U.S.-Iraq Strategic Dialogue and Foreign Influence in Iraq
A strategic dialogue scheduled for this week could launch a much-needed reset in Washington-Baghdad relations. Months of tit-for-tat confrontations between the United States and Iran in Iraq created tensions between Washington and Baghdad. However, America and the new government in Baghdad now have an opportunity to turn the page in favor of U.S. and Iraqi interests and curtail the influence of Tehran, Beijing, and Moscow.
America still has a compelling interest in a politically stable and financially successful Iraq to promote regional stability. Since 2003, America has provided Iraq with diplomatic, economic, and military assistance to achieve this goal. Yet, ISIS, Iran, Russia, and China have exploited weaknesses in the Iraqi political and economic system to restrict U.S. gains.
A recalibration of the U.S.-Iraq relationship is necessary.
The role of Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq is at an inflection point. The American airstrikes in January that killed Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of Kataib Hezbollah, was a major setback for those looking to weaken U.S.-Iraq relations. Like several members of the Popular Mobilization Forces, Kataib Hezbollah functions as both a militia to defeat ISIS and an Iranian-backed terrorist organization that has targeted Americans.
A new government in Baghdad under Mustafa al-Kadhimi could jumpstart greater cooperation against Iranian proxies. Kadhimi is a former activist, journalist, and Iraqi intelligence chief who received American support as a candidate for prime minister. Kadhimi received Shia support—and was also acceptable to Iran—but has signaled tolerance for anti-Iran protestors and may be willing to protect them from Iranian proxies.
At the same time, U.S. officials should not overestimate Kadhimi’s political position, and instead, enter the dialogue with practical expectations. Kadhimi was a consensus candidate after two previous failed coalition attempts and has very fragile control of the government.
Iraq is also going through massive economic and political turmoil. Protests that began at the end of last year against corruption and poor economic conditions have continued throughout the coronavirus. The underlying conditions that led to them have only gotten worse in recent months, especially as vital oil markets fall.
The U.S. should give Kadhimi political space to consolidate his control of the Iraqi government and recognize his domestic challenges.
Instead of seeing these factors as weaknesses, U.S. officials should use them to leverage small, but crucial, measures towards building Iraqi security and rolling back Iranian, Chinese, and Russian influence over the long-term.
The United States should offer economic support to encourage Baghdad to crack down on Iranian efforts to circumvent U.S. sanctions through the oil market and ports. The U.S. can help bolster Kadhimi by helping Iraq with IMF or World Bank loans or providing its own U.S. grants.
Crucially, the United States should avoid further military withdrawals that signal America’s presence is only temporary. U.S. forces have begun consolidating around the al-Asad and Irbil bases, but the best way to ensure there is not a repeat of ISIS’s 2014 surge or domination by the Islamic Republic of Iran is to have U.S. and NATO forces active on the ground in Iraq.
Washington and Baghdad should also discuss updating both militaries’ rules of engagement and develop coordinated tactical options to create stability. At this point, the United States does not need Kadhimi to strike against the Iranians or their proxies offensively—in fact, moving too soon against them could undermine his political position. Yet, Kadhimi should engage against forces that launch terrorist attacks against American personnel in the Green Zone.
Overlooked for too long amidst threats from ISIS and Iran, Washington and Baghdad should address growing Russian and Chinese influence. Recently, the United States has shifted its focus towards great power competition in the Pacific, but China and Russia are also making diplomatic and commercial gains in the Middle East. While Iraq still needs access to U.S. dollars and support for future IMF loans, China and Russia could generate intelligence concerns by expanding their relationships in Iraq.
Conceding Iraq to greater influence from adversaries—whether it is ISIS, Iran, China, or Russia—would undercut America’s reliability as a partner for regional security.
The upcoming U.S.-Iraq strategic dialogue offers an opportunity to reassess after months of tension. U.S. officials must impress on their Iraqi counterparts that the status quo of Iranian influence and attacks on Americans is not sustainable. Meanwhile, unnecessary U.S. retrenchment would unwind years of progress, much like the 2011 military withdrawal later allowed the rise of ISIS, followed by American forces returning. It is not in America's interest to downgrade its engagement in Iraq, only to see ISIS, Iran, Russia, and China take its place.
Ari Cicurel is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s Gemunder Center for Defense & Strategy.