Thursday, June 20, 2019

Tehran And Its Iraqi Allies Respond Asymmetrically To Trump Admin’s Iran Policy

Rocket launcher found outside Ninewa Ops Command (Iraq Newspaper)

Washington’s Iran policy appears in disarray. National Security Adviser John Bolton has talked about escalating pressure upon Tehran to halt not only its nuclear program but its foreign policy in the Middle East, and making them pay if they cross the line, but then President Trump told him to back down. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appears to be stuck in the middle. This is likely the result of the president delegating Iran to his staff and not knowing what the actual policy was until things got into the media, and then he got involved, which undermined what the strategy was. Tehran has responded asymmetrically to the increased rhetoric as it always has when dealing with the United States.

Iran has employed its two major assets the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its Iraqi militia allies to send a message to Washington that it is not intimidated with a spate of attacks in just a week’s time. That started June 13 with the attacks upon two tankers in the Persian Gulf likely carried out by the IRGC. The next day, the Balad air base in Salahaddin was hit by mortar fire. June 16, rockets were fired at the Baghdad military airport. June 17, rockets hit the Taji army base in Baghdad. June 18 rockets landed on the Ninewa Operations Command in Mosul, the Rumaila oil field and the international oil companies compound in Burjesia both in Basra. All of these sites with the exception of Rumaila house American military and civilian personnel. In April, IRGC Quds Force commander General Qasim Suleimani reportedly met with Iranian allies in Baghdad and told them to mobilize for a possible confrontation with Washington. These attacks in Iraq could be the result of Suleimani’s conference. Some of the largest Hashd units were militias backed by Tehran before 2014 and assaulted U.S. forces in Iraq before their withdrawal in 2011. Those same groups have repeatedly said that they would attack American assets at the behest of Iran. They have also occasionally fired rockets at the Green Zone and U.S. bases just like the recent incidents.

Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi has tried to not take sides in the U.S.-Iran conflict, but the number of attacks forced him to respond. He issued a statement on June 17 that all armed groups outside the Iraqi forces are prohibited, and that all the Iraqi forces have to operate under the control of him, the commander and chief. That didn’t have an immediate impact as the next day there was another round of rockets in Ninewa and Basra. The premier has not wanted to cause trouble with either side in this conflict as Iraq needs both. Iran is not only a major trade partner and source of around 1/3 of the country’s electricity supply, but has extensive ties to most of Iraq’s major parties. The Americans are crucial to the development and maintenance of the Iraqi military, and have major companies invested in the oil industry. He may not be able to do more than his guarded response.

It's unclear how the United States will react as well. President Trump has said that he doesn’t want war with Iran and is an isolationist at heart repeatedly talking about how military involvements in the Middle East were horrible mistakes. At the same time, he might be convinced of a limited military strike, like he did in Syria if things continue to escalate. Within Iraq the U.S. has repeatedly said that it does not agree with the pro-Iran Hashd, but there’s little more it can do as the prime minister has problems with the same people and has no control over them.


Agence France Presse, “US interests come under repeated fire in Iraq: officials,” 6/19/19

Banco, Erin, “Trump Tells His team to Tone Down the Tough Talk on Iran,” Daily Beast, 6/19/19

Bas News, “Hashd al-Shabi Threatens to Declare Anti-US War If It Targets Iran,” 5/8/19

Chulov, Martin, “Iran tells Middle East militias: prepare for proxy war,” Guardian, 5/16/19

Gambrell, Jon, “US Navy: Mine in tanker attack bears Iran hallmarks,” Associated Press, 6/19/19

Kelemen, Michele, “John Bolton Drives U.S. Pressure On Iran,” NPR, 6/17/19

Knights, Michael, “Iran-Backed Militias Test the Credibility of Iraq’s Prime Minister,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 6/19/19

Mohammed, Aref, Rasheed, Ahmed, “Staff evacuated as rocket strikes near foreign oil firms in Iraq,” Reuters, 6/19/19

Reuters, “Rocket hits site of foreign oil firms in Iraq’s Basra, two hurt,” 6/18/19

Segers, Grace, “Pompeo on Iran: “President Trump does not want war,” CBS News, 6/18/19

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