By Edward Carney
Last week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Iraq in a bid to expand relations with a country that is very much caught in the crossfire of the escalating tensions between Iran and the US. As if to underscore the role of this trip, CNBC published a report on Wednesday that declared “Washington isn’t happy” with the latest series of agreements to be signed between the neighboring Middle Eastern countries.
To illustrate this point, CNBC quoted Middle East analyst Jessica Leyland as saying, “All the agreements enable an increased Iranian physical presence on Iraqi soil,” part of the purpose of which is “to use Iraq to connect [Iran’s] sphere of influences.” In accordance with that goal, the Rouhani government secured a deal for the construction of a railway that will connect Iranian and Iraqi cities, and will presumably be extended thereafter to connect Iran directly to Damascus, Beirut, and the eastern Mediterranean.
Furthermore, in the interest of guaranteeing that the Islamic Republic can utilize such transport routes, and Iraqi territory more generally, for its own ends, “Iran’s actions are aimed at subverting Iraqi sovereignty and making Iraq dependent on Iran,” according to a senior State Department official who spoke to CNBC.
The report noted that such commentary is in keeping with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s assertion that Tehran wishes to make Iraq into a “vassal state.” More generally, it is also in keeping with the often repeated observation that Iran is intent on creating a “Shiite crescent” of regional influence, for the sake of positioning itself as the standard-bearer for Islamist unity in the Middle East and beyond.
This is undoubtedly an outcome that the US, and particularly the administration of President Donald Trump, is intent on preventing. But in pursuing that effort, Washington may not be able to simply cut off Iraq from Iranian influence. Attempts to do so may in fact alienate a tentative partner in the region. The administration’s need to tread lightly in this area was arguably underscored by the report that Washington would be extending a waiver to Iraq for 90 more days of sanctions-free purchasing of Iranian electricity.
This follows the White House extending sanctions waivers to Iraq and seven other major importers of Iranian oil after re-imposing secondary sanctions on the Islamic Republic last November. This decision contrasted with the administration’s former statements professing that it would exert maximum pressure on the Islamic Republic without any delay, but it reflected the realities of a situation in which even reliable partners of the US are at odds with the White House over the future of Iranian relations.
But even though these political realities underscore the administration’s need to apply pressure on its allies gradually and over the long term, there is nevertheless a growing sense of urgency around the issue of containing Iran’s regional ambitions. This sentiment has no doubt grown in recent days as Iran has been making more and more aggressive statements about its own commitment to countering Western regional influence and American interests in particular.
On Monday, Iranian officials plainly demanded that the US withdraw its troops from Syria, where they have been supporting Kurdish forces and pro-democratic rebels in the midst of the nation’s civil war and the broader fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. At the same time, the Iran-backed government in Damascus threatened to attack the local Kurdish forces in a bid to reassert the Assad regime’s control over the entirety of Syrian territory.
Such threats are made possible in large part by the entrenched presence of both Iranian forces and Iran-backed militants. And according to Reuters, that entrenchment was “on vivid display” in both Syria and Iraq on Monday, with the chief of staff of the Iranian military declaring that all three countries were “united” and coordinating at a high level. At the same time, an Iraqi lieutenant general delivered remarks via Syria television that praised the notion of opening the borders among the three countries, potentially casting further doubt on the limits of Iran’s territorial control.
Questions about those limits and about the implications of Iranian influence were underlined on Monday by Newsweek, in a report that suggested Iran has specifically brought Iraq and Syria together “at a time when the U.S. is struggling to assert its foreign policy vision in the region.”
Part of that struggle is evident in lingering uncertainty about how many US troops will remain in Syria to defend US allies after the last pockets of ISIL control are eliminated. On one hand, the Trump administration has identified ISIL’s defeat as the sole mission in that country, but on the other hand it has also been vigorous in its opposition to Iranian imperialism. Now Syria seems poised to provide an outlet for that imperialism, with the nation’s defense minister declaring on Monday that there will be no negotiation or compromise with the Kudish-led Syrian Democratic Forces or any other opponents of the Iran-backed Assad regime.
It remains for the US to pin down its long-term goals with respect to both Syria and Iraq, and specifically to reconcile those goals with its “maximum pressure” strategy for Iran. This project is seemingly complicated by the danger of either abandoning or alienating existing allies in the region. But the US may not be alone in facing this challenge.
On Wednesday, Iranian state media reportedly contradicted reports by the Turkish government that both countries were undertaking a joint military operation against the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. While Reuters notes that the reason for the two contrasting statements was unclear, one possibility is that Iran is worried about the political consequences of acknowledging its personal contribution to action against a Kurdish group in any neighboring, especially after tacitly backing up Syrian threats against another.
Tensions frequently flare between the Iranian government and the semi-autonomous Kurdish government in the northwest of that country. Additionally, Iraqi Kurds have shown some willingness to join with the Iraqi government and its Iranian allies after having previously fought ISIL on their own.
Together, these groups represent both potential threats and potential opportunities as Iran strives to extend its regional influence. But as with American efforts to navigate among overlapping relations in the region, the ultimate outcome will surely depend on careful strategy and the competing efforts of political adversaries.