Washington and Tehran: Will their conflict over Iraq lead to direct confrontation

Washington and Tehran: Will their conflict over Iraq lead to direct confrontation

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Baghdad is witnessing a political mobility these days to form the next government. But behind the scenes, even on stage, two foreign players are involved: Iran and America. What are they looking for in Mesopotamia? Is Iraq threatened for further fragmentation? The meeting of the Iraqi Council of Representatives held on Saturday to discuss the deteriorating situation in the province of Basra in southern Iraq, witnessed a heated argument between the Prime Minister Haider Abadi and the deputies of the province of Basra, in addition to another heated argument took place between Abadi and Governor of Basra Asaad Eidani on the subject of financial allocations for infrastructure projects in the province. The two main coalitions, which won the legislative elections last May, demanded the resignation of Abadi’s government following an extraordinary session of parliament to discuss the crisis in Basra.
That things are complicated in the Iraqi political scene after the demands for the resignation of the government, but it can be said that it is on the way to resolve, as the crises in some cases to find a solution in the end when are more severe . What happened inside the Iraqi parliament of verbal quarrels reflects the depth of the crisis in all of Iraq, and that Basra took the title of it, which is witnessing protests, demonstrations and the burning of headquarters, and although it began to calm, but the crisis in part is a political crisis with a side related to the services paid Citizens to demonstrate. So far, we do not know how this crisis will end. Will the Basra demonstrations stop be final and we will have to deal with the crisis, or will the political aspect overwhelm the popular movement? The next week will show all this when the Iraqi parliament meets. ”
The threads of the political process in Iraq are intertwined and are becoming more complicated, in parallel with the expansion of the protests in Basra, some of its sparks started to fly towards international and regional targets. The media and social networking sites in Iraq have been burning for several days with a sharp argument about the largest bloc that will form the next government. The statements of heads of blocs and new deputies varied on the collection of the largest number of signatures that pave the way for the birth of the next government formation.
Political movements have produced to blocs namely : The coalition of ” reform and construction ” led by PM Haider Abadi with coalitions of : ” Saroon” ” al-Wataniya ” , ” al-Hikma” and others while in the other camp stands head of the Fatah list of the popular crowd led by Hadi al-Ameri and “,” State of Law( Dawlat al-Qanoon “) , and deputies from several provinces. It was clear that the size of the US-Iranian competition in setting touches on the formation of the government, as many say, and this was expressed in various statements, accusing Abadi of obeying the orders of the US ambassador, and accused Ameri and his followers to walk in the axes of Tehran. With the acceleration of events in Basra and what happened there such as the burning of offices of parties and armed groups in addition to the Iranian consulate, and what happened on the other side such as the bombing of the vicinity of the US Embassy in Baghdad several times, things seem to be moving towards a greater escalation in the coming days, despite the calm that has been announced.

The characterization of the Iran-US relationship in Iraq is not easy. It ranges from competition, both passive and positive, to rivalry and to close cooperation in some joints. While some see what is happening as a mere distribution of roles between Washington and Tehran and that they agree on the basics. Others went on to compare that relationship metaphorically as swinging between the marriage of coercion and the marriage of interest. There are those who describe the relationship between Washington and Tehran in Iraq as follows: “Since 2003, the competitiveness has characterized that relationship, but today it is with Trump became a conflict.” There were cooperation stations: the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime and security coordination in 2006 and 2007. After the US withdrawal, it seemed as if the Obama administration had left full influence in Iraq to Iran, a reality that was directly influencing for the creation of changes that had taken place during this period in Iraq politically and demographically and in the accumulation of wealth and capacity on a sectarian basis, and even to escalate the sectarian policy and to establish special relationship with Iran that made a senior official like Hassan Ruhani to say “Iran has become an empire as it once was, with its capital Baghdad, the center of our civilization, our culture and our identity today as it has historically been,” and in the Trump era, and its escalation against Iran It is clear that Washington is seeking to counter the Iranian role in Iraq: “Washington wants Iraq to settle its position : Is it in its line or Iran’s line ?”.

The observers for the Iraqi issue see that most of the rumors until the moment about the formation of the largest bloc is still uncertain for several reasons, the most important that the political blocs did not hand over to the interim president any paper containing the signatures of all deputies, but signatures of the heads of blocks. The description of “trans-sectarian” , disputed between the two parties, the observers of the Iraqi issue refer to the presence of Sunni and Shiite deputies within the two blocs , recommending the next government flexibility and that its president has extensive relations with the international community, especially with the approach of the application of the second package of economic sanctions on Iran in the next month of November , which may reflect negatively on the Iraq . There are those who consider that there are many troublesome issues between Washington and Tehran, which call for a reckoning that have already taken place in Basra, especially with regard to the burning incident of the Iranian consulate, which it sends as a message to Iran that the axis against it is the “victor”. And is in the political circles that there is a coordination between Abadi and the Sadrists to withdraw military troops from Basra and leave it for security chaos, although the movement of demonstrations were going on normally just before one day, considering that the American-Iranian conflict reached the stage of bone fracture .

The demand for the resignation of the government is useless, because the current government is a Caretaker Government, it is only for the conduct of business, and those who demanded the resignation of Mr. Abbadi, they want to say in one way or another that they no longer support him for a second term, which is new for the bloc of Saroon , but Al-Fatah bloc is a rival bloc to Mr. Abbadi. The issue of the second term of Abadi is not only related to Iraq, but regional and international transformations, especially the American-Iranian conflict, and what is happening in this conflict, and perhaps in November the subject will become clearer when sanctions are tougher on Iran. And then the issue of the formation of the Iraqi government will takes time, and this explains the instability of alliances as a result of those regional and international influences. “The question that arises in this context why Tehran and Washington are struggling over the formation of the Iraqi government?
Iran seeks first and foremost to “keep” Iraq in its regional axis, which it has built over the years. This is at the geo-strategic level. Experts point out that this axis extends from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to Beirut on the shores of the Mediterranean. Economically, under US sanctions, Iraq will be Tehran’s “economic lung”: “Iran relies on the export of some oil through Iraq and Iraqi flags, as Iraq did in the 1990s as a way to circumvent the embargo.” The volume of trade exchange between Iraq and Iran last year amounted to about 6.7 billion dollars, of which only 77 million dollars is the value of Baghdad’s exports to Tehran, according to an official source at the Ministry of Commerce. Haidar Saeed explains the “anger” of Iran over Abadi’s declaration of “Iraq’s commitment to sanctions.” Washington, on the other hand, does not want, and is not ready, to lose a country like Iraq to Iran, not just Trump. There is a general feeling in the United States that Washington has done a lot since 2003 in Iraq. It does not want to lose what it has achieved militarily in Iraq, where it has seven military bases, namely: “Ain al- Assad Airbase, Habbaniyah in western Iraq, and Ain Kawa and Dahuk in Kurdistan region, Rustamiyah and airport in Baghdad, and Qayara in Nineveh. US forces share the bases with regular Iraqi forces. The bases include a heavy artillery battalion in western Iraq and an Apache squadron carrying out many tasks, most notably the protection of Baghdad and its airport, American presence areas such as the Green Zone, which includes the US Embassy, as well as four Chinook transport planes and more than 80 fighter planes , Most of them F-16 and F-18 fighter planes , taking off from the Turkish Angerlik bases and another base in Kuwait, and a third from aircraft carrier, George Washington, in the waters of the Arabian Gulf

Of course, this size of US forces does not represent the full combat force or support in Iraq. The United States has huge forces and is ready for immediate intervention of more than 40,000 troops already in established bases in the Gulf States, as well as stores of weapons, equipment and ammunition, in addition to the US capabilities which can be mobilized, or those already in Europe, the Mediterranean and Turkey. But the features of US capabilities are not only militarily but the US has different sources of influence in Iraq. It has trained large numbers of Iraqi forces, whether in the military or the police, and it is expected that an opportunity will be created for the Americans to form an important influence and gain allegiance at the level of senior and middle leaders in the Iraqi army. The question that arises in this context: In light of these data, will we see an American-Iranian clash in Iraq?
In the present circumstances, the United States and Iran do not seem to be in a situation or desire for a clash within Iraq, but this will continue on the level of soft power or attempts by each side to reduce the influence and strength of the other, as it has been for the past 15 years. This is clearly demonstrated today by the race of Tehran and Washington to influence the form of political alliances and the identity of the next government in Iraq after the parliamentary elections on 12 May 2018. At present Iraq does not seem ready or able to keep the two strong parties a way from Its geographical, political and economic domains, each of which has centers of influence, power and influence, as well as a direct military presence, and the consequences of the invasion and occupation are still influential and strongly on this country and its national options. On this basis, Iraq and the region should not expect sharp and violent changes in the relationship between Iran and the United States in this country, but this strong reality could collapse if Iran’s vital sphere is exposed to a strategic threat to the unity of the state or the future of the regime. The Trump administration is provoking it, especially after the “Pompeo conditions” which Tehran immediately rejected. Here, Iran may only have to blow up the whole region to impose new facts in which the cards are mixed. Of course, it will not be possible to keep Iraq out of flames.

Iraqi Studies Unit
Rawabet Center for Research and Strategic Studies