All eyes are on Iran's military response to the assassination of Qassem Suleimani by a US drone strike in Baghdad on Friday. Will Tehran have one of its many proxy forces throw missiles at an American embassy? Will it kidnap American citizens? Will it disrupt shipping in the Gulf, or will it have Lebanese Hezbollah strike at Israel? Iran has demonstrated its ability to do all of the above and more in the past but has not yet done so in retaliation to the killing of Suleimani, who was commander of the Quds Force, a unit of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. If they are as strategically-minded as we are often told they are – "they spend decades making a carpet", as the Friedmanesque adage goes – then it makes sense for them to opt for a different route.
Iran finds itself in a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, it needs to respond in a manner commensurate with the magnitude of Suleimani's assassination. In that sense, its response cannot be restricted to having proxies throw unguided missiles at the vicinity of US troops or personnel as it might well end up signalling Iranian feebleness more than anything else. On the other hand, the need to stage a meaningful retaliation will have to be balanced against the fact that the Iranians are dealing with an administration that has demonstrated a willingness to strike hard.
Rather than a military response, which is unlikely to amount to much more than an expression of performative violence that achieves little while possibly inviting overwhelming violence from an unpredictable US commander-in-chief, the Iranians – assuming they are the carpet-weavers we so often hear of – are far more likely to opt for a gradual response. One that has enough subtlety and deniability to achieve their objective and strike back at the US while avoiding the wrath of the US military machine. This is where Iraq comes in.
Thus far – and it is early days – the Iranians seem to have opted for such a course. Rather than striking at US embassies and installations with superficial attacks using low-grade missiles, they have instead mobilised the one thing they are certain of outmatching their American rivals in: their political clout and assets in Iraq.
Iraq is in the unfortunate position of being the most cost-effective messaging board for US-Iranian rivalry.
Sadly, Yemeni suffering only matters to global opinion if it spills into Saudi Arabia – something that can only go so far before inviting massive counter-attacks particularly now that US president Donald Trump’s febrile attention is focused on Iran. Likewise, Lebanon can be used as a front from which to attack Israel but what would the supposedly strategically-minded Iranians achieve from such a move other than the devastation of Lebanon and, at the most, a bruising of Israel’s sense of security? Iraq on the other hand, and to its lasting misfortune, provides the most effective setting for retaliation.
The assassinations almost immediately saw the galvanisation of Iran's political assets and allies in Iraq. In the past, its repeated attempts to force a US withdrawal from Iraq have always had the flavour of empty rhetoric about them. This time it is different. The stance of many Iraqi politicians towards Iran today is likely to be similar to that of world leaders towards the US after the September 11, 2001 attacks: compulsory solidarity, fear and, in some cases, indignation. However, the mobilisation of Iran-leaning politicians is not just a function of external pressure. It serves a domestic purpose of outflanking political rivals, alleviating the enormous pressure that has been built since the outbreak of mass protests in October, and consolidating the position of Shiite-centric political actors at this critical juncture of Iraqi government formation.
If they succeed, this could well prove to be Iran’s most potent response – certainly more effective than anything they possess in their military arsenal. It would secure Iran’s grip on Iraq and achieve the long-held aim of a US withdrawal. Even if the US stops short of a total withdrawal, the political arithmetic and balance of power within Iraqi politics have shifted further towards Iran’s favour. The assassinations have disrupted Iraq’s perpetual balancing act between its relations with the US and Iran in favour of the latter. Even Muqtada Al Sadr, long seen as a check on Iranian ambitions in Iraq, has reverted to the language of resistance and re-centred anti-Americanism in his messaging. Indeed, he criticised the Iraqi parliament’s resolution against the US military presence for not being tough enough.
The American withdrawal from Iraq is far from a done deal – though a repositioning and a possible drawdown seem all but certain. There is pushback against the idea from Kurdish and Sunni politicians who fear the emergence of an Iran-leaning majoritarian government in Baghdad. There will also be considerable popular opposition. The protest movement continues to push for systemic change while standing against foreign interference in Iraq. While this is aimed at all external interference, Iran takes the lion’s share of opprobrium commensurate with the scale of its influence in Iraq. Many Iraqis, concerned at Iran’s role in their country, will fear that a US withdrawal will only deepen the Iranian presence in Iraq. Finally, there are also concerns about the impact of a withdrawal on the fight against ISIS. Though diminished, ISIS stands to gain from a US withdrawal; their ravaged former holdings have much reason to fear renewed suffering and conflict on top of their ongoing hardships.
Despite his repeated proclamations against US military adventurism in the Middle East, and his patent lack of interest in Iraq, Mr Trump has completely rejected the idea of a withdrawal. His threat to slap sanctions on Iraq has the potential to devastate the country. Even revoking the sanctions-waiver that has been granted to Iraq for Iranian energy could destabilise the country. But US sanctions on Iraq itself would effectively mean the Americans destroying Iraq for the third time in three decades. The possibility of such a scenario could blunt the effort to eject the US from Iraq. It certainly gives Iraqi politicians pause for thought as it does for the Iranians. Iraq has provided Tehran with one of its few sources of relief from the ongoing US-imposed economic siege. Iran stands to lose a lot without an Iraq that is plugged into the global economy.
It is difficult to imagine a realistic scenario that does not spell bad news for Iraq. Internal tensions – between centre and periphery, between pro-Iranian and anti-Iranian, between the political elite and the forces of change, and within the political elite itself – will be sharpened. An increase in violence, be it relating to ISIS, internecine political squabbles or the protest movement, is also likely. Iraq’s diplomatic standing and economic future are likewise threatened by the current crisis. Beyond Iraq, regional stability, precarious at the best of times, is hanging by a thread. As ever, the price of the foolishness, intransigence and disregard for human lives that marks US-Iranian rivalry is primarily borne by others. Iraq is on the frontline and the region is on the precipice.
Fanar Haddad is senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore