Answering the Question of Iran

The U.S. can’t truly leave Iraq without dealing with Iran.

By: Allison Fedirka

Earlier this week, the U.S. special representative for Iran said Washington would keep putting additional pressure on Iran in the days and weeks ahead. 

He also said that Iran had reached a moment where it recognized it could not indefinitely withstand such pressure and would have to either sign a new nuclear deal with Washington or abandon its regional strategy – that is, using proxies to carve out a sphere of influence to the Mediterranean Sea. 

The U.S. and Iran spar verbally all the time – and sometimes violently – but there’s reason to believe there’s bite behind Washington’s barks, and that tensions may soon intensify again.

The U.S. wants to reduce its global military footprint, especially in the Middle East, as it pivots to the Indo-Pacific. The ideal outcome would be a light security presence in certain hotspots that can be quickly scaled up in case of emergency. Though Washington has already done much in that regard, Iran’s presence in Iraq complicates the withdrawal. 

The U.S. doesn’t want to leave a country it has been at war with for nearly 20 years just to see Iran gain more political and security control there than it already had. 

Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, moreover, threaten to destabilize the region, and an unstable region will be more difficult to vacate. 

Squaring away the U.S. military departure from Iraq along with the Iraqi economy’s reconstruction efforts means finding a way to reduce the threat of Iranian influence. In other words, time is winding down to settle the status of Iran.

In light of an uptick in rocket attacks conducted by Iran-backed Shiite militias against U.S. targets, there are now signals coming out of Iraq suggesting what the U.S. plan is. 

A strong military response by the U.S. is a nonstarter; it would be counterproductive to withdrawal efforts. 

But Washington can use political pressure, economic incentives and smaller-scale security moves to support Baghdad cracking down on the militias. For example, Washington appears ready to follow through on its threat to relocate its embassy in the Green Zone if security there remains suspect. 

There were also reports from Kurdistan late last week that U.S. coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State in northern Syria also hit targets belonging to the Popular Mobilization Forces, the loose collection of Iraq’s Shiite militias, in Anbar province. (The PMF initially confirmed the story but later denied it.)

Baghdad seems to have acquiesced to U.S. demands. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi called for the creation of a military and security commission to investigate the recent rocket attacks, particularly those targeting U.S. assets. 

National Security Adviser Qasim al-Araji will oversee the investigation and report results directly back to the prime minister in 30 days. 

However, curbing Iranian influence among Iraqi militant groups will rely on the Iraqi federal government’s ability to stand on its own against militias sympathetic or financially beholden to Tehran – something the Iraqi government has been unable to do thus far.

Meanwhile, there are signs that Israel, a critical ally in the U.S. coalition against Iran, is also increasing pressure on Tehran. It has taken more responsibility for military strikes against Iranian proxy forces, largely because they are positioned along Israel’s borders. 

Just last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia, of maintaining a missile storage facility in a suburb of Beirut, which, if true, could lead to an Israeli attack. (Tactically, Israel is in a tough spot. It cannot afford to sit idly by, but attacking a site such as the one Netanyahu identified would cause mass civilian casualties and all but guarantee war.) 

For its part, Lebanon is trying to maintain the status quo with Israel, as evidenced by its agreement to reengage with U.S.-mediated maritime and land border talks. But talks have broken down before, and there’s no guarantee that these won’t either.

Two other developments together suggest that a move against Iran may be near. The French Foreign Ministry announced Oct. 1 that the European-led maritime surveillance mission’s mandate to operate in the Strait of Hormuz has been extended through 2021. 

Though the mission is not directly part of the U.S. pressure campaign and these waters have been relatively quiet in the past few months, that the statement was made at all shows that the potential for escalation still exists.

More directly related is the Oct. 6 statement from an official of Iran’s Ministry of Economic Affairs and Finance that Tehran was struggling to pay overtime, bonuses and pensions. The government had been selling surplus properties to acquire the needed funds to make ends meet, but the parliament temporarily stopped the practice on legal grounds. 

Whatever the case may be, the government is clearly hurting financially, and though it has the tools to temper public unrest, political patronage and protection come much easier with a fuller treasury.

It’s not entirely clear what more, if anything, the U.S. has in store for its maximum pressure campaign against Iran. Washington relied nearly exclusively on economic and diplomatic sanctions lately, so much so that it’s hard to imagine what else is left to sanction. 

It’s also unclear if Israel is truly prepared to move on Iran beyond airstrikes in Syria – or what would have to shift to change Israel’s mind. What is clear is that the U.S. has to settle the Iran question before it vacates Iraq, and that in the meantime, the Iranian people will bear the brunt of the suffering.  

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