December 31, 2019

Memo: Backlash to U.S. Strikes in Iraq Underscores Failure of Max Pressure

This morning, Iraqi militiamen and protestors enraged by U.S. strikes against Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi Shia militia, breached the U.S. Embassy walls in Baghdad. In what is perhaps the biggest political crisis for the U.S. in Iraq since the rise of ISIS, all segments of Iraqi society have condemned the U.S. strikes. The incident underscores how the administration’s so-called maximum pressure campaign against Iran continues to directly harm U.S. interests across the Middle East.

Below are key takeaways and background on this still-developing event: 

Key Takeaways

  • The exchange of fire with Iraqi Shia militias, and the overrunning of part of the Iraqi embassy in response, is yet another sign of the failure of maximum pressure – thanks to maximum pressure we have Iran reducing compliance with the U.S.-abandoned nuclear deal, a more combustible Middle East and an increasingly dire human rights situation in Iran.

  • The incident underscores that Iran retains both direct and indirect options to escalate, while the Trump administration has exhausted most of its non-kinetic options. In recent months Iran has taken steps to expand its previously restricted nuclear program. Moreover, the Trump administration has blamed Iran for a wide array of escalatory activities, including the targeting of oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz; an attack on a major Saudi Aramco oil facility; and the recent attacks from Shia militias against U.S. targets in Iraq. In contrast, President Trump sanctioned the U.S. out of influence with Iran and refuses to back off maximum pressure to jumpstart negotiations.

  • The strikes on Shia militias have been strongly condemned by a wide array of political forces in Iraq, from Grand Ayatollah Sistani to President Barham Salih, Interim-Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and many others. 

  • As a result, the U.S military and political position in Iraq is now under serious threat. Sadr has said he would seek the expulsion of U.S. forces through “legal and political methods.” Iraq’s National Security Council has said they would review their arrangement with the U.S. anti-ISIS coalition. Sadr’s “Saairun” coalition, as well as the other factions who have condemned the attack, together likely have enough votes for parliament to oust the United States. 

  • Such a clash with a key partner could have been avoided if the U.S. had not exited the nuclear deal in pursuit of maximum pressure. The U.S. has now gone from working with Iranian-backed Iraqi militias to retake territory from ISIS amid implementation of the nuclear deal to directly clashing with them in ways that undermine the feasibility of the US presence in Iraq.

  • Both the Iranian and Iraqi governments will benefit from the situation by turning attention away from their respective crackdowns on recent protests. Trump’s team could have chosen a less provocative way to respond – instead, the U.S. continues to provide both governments with a scapegoat for their failings and has violated Iraqi sovereignty in the process.  

  • Trump increasingly has no choice but to abandon maximum pressure and return to the negotiating table with Iran – but he may foolishly choose to escalate once more. A diplomatic de-escalation leading to a small deal can help Trump politically. Any sort of direct U.S.-Iran military confrontation has the very real potential of quickly engulfing the region in war, increasing the price of oil, and potentially triggering a global recession.

Sequence of Events

  • Dozens of angry Iraqi Shiite militia supporters broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday after smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area, prompting tear gas and stun grenades. 

  • The ambassador, Matt Tueller, had been traveling and was not at the embassy when it was breached on Tuesday, the State Department said in a statement, as thousands of militiamen and protesters outside the gate denounced U.S. airstrikes in Iraq.

  • This comes after the death of an American contractor following a missile attack on a U.S. military base in Iraq, ostensibly by the Kataib Hezbollah, a predominantly-Shia militia in Iraq. The group has denied involvement in the attack. In response, the U.S. conducted five airstrikes in Iraq and Syria on Kataib Hezbollah positions, resulting in almost two dozen dead. 

  • The Iraqi government appears to have worked with U.S. embassy security to push protesters out of the compound – but only after security forces seemed to tacitly allow them to breach the facility in an apparent reminder that the U.S. presence in Iraq is only possible with the blessing of the central government.
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