The senior administration official’s warning is the latest tack in a largely fruitless bid to shape a new governing coalition in Baghdad.
The Trump administration may decrease U.S. military support or other assistance to Iraq if its new government puts Iranian-aligned politicians in any “significant positions of responsibility,” a senior administration official told reporters late last week.
The comment comes as Baghdad pols jockey to form a new government following May’s parliamentary elections. American efforts to shape coalition negotiations have made little progress and the current U.S.-backed backed prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, appears almost certain to lose his job as constitutional deadlines loom.
“We are going to closely watch who occupies positions of responsibility and evaluate them closely, and those that hold strong relationships and enduring relationships with Iran, will make it extremely difficult for us to be able to continue the level of support and assistance we're currently providing,” the official said. The official did not specify what kinds of assistance could be cut.
Abadi’s political coalition placed third in the national elections and he has since been wrestling for power with the runner-up, the pro-Iran militia leader Hadi al-Amiri who is seeking to form his own majority governing coalition alongside former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. Abadi’s position was further undermined after losing the support of the nationalist Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose coalition won the most votes of all.
Analysts of Iraqi politics believe it highly unlikely that an Iran-aligned candidate will become prime minister. But Sadr has been engaged in what appears to be a tentative rapprochement with Amiri, and a deal between the two could end with a Iran-leaning candidate filling one of Iran’s powerful ministerial positions.
That outcome would be a blow to one of President Trump’s key foreign policy objectives: countering Iranian influence in the region.
“We are working diligently to make sure that the Iraqi people, the voice that they gave during their election, is who ends up in leadership there,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said while in New York for the United Nations General Assembly on Monday.
But in Iraq, where U.S. diplomats have been working conspicuously and unsuccessfully to marginalize Amiri’s Badr group, the uncertain political landscape suggests American influence is waning despite the investment of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars over the past 15 years.
The U.S. “had no plan B to Abadi,” said Kirk Sowell, a Jordan-based analyst who publishes a newsletter on Iraqi politics.
The U.S. threat to withhold aid if Iran-aligned politicians occupy any ministerial position is an escalation of Washington’s demands on Baghdad. Currently, Amiri’s pro-Iran group controls Iraq’s Ministry of Interior, which is in charge of policing and border control.
Fifteen years after President George W. Bush announced the start of the Iraq War, the U.S. maintains an active presence there. The military mostly trains and assists Iraqi security forces in order to prevent the reemergence of ISIS and to maintain a linchpin of stability in the Middle East. U.S. special operations forces also launch counterterrorism and intelligence missions across the country from inside Iraq, including in Kurdish regions and into Syria. The U.S. also provides economic assistance to Iraq, in the form of humanitarian aid to support the handling of displaced persons, help with reconstruction, and in counter-IED efforts.
Reducing that military support could reshape regional security. Although ISIS has been dispersed, Iraqis “lack the necessary counterinsurgency and counterterrorism capabilities” to improve security on their own, Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute said at a recent event. Some ISIS fighters still remain embedded with Sunni communities in Iraq, according to close watchers of the group, and they continue to rove the streets at night.
The potential impact of withdrawing financial support is less clear. Some local analysts said it would hardly change the behavior of an Iraqi government rife with corruption. They note that whatever money is withheld might be replaced by other countries trading money for influence in Baghdad.
Local analysts who are closing tracking the government formation process see two potential frontrunners for the prime minister slot, although they caution the situation is fluid. Both of those candidates—Adil Abdul-Mahdi, Iraq’s former vice president, or Falih al-Fayyad, Abadi’s recently-fired national security advisor—are at least palatable to the United States. Neither are seen to be as pro-Western as Abadi.
But it’s the ministerial positions that the Trump administration is going to be watching most closely.
“Our concern is that those individuals that have long and enduring relationships, and are financially supported, in some cases directed and controlled, from Iran—[that] they don't end up occupying significant positions of responsibility,” the senior administration official said last week. “It's not entirely clear yet that that's going to be the case. But we're watching the process very closely to ensure that it isn't.
“Because, at the end of the day, if Iran exerts a tremendous amount of influence, or a significant amount of influence over the Iraqi government, it's going to be difficult for us to continue to invest.”
Analysts on the ground question whether the U.S. has the leverage it would need to force the outcome it wants in government formation. The U.S. has already failed to rally sufficient support behind both Abadi and its preferred candidate for speaker of parliament. Instead, Muhammad al-Halbusi, the former governor of Anbar province, was chosen as speaker earlier this month.
Meanwhile, the reimposition of sanctions on Iran has been criticized by the dominant Shiite political class in Iraq, where a certain degree of Iranian involvement is an accepted part of the system. Iraqi military commanders argue that the liberation of Mosul would not have been achieved without U.S. and Iranian assistance.
Sowell and others expect that any deal between Amiri and Sadr will include a powerful ministerial position—probably the minister of Interior.
“That’s their fiefdom. It’s hard for me to imagine them giving that up,” Sowell said.
Officials at the State Department and Defense Department consistently say that they recognize and support Iraq’s democratic process as a sovereign government. Asked if Abadi should step down, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert in recent weeks told reporters that “that’s something that we wouldn’t get involved with in calling for that at this time,” calling it “an internal Iraqi matter.”
But the Trump administration has made constraining Iran’s influence in the region a cornerstone of their foreign policy. Pompeo has referred to Iran’s “march across the Middle East” and its “march to fulfill the revolution.”
That includes in Iraq, where powerful pro-Iranian militias earlier this month fired rockets towards U.S. diplomatic missions in Baghdad and the southern city of Basra. Analysts describe those attacks as an attempt to send a message about the limits of U.S. power in Iraq, although there is no public evidence that Tehran explicitly directed the attacks. The White House responded that it “will hold the regime in Tehran accountable for any attack that results in injury to our personnel or damage to United States Government facilities.”
As the government formation process has continued to drag on—analysts are divided over whether or not to describe the current state of affairs as a “stalemate”—political parties have also exploited more parochial popular protests over living conditions in Basra, analysts say. Residents are frustrated with what many reportedly see as rampant corruption and incompetence by the entire governing class. Sadr, as a nationalist, is opposed to foreign involvement in general, not just Iranian. He emerged victorious in May in part by leveraging public discontent with Iran’s involvement in Iraqi affairs and different groups of protesters have set fire to both key government buildings and the Iranian consulate in the past month.
The Trump administration has framed the violence as the result of blatant meddling by Tehran—an analysis that regional experts say is not untrue, but neglects the broader public discontent with the status quo. There have also been protests against “U.S. meddling” in the formation of a new Iraqi government, singling out Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk for working to prevent parties close to Iran from obtaining power.
“The reason this is such a potential powder keg is because both are true—there is a big local Iraqi problem that the Shia majority cell increasingly does not view the government as a legitimate provider of basic needs,” said Jennifer Cafarella, director of Intelligence Planning at the Institute for the Study of War. “And that is colliding with an American effort to constrain Iranian influence, as Iran is making a play to dictate the formation of the next Iraqi government.”
Some U.S.-based analysts have suggested that the longer Iraq’s government formation process drags out, the more likely it could spill over into a violent intra-Shiite conflict. Others on the ground argue there’s little appetite for that in Iraq, evidenced by the talks between Sadr and Amiri’s respective coalitions.
But because there is no two-party plurality and because of the transactional nature of Iraqi politics in general, analysts say it’s hard to predict the outcome.
“The only firm prediction I'm making is that the next government will be a complete mess,” Sowell said.