. Many Iraqis certainly tie Iran to the system’s failures.