The Long-Term Consequences of Trump’s Middle East Blundering

Middle East

BeirutOn January 5, two days after the Trump administration assassinated Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani in a drone strike in Baghdad, the Iraqi Parliament voted to expel American troops from Iraq. In the early hours of January 8, Iran launched more than two dozen missiles at two bases in Iraq that house US troops, in retaliation for Suleimani’s killing.

There were no casualties in the missile attacks, and a few hours later, both Iran’s leaders and President Donald Trump backed away from a military confrontation. The Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, wrote on Twitter that Iran had “concluded proportionate measures” in response to the assassination. “Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned,” Trump said in a televised statement from the White House.

Trump decided not to retaliate, and to avoid sparking a wider conflict. But his decision to assassinate Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force, the external operations wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy chief of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group of Iran-backed militias, has brought Iran closer to achieving one of its main goals: forcing American troops out of Iraq. If it succeeds in that objective, Iran will be able to extend its already considerable influence over the Iraqi government, political factions, and security forces. And a withdrawal of US troops will ultimately weaken the American-led campaign to destroy remnants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and give the jihadists breathing room to stage a comeback.

The Trump administration insists that it has no plans to withdraw. But it’s become untenable for the roughly 5,200 US troops to remain in Iraq, facing continuous threats from Iran and Iranian-allied Iraqi militias. The withdrawal of troops could take months, and the Pentagon has started preparing for the possibility of losing access to Iraqi military bases nearly 17 years after President George W. Bush ordered the American invasion of Iraq. The invasion in March 2003, which toppled Saddam Hussein and his Baathist dictatorship, opened the door for Iran to extend its influence throughout Iraq. Tehran moved quickly to undermine the American occupation, to help bog down US troops in an insurgency, and to solidify alliances with all of Iraq’s major Shiite factions.

In one conciliatory note in his speech on January 8, Trump called ISIS a “natural enemy of Iran,” adding “we should work together on this and other shared priorities.” But everything Trump has done over the past two weeks—killing Suleimani and Muhandis, who together had led the fight against ISIS in Iraq; alienating the Iraqi government; and prompting the international coalition fighting ISIS to suspend its operations—will undermine that goal and help the jihadists to regroup.

The Iraqi Parliament’s resolution calls on the government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to end a military cooperation agreement with Washington, under which the United States sent thousands of troops to Iraq in 2014 to assist in the battle against ISIS. After militants captured large swaths of northern Iraq in June 2014, including the city of Mosul, Iran’s Suleimani helped train and equip tens of thousands of volunteers who joined largely Shiite militias that worked alongside the Iraqi security forces. With a weakened Iraqi military, the militias proved crucial in stopping the Sunni jihadists’ advance toward Baghdad.

The parliamentary resolution to expel US troops, which is nonbinding, faces several hurdles: Many Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers, who oppose the withdrawal of American forces, did not attend the parliamentary session, where the measure was approved by a majority of mostly Shiite members. (Only 170 out of 328 lawmakers voted, and nearly 150 Sunni and Kurdish members boycotted the session.) Sunni and Kurdish leaders worry that without US troops, there will be no counterbalance on Iranian influence in Iraq. Ahmed al-Jarba, one of the few Sunni lawmakers who attended the session on January 5, asked his fellow members of Parliament what would happen once American forces left Iraq. “Are our neighbors our friends or our masters?” he said, clearly referring to Iran. “Are we going to hand the country’s wealth and decisions into the hands of neighboring countries?”

Abdul Mahdi resigned in late November, following months of protests and popular pressure against the Iraqi government. Since he is serving as a caretaker prime minister, it’s unclear if his government has the authority to carry out Parliament’s decision. On January 10, Abdul Mahdi announced that he had asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to begin setting up a “mechanism” for withdrawing American forces. But the State Department refused to discuss pulling out US troops, saying any American delegation to Baghdad would instead focus on “appropriate force posture in the Middle East.” The Trump administration clearly doesn’t want to lose face by appearing to be forced out of Iraq under Iranian pressure.

Iraqis’ frustration with the American military presence has been building for months, but it exploded after the assassination of Suleimani and Muhandis. Iraqi leaders were furious that the United States carried out the drone attack without their permission, and they called it a violation of the agreement under which Washington pledged not to use Iraqi territory to attack other countries. Abdul Mahdi and his aides have made it clear that the Trump administration no longer trusts the Iraqi security forces to protect American soldiers in Iraq—and that the departure of those troops is the only way to avoid more conflict. “What happened was a political assassination,” Abdul Mahdi told Parliament ahead of the vote. “Iraq cannot accept this.”

Trump and Iranian leaders have both pushed Iraq into the center of confrontation between Tehran and Washington. The Iranian regime, led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, doesn’t want to fight the United States directly, fearing devastating reprisals. So it has carried out the conflict through its allies and proxies in Iraq and in other parts of the Middle East. The missile strikes retaliating for Suleimani’s assassination—while they seemed intended by Iran not to inflict casualties—opened a new chapter: It was the first time that Iran directly carried out an attack against US targets in the region.

Iraq has been at the center of several regional proxy battles since the American invasion in 2003: At first, the conflict involved a competition over the new Iraqi government by Iran and its Sunni Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia. Tehran won that battle, extending its influence over much of the Iraqi state and society, while the United States was bogged down in an occupation and fighting an insurgency largely led by Iraqi nationalist and later Sunni jihadist groups. From 2006 until 2011, Iraq was wracked by a civil war between Sunni jihadists, some of whom received financing from donors in the Arab Sunni states, and Shiite Iraqi militias supported by Iran. At various points, the Shiite factions also turned their weapons against American forces, killing hundreds of troops and hoping to instigate a US pullout. By the time President Barack Obama’s administration withdrew the last of US troops, in late 2011, Iran had significant influence over the Shiite militias that had fought in the civil war and the government of then–Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The militias’ attacks against Sunni civilians and Maliki’s sectarian policies alienated many in Iraq’s Sunni community and created grievances that were exploited by jihadists, first by Al Qaeda in Iraq and later by ISIS. The emergence of ISIS was also spillover from the Syrian civil war next door, which began in early 2011 as a popular uprising against the brutal regime of President Bashar al-Assad and later turned into a sectarian and regional proxy war.

Iran supported Assad, propping him up with thousands of Iranian troops and tens of thousands of Shiite militia fighters recruited from Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Suleimani’s Quds Force coordinated those militias, and he was critical in helping ensure the survival of Assad’s regime, which has killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians. Tehran promoted a cult of personality around Suleimani, depicting him as a heroic spymaster and military planner who engineered an expansion of Iranian influence across the Arab world, with Shiite militias and allies stretching from Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and Yemen. Many Iranians and Iraqis credit him with a major role in defeating ISIS—and Iranians believe he helped keep the jihadists from crossing the border and wreaking havoc inside Iran.

Suleimani was perhaps most effective in advancing Iranian interests in Iraq. From Tehran’s perspective, Iraq provides strategic depth and a buffer against Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states that are competing with Iran for dominance over the Gulf. The Arab rulers, on the other hand, view Iranian influence in Iraq as a malign Persian- and Shiite-led power interfering in the affairs of an Arab state. But Iran sees its dominance over Iraq as a matter of survival: It wants to guarantee that Iraq never again poses an existential threat to Iranian interests, as Saddam Hussein did when he invaded Iran in 1980, instigating an eight-year war that devastated both countries. At the time, Saddam’s regime was supported by the Sunni Arab states and most Western powers. (The Shiites are the majority in Iraq, but since its independence in 1932, the country had been ruled by the Sunni minority until the American invasion in 2003.) With this history, Iran has shown that it will do whatever it can to keep a friendly, Shiite-led government in power in Baghdad.

The Islamic Republic’s willingness to provide support and spread money to various factions gave it great agility in maneuvering through Iraqi politics after the American invasion. Iran strengthened its ties with Shiite opposition groups that had fought Saddam’s regime, often with Iranian support. Tehran also reached out to new allies, including the powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr—who was an early critic of Iranian meddling in Iraq—and financed his growing militia and social service networks. In November 2009, then–US Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill sent a revealing diplomatic cable to State Department officials, which estimated that Tehran’s financial assistance to its Iraqi allies ranged from $100 million to $200 million a year. Iran was also willing to invest across sectarian lines: “The IRIG [Iranian government] recognizes that influence in Iraq requires operational (and at times ideological) flexibility,” Hill noted in his cable, which was revealed by WikiLeaks. “As a result, it is not uncommon for the IRIG to finance and support competing Shia, Kurdish, and to some extent, Sunni entities, with the aim of developing the Iraqi body politic’s dependency on Tehran’s largesse.”

Iran is the regional player that gained the most from the Bush administration’s gamble in Iraq since 2003, as a trove of leaked Iranian intelligence reports obtained by The Intercept recently revealed. The documents show “Tehran’s vast influence in Iraq, detailing years of painstaking work by Iranian spies to co-opt the country’s leaders, pay Iraqi agents working for the Americans to switch sides, and infiltrate every aspect of Iraq’s political, economic, and religious life.”

While Iran has played an effective long game in Iraq, carefully cultivating support and Iraqi allies over 17 years, the United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars and lost thousands of lives, but it has largely lurched from one crisis to another. Under the Trump administration, Washington’s policy shifted from helping Iraq to fight ISIS and build up its security forces toward using the American presence as a way counter to Iran’s influence. In February 2019, Trump angered Iraqi leaders when he suggested that US troops would be housed at Al Asad airbase in Anbar province to “watch” Iran.

Trump’s response to the Iraqi Parliament’s decision to expel US troops inflamed the conflict further. Hours after the vote on January 5, he threatened to impose sanctions on Iraq if its government followed through with the decision—“sanctions like they’ve never seen before.” Trump also demanded that the Iraqi government pay back billions of dollars that the US military had invested in Al Asad airbase. (That base bore the brunt of Iran’s missile attacks on January 8.) Trump’s threat revived bitter memories for millions of Iraqis who lived under punishing American and United Nations sanctions during Saddam’s regime in the 1990s, after the first Gulf War.

Trump later softened his public threat of sanctions, but his administration continued to insist that it plans to keep American troops in Iraq, despite the wishes of the Iraqi government.

And the State Department warned Iraq that it could shut down Baghdad’s access to a $3 billion Iraqi account, which includes revenues from oil sales, at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York. That would be among the most severe sanctions that Washington could impose on Iraq in retaliation for expelling US troops—and it could destabilize the Iraqi economy and value of its local currency. The Trump administration is resorting to economic pressure and practical extortion, to avoid appearing weak in confronting Iran and its allies in the Iraqi government.

Beyond inflaming anti-American sentiment and hastening calls for the expulsion of American troops, Trump’s actions could ultimately help ISIS and other jihadists reassert themselves in parts of Iraq and Syria. American troops have trained Iraqi security forces and directed US and allied warplanes bombing the group’s strongholds. Even though ISIS was driven out of most cities and towns it controlled by late 2017, Iraqi security forces are still dependent on American air power, surveillance, and intelligence assistance to battle remaining pockets of jihadists. Thousands of ISIS fighters, who operate in small units, are spread out across deserts and remote rural areas of Iraq and Syria. And there will be a domino effect: The contingent of about 1,000 American troops deployed to fight ISIS in Syria relies on logistical and intelligence support from the larger US force in Iraq.

On January 5, shortly before the vote in the Iraqi Parliament, the international coalition fighting ISIS announced that it was suspending operations against the group in Iraq so that it could focus on protecting American, British, and other foreign troops at Iraqi bases—in anticipation of Iranian retaliation for Suleimani’s killing. The Iraqi militias that operate under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces—which lost one of their top leaders, Muhandis, in the drone strike that killed Suleimani—are also now more focused on battling American troops than fighting ISIS. By instigating the Iraqi push to expel US troops, Trump ended up strengthening Tehran’s influence in Iraq. He has also weakened everyone’s ability to sustain what he portrays as one of his biggest accomplishments: defeating ISIS.

Trump essentially decided that his yearning to confront Iran—and to destroy one of the Obama administration’s major foreign policy legacies, the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran—was more important than preserving the victory over ISIS. And this has been one of the defining factors of Trump’s foreign policy: While he has changed his mind on many issues, he continues to insist that Iran is the greatest threat to American interests in the Middle East and the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. After he took office in January 2017, Trump surrounded himself with hawkish advisers who reinforced his view of the Iranian threat. These aides included the former defense secretary, James Mattis, and ex–national security adviser H.R. McMaster. Both men commanded American troops in Iraq, and fought Iraqi militias supported by Iran. Trump later appointed John Bolton, another neoconservative hawk and supporter of the 2003 Iraq invasion, as his national security adviser, and Mike Pompeo, a hawkish evangelical Christian, as his secretary of state.

In May 2018, Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, which was negotiated with six world powers, and under which Tehran agreed to limit its nuclear program in exchange for relief from international sanctions. By August 2018, Trump reimposed American sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy, insisting that he wants to negotiate a better deal with Tehran than the one reached by Obama. The leaders of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—Iran’s regional foes—all urged Trump to abandon the deal and impose his “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran.

But Trump’s campaign backfired, prompting Iran to carry out plausibly deniable attacks last May and June to disrupt shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, where about 20 percent of the world’s oil supply flows. In June, Iran shot down a US surveillance drone that it claimed had violated its airspace. Trump approved an attack on Iran in retaliation, but changed his mind at the last minute. Then in September, Iran likely launched drone and missile attacks on two major oil installations in Saudi Arabia. (While Yemen’s Houthi movement claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying it was retaliation for the Saudi bombing of Yemen, a confidential United Nations report later found that the Houthis could not have carried out the strikes.) While Iran denied responsibility, the attacks sent a message to Saudi leaders that their oil infrastructure is vulnerable and that Trump was unlikely to follow through on Washington’s promises to defend its allies. Since then, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, fearing that their oil installations would be in Iran’s crosshairs, have both called on Trump and Iran to de-escalate tensions.

The confrontation eased after the oil field attacks—and it was overshadowed by a popular protest movement in Iraq, which demanded that both Iran and the United States stop meddling in the country’s politics and security. The protests began in early October, and Iraqi officials responded with a crackdown that killed nearly 500 people. Suleimani urged Iraqi security forces and Iranian-allied militias to suppress the peaceful protesters. At the same time, Iraqi militias and Iranian-backed politicians tried to divert attention to the American military presence in Iraq. On December 27, an Iraqi militia, Kataib Hezbollah, fired rockets at a military base in the northern city of Kirkuk, killing an American contractor and wounding several US and Iraqi troops. Two days later, the Pentagon responded with massive retaliation—one Iraqi official later called it the “mother of all escalations”—launching air strikes against five militia bases in Iraq and near the Syrian border, killing at least two dozen and wounding 50 fighters. Iraqis rallied around the militia and the larger Popular Mobilization Forces, and lawmakers renewed calls for the expulsion of American troops and ending security cooperation with Washington.

On December 31—New Year’s Eve, when many Americans were not paying attention to the news—thousands of Iraqi militia supporters marched on the American embassy in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, reaching the outer compound. The siege continued for a second day, until Iraqi militia leaders and politicians instructed supporters to go home. The crisis appeared to have been diffused, but right-wing US media outlets and Trump supporters latched onto the images of protesters besieging an American embassy in the Middle East. The Trump administration was embarrassed and sought to prove that it would not allow “another Benghazi.” So Trump authorized a severe response to the killing of an American contractor and the brief siege outside the US embassy: assassinating Iran’s top general on Iraqi soil.

After Suleimani’s killing, Iranian leaders have publicly articulated their top goal: forcing the American military out of the region, starting in Iraq and likely Syria after that. On January 8, hours after the Iranian missile strikes, Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, wrote on Twitter that the general had “fought heroically” against ISIS and other jihadist groups. He added, “Our final answer to his assassination will be to kick all US forces out of the region.”

That has now become the rallying cry of Iranian allies and proxies throughout the Middle East, the groups nurtured by Suleimani. In killing Iran’s most important general, Trump has created a new martyr in the Middle East, one that could haunt the United States for years to come.

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