In January, with an eye toward national elections on May 12, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi stunned many observers when he agreed to a political alliance with a group representing the country’s most hard-line Shiite militias — some of them designated by the United States for terrorism, all of them loyal instruments of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
The move was surprising, largely because Abadi was among Washington’s most important partners in the fight to defeat the Islamic State. For more than three years, the United States had provided him unwavering political, economic, and — most critically — military and intelligence support. How, people wondered, could he suddenly embrace those elements of Iraqi society most hostile to the United States and the U.S.-Iraqi partnership, and most beholden to the IRGC?
As it turned out, the alliance lasted barely a day. The outcry from across Iraq’s political spectrum was immediate — not just from Sunnis and Kurds, but from many Shiites, too, especially those of a more nationalist bent who mostly look for religious guidance to the quietist school of clerics in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf rather than the band of revolutionary theocrats ruling Iran. Indeed, it was strongly rumored that Najaf’s most important source of authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, also communicated his disapproval of Abadi’s flirtation with Iran’s proxies. As quickly as it emerged, the new alliance collapsed under the weight of the domestic backlash.
Nevertheless, the incident should have served as a wakeup call for the Trump administration. Not so much for anything it revealed about Abadi. He’s no Iranian stooge. His dalliance with the militias almost certainly wasn’t part of some grand scheme to supercharge the IRGC’s very real efforts to consolidate its Hezbollah model in Iraq. Rather, it was more likely a myopic, short-term political calculation to secure himself a second term as prime minister. While controversial, the Iranian-backed militias — flush with IRGC money and weapons, and legitimately laying claim to a role in helping beat back the Islamic State — are predicted to win a significant block of seats in May’s elections. Abadi’s gambit was a misguided attempt to secure their backing for his return to power — and, as important, deny their support for the comeback of his bitter Dawa Party rival, Nouri al-Maliki, whose job Abadi took in 2014 after the Islamic State was able to bring its jihad to the gates of Baghdad.
Of greater concern is what Abadi’s ill-fated pact with the militias says about the state of U.S. diplomacy toward Iraq. In what universe could the United States’ closest ally in Baghdad think for even a second that it might be fine for him to enter a formal alliance with a group that counted U.S.-designated terrorists among its most powerful leaders? Had no senior official in the U.S. government bothered to mention to Abadi that while we may not expect him to rid Iraq of the IRGC’s most dangerous proxies overnight, empowering them as full-fledged political partners would be crossing a red line that endangers all U.S. support for his government? Has the United States not regularly been having those kinds of discussions with Abadi about the future of Iraq and U.S.-Iraqi relations?
If not, I certainly hope those conversations are happening now. Lack of diplomatic bandwidth has been a perennial problem for the Trump administration. And as luck would have it, Iraq’s elections are happening at the same time as the United States’ challenges with both the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs are (each in their own ways) rapidly coming to a head. Indeed, President Donald Trump’s deadline for deciding whether to renounce the Iran nuclear deal is scheduled for exactly the same day — May 12 — that Iraqis are going to the polls. Of course, putting even greater strain on current U.S. diplomatic capacity is the fact that the administration is now in the throes of relatively prolonged leadership changes at both the State Department and the National Security Council. It won’t be until mid-April at best that both those key foreign policy agencies are firing on anywhere close to all cylinders. With so much going on, it’s not hard to imagine that Iraq strategy could end up getting short shrift in the coming weeks and months.
This shouldn’t be the case. While the issue may not rise to the urgency of a rogue state acquiring nuclear weapons, the stakes in Iraq are nevertheless extremely high for the United States — certainly higher than most people appreciate. Iran’s strategy for the elections appears quite clear: ensure that its proxies in the militias and other political parties win sufficient power to compel any new Iraqi government to demand the withdrawal of all U.S. forces. Rather than use armed attacks or terrorism to drive out the Americans, and risk a dangerous confrontation, the IRGC would much rather manipulate Iraq’s democratic politics to send the U.S. packing. If it succeeds, it’s very hard to see how the United States could resist a request from a newly elected, sovereign Iraqi government to pack up and leave.
That would be borderline catastrophic — not just a humiliation for the United States, but a major strategic victory for Iran. Without a secure military foothold from which to operate in Iraq, America’s ability to counter the IRGC’s hegemonic ambitions across the Middle East’s northern tier would be put at severe risk. The position of the 2,000 U.S. forces in neighboring Syria — already shaky in light of escalating tensions with Turkey (and by Trump’s own gut instinct to cut and run) — would become untenable. The likelihood of Iran establishing a land bridge that would entrench the IRGC threat directly on both the Israeli and Jordanian borders with Syria would increase exponentially. The United States would be facing outright strategic collapse in a part of the world long deemed vital to U.S. interests — and all at Iranian hands, all without a shot being fired. Iran and its allies in Moscow and Damascus would no doubt be rejoicing. The United States’ regional friends, in contrast, would be left shuddering at the thought of what comes next for them.
The Iranians and their Iraqi proxies have been hard at work for months laying the predicate for just such a scenario. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has warned Abadi on at least two occasions not to allow U.S. troops to remain in Iraq after the Islamic State’s defeat. Designated terrorist and militia leader Qais Khazali declared in late February that Iranian-backed militias will form Iraq’s next government and their priority will be to “expel the American forces from Iraq and terminate the strategic cooperation agreement between the two countries.” Other IRGC-backed militia leaders have regularly echoed that call, making the expulsion of U.S. troops among their most important campaign themes. As a preview of their agenda, on March 1, with just over half of the parliament in attendance, Iran’s surrogates pushed through a non-binding resolution demanding that Abadi set a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign (read, U.S.) forces.
With sufficient diplomatic investment, the United States certainly has tools to counter Iran’s election schemes. Abadi and other Iraqi political leaders should be disabused of any illusions they may harbor: If Iran and its proxies succeed in manipulating the post-elections environment to expel American forces, it will be impossible for Washington to sustain the military and intelligence support that enabled Iraq to overcome its recent near-death experience with the Islamic State.
Ditto U.S. backing for Iraq’s mounting post-war economic needs. At a recent conference in Kuwait, the United States and other international donors pledged some $30 billion of investment, loans, and assistance to Iraq’s rebuilding efforts. It’s hard to imagine many of them being willing to follow through, much less do more, if the security anchor currently provided by U.S. forces is replaced by the hegemony of the IRGC. It’s a certainty that neither Iran nor Russia will make up the difference.
These potentially dire consequences need to be drilled home repeatedly to Iraqi politicians — and not just by U.S. embassy officials in Baghdad, but in direct communications from the highest levels of the Trump administration, ranking members of Congress, and U.S. allies in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. In this regard, close coordination with Saudi Arabia could be particularly useful in light of the unprecedented openness its new leadership has recently demonstrated to political and economic engagement with Baghdad, and the inroads the Saudis have made not just with Sunnis and Kurds, but with Abadi and other Shiite politicians leery of Iranian domination.
Also important: The United States’ unique ability, if it chooses to do so, to facilitate the kind of pragmatic political coalitions across Iraqi sects and ethnicities that could effectively counter the worst post-election machinations of Iran and its proxies. Despite their ongoing grievances against Baghdad, both the Kurds and Sunnis should be encouraged to maximize their participation in the elections and their potential influence over Iraq’s next government. Realizing the kingmaker role that the Kurdish bloc has played in past parliaments, Abadi — to his credit and with U.S. encouragement — has in recent weeks been workingto overcome the dangerous deterioration in relations that occurred after last fall’s referendum on Kurdish independence. Washington should redouble its efforts to move that reconciliation forward and see it manifested after the elections in a common agenda to protect Iraq’s long-term strategic partnership with the United States. As for the Sunnis, the immediate imperative is for the United States and the international community to help ensure that a way is found for the millions of Sunnis displaced by the Islamic State to cast their vote from their places of exile.
With U.S. forces having played an essential role in dispatching the Islamic State’s caliphate, the United States once again faces the perennial question: Having won the war, will the United States — for lack of attention, staying power, and strategic vision — end up yet again squandering the peace? With just six weeks to go until the Iraqi elections, Iran is no doubt banking on the answer being yes. Here’s hoping that even as it confronts the other daunting national security challenges that the United States faces, the Trump administration can find the capacity to prove America’s enemies wrong.
John Hannah is a Senior Counselor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.