Ever since the US air strike that killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani and Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) deputy commander Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis in Baghdad in January, Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq have launched a series of attacks against America and its allies. Following Soleimani's killing, Iran has declared openly that its strategic goal is to drive the US out of Iraq and the Middle East.
Prior to the assassination, Iran carried out only one attack on US forces stationed in Iraq; afterwards, there were more than a dozen on Americans and US-led personnel launched by pro-Iranian groups which are part of the PMU. The Units were created in response to the rise of Daesh in 2014, and have been incorporated into the official Iraqi security forces, playing an ever-larger role across Iraqi society.
While the authorities in Baghdad have been struggling to establish full control over the PMU — whose senior leaders maintain close links with Tehran — it seems that in recent months Iran has changed its tactics by focusing on the establishment of new armed groups outside the PMU umbrella in order to conduct military operations against US interests and bases in Iraq. The rocket attack on the Taji military base north of Baghdad on 12 March that killed three members of the US-led international coalition suggests that this is the case, as the previously unknown group called Usbat Al-Thaireen (League of the Revolutionaries) claimed responsibility.
For Professor Riccardo Redaelli of Milan's Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, it is not so clear whether recent Iranian moves represent a new tactic or just a variable within a set of adopted tactics, which sometimes conflict with each other. When talking about "Tehran" we are dealing with a very complex reality with a plurality of centres of power with different views and interests. However, "It is clear that [the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps] had to adapt to a new situation, and the creation or 'rebranding' of new militias and groups reflects the need to avoid US retaliation," he told me.
Regardless of whether these "rebranded" groups are completely new or just operate under new names, it seems that they do not officially fall under the PMU and therefore do not have any responsibility towards the Iraqi authorities. The latter, of course, cannot be held responsible for the actions of such groups.
Since these new groups like Usbat Al-Thaireen are not on the Iraqi government payroll and do not fall under its nominal control, noted Kirsten Fontenrose, there is no reason for the Iraqi government to tolerate their violence against US forces who are in the country at the Iraqi government's invitation. The director for regional security at the Atlantic Council's Middle East division thinks that if the Iraqi government is unwilling to act against such groups when they attack US forces, then international law permits the US to do so. If the government is unable to act against such groups then it is admitting that it no longer has a monopoly on the use of force which, by some definitions, actually delegitimises the government. This would also be a litmus test for any future Iraqi government in the exercise of the country's sovereignty.
Many Iraqis view the US air strikes as violations of their country's sovereignty as well. Moreover, ignoring the Iraqi parliament's non-binding vote, which offered the chance for the US to withdraw peacefully from Iraq, and threats to block Iraq's access to its own oil money in the New York Federal Reserve Bank certainly do not contribute to the desired Iraqi sovereignty.
Establishing full control over the PMU's armed groups would pose a serious challenge under the present circumstances as the country is simultaneously confronting internal discontent, a health emergency and an economic free fall. The same is true for Iran, though, but there has been no significant reduction in Iran's use of Iraqi proxies as a result of the domestic difficulties within the Islamic Republic, not least the coronavirus crisis. In fact, according to Fontenrose, we have seen a small increase in Iran-sponsored militia violence both in Iraq and Yemen since the outbreak of the pandemic."This confirms that Iran maintains a separate and sacred budget for Quds Force violence that is not being touched to help alleviate pressures on the health system," she explained to me.
Despite this, the ongoing eye for an eye approach is unsustainable in the long run as it could pave the way to war. Moreover, it is evident that measured strikes to reduce the capabilities of Iranian proxy militias do not deter them. Some observers, therefore, believe that a US exit from Iraq is now inevitable as it would make almost no sense for Washington to continue investing resources in a "failed state". This, though, would be fatal for the US and a huge victory for Iran, whose "new tactic" may deliver results, although it is unclear how Iran can contribute to the reconstruction of Iraq.
In Fontenrose's opinion, if the US leaves Iraq then Iran and its allies will inherit a non-functional state with a broken system of governance, a failed economy, crumbling infrastructure and an aggrieved population. She believes that Iran will be fine with this; state failure allows it to manipulate its resources more easily. However, the international community and the Iraqis themselves will expect Iran to fill the gap left by the US and Europe, and Tehran will need to prove that it can bring stability, security and reconstruction to its neighbour. "Unfortunately, it can't," added Fontenrose.
The same is true for the US which, in 18 years, has failed to deliver. In Redaelli's view, the current US administration does not have a long term Middle East strategy of any kind; it has adopted a mainly reactive, and sometimes over-reactive, position. With the current US administration being the most obsessively anti-Iranian for decades, though, Prof. Redaelli doubts that it will withdraw from Iraq.
Instead of the ongoing tit for tat confrontation, Fontenrose wonders whether both Iran and the US can agree to give Iraq a break and allow space for each other in the country. Far from "working together," she thinks, "this means softening the zero-sum game requirements and, for example, signing on to an EU+GCC-coordinated strategy for the stabilisation that would prohibit (and monitor) sponsorship of violent groups but create space for external actors to help Iraq restructure its government and economy."
It is hard to believe that such a scenario is possible under the current US and Iranian leaderships. According to Redaelli, Soleimani's killing may have reduced America's soft-power and grip over Iraq, but it is unlikely that Iran would ever agree to such a "power-sharing" deal with the US there. He is also rather sceptical about the efficiency of the GCC's approach — particularly Saudi Arabia's — towards Iraq, as its members are all traditionally extremely weak when exercising soft power. Nevertheless, the current developments in Iraq are, he believes, the epitome of the theory of geopolitical hyper-extension: Iran can hardly maintain its regional position, and he doubts that it can attempt further regional expansion.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.