For some time, Iraq has tried its best to maintain its neutral relationship with both the US and Iran. Such a position may be under threat now, with Baghdad apparently under pressure to choose sides.
"Iraq may not have the option of remaining completely neutral and is under serious pressure from both sides," the former Director for Iraq at the US National Security Council, Charles W Dunne, told me. "Staying under the radar on this dispute is certainly the best strategy, but the likelihood that Baghdad will be able to completely avoid political blowback is small." Dunne is now a non-resident fellow at the Arab Centre in Washington DC.
Two weeks ago, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cancelled a visit to Germany and made an unannounced trip to Baghdad. "I wanted to go to Baghdad to speak with the leadership there, to assure them that we stood ready to continue to ensure that Iraq is a sovereign, independent nation," Pompeo told reporters while on his way to the Iraqi capital. A few days later, it was reported that the State Department had ordered a partial evacuation of the US Embassy in Baghdad, in response to what the Trump administration said was a threat linked to Iran.
That threat seems to be exaggerated, not least because the deputy commander of the US-led military coalition against Daesh/ISIS said recently that, "There has been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria." What, then, is Washington's goal for its escalation against Iran?
The lack of political consensus inside the US administration itself makes it difficult to know the real objective. People such as National Security Advisor John Bolton are in favour of war with Iran. Donald Trump, though, may be thinking differently.
It seems as if it is more of a psychological game as far as the US President is concerned. He wants to get a better nuclear deal with Iran than the one agreed under the Obama administration. He knows that a war with Iran will cost a lot in financial and image terms. However, a better deal would boost Trump in the public eye and could help him in next year's presidential election. For now, he will at least try to make himself look like a hero in front of the people of America.
In order to win this psychological war with Iran, Trump has to win over the Iraqis to his side. That would weaken Iran's ability to stay balanced. However, warning Iraq about Iranian-backed militias in the country despite Baghdad's efforts to stay neutral could cause concern among the Iraqi leadership. US pledges to ensure that Iraq would remain "sovereign" should reassure Baghdad that it will benefit from the Americans, and that is what Trump seems to be hoping for. If he wins over the Iraqis, he will reduce Iran's allies in the region and make it more likely for Tehran to accept whatever agreement Trump may put on the table.
Now the ball is in Iraq's court. With both Pompeo and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visiting Baghdad recently, the Iraqis could continue to maintain warm relations with both Tehran and Washington and try to calm the ongoing tensions or choose who they want to side with.
"There is a regional, Arab and international agreed-upon role for Iraq to be neutral and contribute to bridging US-Iranian and Saudi-Iranian relations," I was told by Dr Watheq Al-Hashemi, the President of the Iraqi Group for Strategic Studies. "But this issue is not filled with roses. There is an internal Iraqi problem, which is the multiplicity of political loyalties at the expense of the country."
Al-Hashemi pointed out that the Iraqi government is now suffering from US-Iranian pressure. "Escalation will continue, and sanctions will continue, but it will certainly not reach the stage of war," he added.
Although neither the US nor Iran really want war, it is possible that an accidental incident could threaten the stability of the region, not least because the Iranians seem to understand Trump's game. If things do not go in Trump's favour, and the Iranians do not back off — making a new nuclear deal less likely — an accidental war could result. That would have a devastating impact on the region, which is why countries such as Kuwait have issued warnings about the likelihood of a war taking place.
It is most certainly going to be in Iraq's best interests to be neutral. If Baghdad remains steadfast in its role, the region may remain relatively stable and prevent an unnecessary war.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.