President Trump and National Security Adviser Bolton (Getty Images)
Tensions in Iraq dramatically increased on May 15 when the State Department announced it was pulling out all non-essential personnel from its embassy in Baghdad and consulate in Irbil and the U.S. military was going on high alert in response to what it called a credible threat from Iran. That led Germany, Holland and Slovenia to suspend its training of the Iraqi and Kurdish forces, and Exxon to begin pulling out its staff from Basra. This came after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an unexpected visit to Baghdad where he told Prime Minister Adil Mahdi that Iran was making dangerous moves in the region. The U.S. then sent an aircraft carrier group and a B-52 bomber squadron to the Persian Gulf.
The question was immediately raised about what kind of intelligence the U.S. was receiving. British General Chris Ghika the deputy commander of Operation Inherent Resolve, the Coalition effort against the Islamic State told the media that there was no increased threat from Iran or its proxies in Iraq or Syria. The American Central Command took the unusual step of officially contradicting Ghika the same day. Then Martin Chulov in the Guardian reported that in April 2019 the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force General Qasim Suleimani went to Baghdad and talked with pro-Iran Hashd groups and told them to mobilize for a possible confrontation with the United States. That was in response to actions by the Trump administration. Did the U.S. receive some new information or, as the Chulov’s piece claims, only detect the Iranians preparing to react to Washington? It could very well be the latter as there were several stories that President Trump told his cabinet that he did not want war with Tehran, and that it was some of his staff particularly National Security Adviser John Bolton who was pushing a confrontation.
Some have argued that this is Trump’s tactic to play brinkmanship on an issue and if things don’t work out to back off at the last moment. However, rather than provoking a game of chicken the president often delegates issues to his staff and is not actually involved in decisions. Iran is a perfect example. Bolton has talked about regime change in Iran since at least the Bush administration and has been pushing for a stronger stance against Tehran. Because the president is removed that has allowed Bolton to push the issue to the current crisis. Trump however, while wanting a tougher stance versus Iran has repeatedly said that he does not want to be involved in Middle East wars. That meant when the issue reached a crisis point on May 15, the president finally became engaged and told his staff to back off because he didn’t agree with the way things were going in all likelihood because he didn’t know what his staff had been doing until then. Iraq unfortunately is caught in the middle between these two countries as it often has been since 2003 and has little say in matters.
Abdul-Zahra, Qssim, “ExxonMobil employees evacuating oil field in southern Iraq,” Associated Press, 5/18/19
Bas News, “ExxonMobil Evacuates Employees from Iraq,” 5/15/19
- “Hashd al-Shabi Threatens to Declare Anti-US War If It Targets Iran,” 5/8/19
- “Pompeo’s Visit to Baghdad: US Warned Iraq over Iranian-backed Militias,” 5/15/19
BBC, “US pulls ‘non-emergency staff’ from Iraq as Iran tensions mount,” 5/15/19
Bowden, John, “Trump tells aides he doesn’t want war with Iran: report,” The Hill, 5/16/19
Burns, Robert, “Coalition officer says no rise in Iran threat in Iraq, Syria; CENTCOM disputes claim,” Associated Press, 5/14/19
Chulov, Martin, “Iran tells Middle East militias: prepare for proxy war,” Guardian, 5/16/19
eKurd, “Slovenia suspends training of armed forces in Iraqi Kurdistan,” 5/18/19
Xinhua, “Iraq pursues balanced policy with friendly, neighboring countries: PM,” 5/8/19