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Iran, US heading towards a clash in Iraq

Iraqi citizens protest against the government on 15 July 2018 [Hayder Abu Rizq/Anadolu Agency]
Iraqi citizens protest against the government on 15 July 2018 [Hayder Abu Rizq/Anadolu Agency]

The storming of the Iranian Consulate in Basra last Friday has dramatically demonstrated the simmering anti-Iranian feelings amongst some sections of Iraqi society. It has also exposed the extent to which the street protest movement in Iraq has been infused by geopolitical tension and motivations.

Protestors in Basra and other parts of Iraq may be primarily motivated by anger at a corrupt and unresponsive ruling elite, but in view of the delicate configuration of the balance of power in the Iraqi establishment, the focus of public anger can be effortlessly directed at foreign powers.

This was dramatically underscored by a rocket attack on the US consulate in Basra on Saturday. That incident was preceded by rocket attacks on Baghdad’s Green Zone targeting the large US embassy there. This was reportedly the first attack on the infamous Green Zone for several years.

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In view of the escalating tensions between the US and Iran, the obvious conclusion to draw is that the two sides are encouraging – perhaps even sponsoring – attacks on each other’s diplomatic facilities in Iraq.

More broadly, the domestic turmoil in Iraq is proving to be the harbinger of a potentially major Iranian-US clash on Iraqi soil. As the US warns Iran of retaliation in the event of attacks on its forces, the stage is set for continual escalation.

An Iraqi revolution?

The Iraqi protestors attacking government buildings and the offices of political parties in southern Iraq have plenty to be angry about. By all accounts, corruption is rampant in Iraq and by extension critical infrastructure – including electricity supplies and access to potable water – is falling apart.  

Whilst the scope and intensity of the latest protests has grabbed international attention, it is worthwhile pointing out that they are nothing new in Iraq. Indeed, street protests – and associated rioting – have been a key feature of post-Baathist Iraqi politics.

The last major bout of unrest was in February 2011 when protestors – in part inspired by semi-revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt – rose up against the ruling establishment. Protests erupted again in late 2012 and early 2013, but this time around they were closely identified with the country’s minority Sunni community. The subsequent harsh crackdown – notably an attack on a protest camp in Hawija which killed 44 people – by the Iraqi authorities is widely regarded as triggering the rapid ascent of Daesh in Iraq.

Whilst analysts and observers continue to debate the forces behind the latest protests, it is safe to assume that there is limited spontaneity in the actions of the Iraqi protestors. For example, it is striking that offices and symbols associated with the so-called Sadrist movement led by the mercurial Muqtada Al-Sadr have been largely unaffected by the protests and associated rioting.

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Al-Sadr’s political block – the Sairoon electoral list – prevailed in Iraqi parliamentary elections but the once firebrand cleric has proved unable to decisively influence post-election politics, notably the appointment of a new prime minister. The violent protests in Basra and elsewhere in the south are in part a reaction to the political deadlock in Baghdad.

Tehran or Washington?

The post-election political deadlock in Baghdad and the violent disorder in the south is unfolding against a febrile geopolitical context, notably rising animosity between Iran and the United States. As an ally to both Iran and the US, the Iraqi government is caught between a rock and a hard place in terms of trying to balance its relations with its two most important international partners.

The hostile anti-Iranian rhetoric of the Trump Administration means that this latest round of Iranian-US tensions is unlikely to be solely confined to the political sphere. At some point there is likely to be a military engagement – albeit a limited one – as the two sides will find it impossible to manage all the tensions.

Iran Deal - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Iran Deal – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The military component of the Iran-US standoff is most likely to unfold in an Iraqi setting, as that is where the two sides are in closest proximity. Muqtada Al-Sadr’s partial electoral victory back in May was widely described as a loss to both Tehran and Washington, largely on account of Al-Sadr’s putative Iraqi nationalist position.

But the electoral outcome has only added to the tensions, as both Tehran and Washington have had to exert even greater effort than usual to influence the formation of the next Iraqi government. The US is hoping to capitalise on the protests to destabilise Iranian influence in Iraq by primarily applying pressure on the Iran-aligned political parties and paramilitary groups.

To that end, the protest movement has largely identified Iranian-backed political and paramilitary organisations as complicit in the breakdown of critical infrastructure. Whilst this is a significant development in terms of evolving Iraqi public opinion, nevertheless American leaders and policy makers would be mistaken if they think these protests signify a major shift in Iraqi politics.

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For a start, the Iranian-aligned political parties and paramilitary groups have in the course of the past 15 years achieved deep roots in post-Baathist Iraq. As such they cannot be easily destabilised, let alone removed from the scene. Moreover, public anger and dissatisfaction can also be easily directed at other elements of the Iraqi establishment, notably the pro-American factions headed by outgoing Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi.

In view of Iran’s strong position in Iraq, the harder the US pushes – American threats of retaliation notwithstanding – the greater force Iran is likely to use to push back. In this febrile atmosphere – and taking stock of the wider Iran-US standoff across the region – a simple misunderstanding can produce an explosive outcome.

Nuclear Deal: Israel is behind it - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Nuclear Deal: Israel is behind it – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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