Recent developments in Iraq and Iran, which are undergoing massive protests demanding political change in both countries, have forced US Vice President Mike Pence to inspect his country’s troops in Iraq. Interestingly, Pence made the inspection visit without meeting any official in Baghdad, as protests raged against the political class, which also affected Iran, which has influence in Iraq, in return, Pence met with the President of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, Nechirvan Barzani, in Erbil, after his visit to the base of Ain al-Assad, which includes US forces in western Iraq.
The US vice president stressed the United States’ commitment to Iraq’s sovereignty, expressing concern over Iranian influence, in line with protests in Iraqi cities. Pence’s visit came days after the disclosure of the New York Times and the Intercept site on Monday about hundreds of leaked Iranian intelligence reports which show the depth of Tehran’s influence in Iraq.
The visit created renewed debate in the country, especially after the senior US official repeated what President Donald Trump did, when he did not meet officials in the Baghdad government, despite the telephone contact with Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi.
The visit of the US Vice President carried more than a strategic dimension:
First: On the domestic level: He pointed directly to the necessity of change, saying, “We encourage the political class to meet the legitimate demands of peaceful demonstrators.” He also stressed the need to respect the sovereignty of Iraq, and took a covert behavior by ignoring to visit Baghdad, for two things: It is indifferent to the current government, a tacit message that may be addressed to demonstrators and political forces at the same time. Second, Washington does not want to be accused of supporting demonstrators and their dynamic positions, or seeking to change the political equation in Iraq explicitly.
US secretary of state, Pompeo addressed Baghdad directly saying: the United States welcomes any serious efforts by the Government of Iraq to address the continuing problems in society, adding that the government should listen to the legitimate demands of the Iraqi people who took to the streets to express their voice.
He pointed out that the United States is closely monitoring the situation, stressing that from the outset, the United States calls on all parties to renounce violence, and called on the Iraqi government to ease tight restrictions on freedom of the press and expression, noting that the US government will continue to support Iraqi institutions and people and the security, stability and sovereignty of Iraq.
US lawmakers agree that Abdul Mahdi is a friend of the United States and a good man, and there is a belief in Washington that he has the confidence of Sunnis and Kurds, but stressed that he should make his government more acceptable by the young Iraqis, and Senator Lindsey Graham said, Abdul Mahdi is a friend and we hope to be able to correct the situation, but corruption is rampant.
Democratic Sen. Tim Keane said the instability and protests in Iraq were worrying, noting that the United States could not intervene because US involvement could be a cause of unrest by some, so it must be done in a way the Iraqi government believes is beneficial.
Kane acknowledged that he did not know what the Iraqi government believed that it would be useful in the situation, so it would be better for the administration to present a good question-and-answer plan until the best was achieved.
Rep. Robin Gallego, an Arizona Democrat, served in the Marine Corps in Iraq. He feels the situation is not yet close to open conflict, but has called for Abdul Mahdi to resign.
Gallego added : The Iraqis want a less corrupt, more transparent and less bad government, ” , noting that the collapse of the government does not necessarily mean civil war.` and he added , `The Iraqis are also tired of Iran’s interference, and they fear that Tehran might increase its control and influence over the government, ” .
Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois said he shared concerns about political turmoil in the region, as well as Iran’s role in the conflict.
Apart from the familiar official comments in such cases, and back to the first conclusion for the American position on the protests in Iraq, analyst Anthony Issa, stressed that the mass protests in Iraq is a clear blow to Iran and its ambitions to consolidate an arc of influence from Tehran to Beirut, and in the words of Isa, Lebanon and Iraq are in a similar story about political regimes, which were formed in the wake of devastating sectarian wars.
The second strategic dimension: At the regional level: Mike Pence focused on Iran’s regional behavior, which he described as malicious, and stressed that Washington will not abandon its commitments to eliminate ISIS, or any extremist organization in the region, and his visit to Iraq and the US military Ain al-Assad base specifically , is a message to Tehran that Washington and its military power will not give up its strategic interests in Iraq for the benefit of any other regional powers, especially since Baghdad has a long-term strategic agreement with Washington.
This visit means that the US administration is acting decisively with Iran, regardless of President Donald Trump’s situation, and the internal difficulties of his re-election as president in November 2020, reflecting these real difficulties in congressional interrogation sessions centered on the pressure Trump is said to have exercised over Ukraine, in order to pursue the son of “Joe Biden” former vice president who is likely to be his rival from the Democratic Party in the next presidential election.
The US administration is a hard core that knows what Iran is, and does not depart from the hard line originally drawn by Donald Trump, who tore the deal over its nuclear file signed in July 2015 under President Barack Obama, on which he is being blamed. He reduced all the crises of the Middle East and the Gulf with its nuclear file, but didn’t take into consideration that the problem with Iran has never been in this file as much as it is elsewhere, the problem in Iranian behavior outside Iran, including Iraq, and in insisting on having Weapons by which it threatens its neighbors, such as ballistic missiles.
The hard line in the situation of US administration reveals that it knows a lot about Iran, especially what it is doing in Iraq, which has been transformed by the Bush and Obama administrations into a semi-Iranian colony and it reveals that the Trump administration now includes officials who know exactly the Middle East and the Gulf, especially Iran and what it has been doing since forty years, there is Vice President Pence, and there is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has a clear political discourse when it comes to Iran. John Bolton’s departure from the administration did not affect foreign policy. It is true that Bolton was a hawk and a proponent of military response to Iran , but it is also true that it is very important to avoid falling into the Iranian trap, simply it was shown that the effectiveness of sanctions on Iran was much greater than any military confrontation with it on which it was seeking to appear as if it confronts America in the region.
In any case, the recent events revealed the extent of the Iraqi people ‘s rejection of Iran, as well as the extent of Iranian pressure on Iraq, and the extent to which the future of the Iranian regime is linked to its influence in Iraq. In this sense , the Vice President’s warning to Iran through Iraq was appropriate , at a time when there is no indication that the popular revolution in Iran is just a passing event ,nor is there any indication that the Iraqi street is ready to acquiesce to the status quo that Iran seeks to impose.
The third strategic dimension: At the international level: To send a message to the international community that “Washington is concerned about Iraq in front the world, and that any failure of the political forces in Iraq to deal with the current crisis will require the United States to move using its own methods and tools.
But the United States is trying to stay away from direct interference in the Iraqi crisis, as a result of threats by leaders in some of the Popular Mobilization factions, allied to Iran, and confirmed by the Iranian ambassador in Iraq, “Iraj Masjedi” during a meeting with an Iraqi satellite TV on 26 September , that Iran is determined to respond against any US attack directed against Iran wherever the Americans are, including Iraq, either directly from Iran or through its allied forces, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Popular Mobilization in Iraq and the Houthi group in Yemen.
The United States believes that allies of Iran are trying to shuffle the cards by accusing them and their allies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, of supporting the protest movement directed largely against Iran, in the context of what is believed to be a “foreign conspiracy” targeting the Shiite power and Iranian influence in Iraq.
In any case, US options for change in Iraq appear to be very limited, but that depends mainly on the ability of protesters to continue their protests for a later period, during which the state of popular rejection of Iranian influence , the political forces and armed allies is increased .
Iraqi Studies Unit
Rawabet Center for Research and Strategic Studies