Expelling US forces from Iraq will be bad for all stakeholders – including Iran

Baghdad needs to maintain western troop presence as well as keep Tehran on side. There is a way forward

A supporter of pro-Iran factions raises a placard in Baghdad's Tahrir square, during a protest against the US and British forces strikes targeting Houthi rebels, on January 13 AFP
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Iran considers American military presence in neighbouring Iraq a strategic threat to its own national security, and it wants it eliminated at this opportune time. This will give Tehran free rein in the Levant, weaken US support to the Gulf countries and restructure the region’s security architecture on its terms.

Iran perceives vulnerabilities in the current US administration under President Joe Biden, particularly as the latter is focused on other priorities, such as the Ukraine and Gaza wars, and has one eye on elections this year. Tehran also knows that the US continues to hope, rightly or wrongly, for a compromise deal with it on a series of security issues. This window of opportunity may close if Donald Trump defeats Mr Biden in November and returns to the presidency. Therefore, it is time to play hard and exert maximum pressure on the US across the Middle East.

Iran’s leaders believe that the US is, as it has always been in Iraq, amenable to pressure, and keen to avoid escalation. And when Washington retaliates against an attack on its forces, it goes after the Tehran-backed proxies elsewhere, away from Iran.

That said, Iran does not want the total elimination of US diplomatic and economic presence in Iraq, for this will harm its interests too. An isolated and failed Iraq is not good for Iran. It still needs for indirect access to the West. The Iranian regime, after all, uses Iraq to both bypass US-led sanctions on Tehran and support its proxies across the region.

Iraq’s leaders realise that if they succumb to the demand of pro-Iranian groups and push the Americans out, it is not clear who their next target will be

The US, on the other hand, does not want to leave Iraq at this critical time. Were it to withdraw its troops, it would do so on its own terms and in its own time. American military and security presence in Iraq is of great strategic importance, not just for fighting ISIS and keeping a close eye on Iran, but also for providing support to its bases in Syria.

If pushed to leave in haste, it will risk creating a void that no western power can fill, with the US unable to return for years, if not decades, to come. Such a departure, from the US’s point of view, will not occur in a friendly manner and Iraq may not escape its adverse consequences.

America’s coalition partners, including the Europeans, have a stake in Iraq too. They have been investing in the country’s stability and integrity for years, and collectively committed billions of dollars and many lives. They have been able to support Iraq only because US forces are able to provide the necessary security umbrella and military infrastructure. An American departure will inevitably lead to their exit too. The coalition partners believe that they have earned their place in Iraq, that they should have a big say in their partnership, and their concerns are not ignored.

A fragile Iraq is caught between a rock and a hard place. It is unable to challenge Iran’s hegemony, or the overwhelming power of a superpower that can penalise the country with dire consequences. Baghdad, therefore, is not ready to see the US or its coalition partners leave. It is still not able to prevent threats from ISIS or the more sophisticated armed groups that possess drones and missiles. By pushing the remaining 2,500 US troops out of the country, under Iranian pressure, the country will inevitably lose whatever goodwill it has left in Washington. Iraq is no Iran; it is too fragile to survive financial and diplomatic isolation.

Iraq’s leaders realise that if they succumb to the demand of pro-Iranian groups and push the Americans out, it is not clear who their next target will be. The Kurdish and Sunni Arab parties believe they will be next in the firing line. Once the coalition partners are forced out, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq might feel vulnerable. Militias have targeted not only US-occupied bases in Kurdistan, but also dropped bombs close to Kurdish leaders’ offices.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani and his government must be gravely concerned about Iraq becoming a battleground between an eternally overbearing neighbour and an indispensable global partner. Baghdad is currently distracted from its investment-oriented agenda, which is under threat. Worse still, the government’s key supporters – members of the Co-ordination Framework, an umbrella bloc of Iraqi Shiite parties – are making it even more difficult for Mr Al Sudani to initiate a credible roadmap for US withdrawal.

These parties claim to support the government’s approach, but they concurrently fuel a populistic anti-coalition campaign and defend the militias’ illegal actions. The Prime Minister has described attacks on US troops as “terrorism”, even as many of the Co-ordination Framework members consider them to be legitimate and righteous.

It is no secret that the pro-Iranian groups now dominate the legislative, executive and judicial branches. More recently, they have overwhelmed provincial councils across Iraq, with the exception of those in Kurdistan. The non-state actors are now acting as the state, imposing policies while hindering reform. With such overwhelming influence, it will take a miracle for the Iraqi government to please everyone while emerging victorious.

Nonetheless, it can still pursue a credible process, put Iraq’s interests first and ring-fence the country from transcontinental rivalries. Iraq must negotiate a deal with the coalition with no arbitrary timelines or deadlines. It must engage in a comprehensive dialogue, involving all the coalition partners and including all sectors of engagement, covering security, economic, environmental, social and cultural issues. Any other approach will be risky and may lead to a lose-lose outcome for all stakeholders.

The US can, and should, exercise strategic patience and give the Iraqi government space. Pressuring a Shiite-led government into picking sides will not lead to Baghdad choosing Washington over Tehran. The Iranians, for their part, should not undermine the Iraqi state or its government any further. Otherwise, they risk escalating the situation beyond even their control, which could engulf their own country.

Published: January 15, 2024, 4:00 AM