Iraq faces “the most acute and immediate” threat from Iranian-backed militias, a top State Department official said last week.
Speaking at an online Atlantic Council forum, Joel Rayburn, deputy assistant secretary of the Levant and special envoy for Syria, pointed to the Iranian-backed militias that are firing rockets and mortars into the “Green Zone,” which houses the American embassy, and carrying out a number of highly-publicized political killings. Rayburn said “this has become intolerable.”
Rayburn’s boss, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has threatened to close the Baghdad embassy unless the Iraqi government can take control of the situation.
But how effectively Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi can deal with these militias is an open question. Hamdi Malik, a Middle East analyst for Iran International TV, said the former intelligence chief only directly controls the intelligence part of the government and counter-terrorism in trying “to bring the killers to justice.” Malik said the Interior Ministry, which controls the national police, and the army “are not necessarily obeying the prime minister’s orders” in making arrests or in keeping terrorists from attacking embassies and consulates in Baghdad and its own government facilities elsewhere.
Rayburn said the Trump administration since it took office has been working in “getting the fantasy out” of American relations with Iran. He said not only do the United States and Israel see the Iranians as “a threat everywhere” throughout the Middle East, Afghanistan and South Asia, but so do many regional partners.
He said the proof lies in the “Abraham Accords,” diplomatic agreements between Israel and Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, and the impact of the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign economically and diplomatically on the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The view in Washington is that in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, the Iranian goal remains to use the militias as proxies to gain influence and power. Using Syria as an example, Rayburn said President Bashar al-Assad “has turned Syria into a garrison” for Iranian interests to keep his hold on power.
Navvar Saban of the Omran Center for Strategic Studies added that “Iran is always searching for a gap … that no one is thinking about to take advantage of” in the Shiite-Sunni sectarian divide in the Middle East.
Looking for new opportunities to exploit is a path Tehran has followed for years before the 1979 revolution, Ariane Tabatabai, Middle East fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said.
Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Tehran, Rayburn said, denied Iran “a great part of the revenues it was using” to finance its Quds Force, the Revolutionary Guards and the militias. He estimated that Iran has lost $70 billion in oil revenues since the May 2018 withdrawal.
Rayburn said the impact domestically in Iran has been great, with budget deficits consuming 26 percent of the gross domestic product and causing the regime to draw down its financial reserves to keep the economy afloat.
Starting in Lebanon, Michael Hertzog of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said Hezbollah “has no appetite for war” due to a combination of an Israeli “red line” campaign against it and Iranian militias in Syria and the “maximum pressure” campaign. He added Jerusalem is also not looking to escalate tensions into open-armed conflict.
“Iran’s [financial] support has gone down by 40 percent in Lebanon” at the same time COVID-19 has devastated Lebanon’s economy, Hertzog said. In the wake of the massive explosion that destroyed much of Beirut’s port and waterfront in the older part of the capital, he said even Shiites are “pointing fingers” at Hezbollah. “The whole place is falling apart … First and foremost because of Hezbollah’s” attempts to take control of Lebanon’s finance ministry,” according to Hertzog.
In neighboring Syria, Saban said the combined maximum pressure from the United States and Israel’s “red lines” campaign has caused Iran to move “toward soft power” to retain influence across wide areas in the country. “Iran is trying to infiltrate new fields, business fields, social, [especially] in areas where suffering from ISIS” was greatest, Saban said.
Tehran’s idea, he said, “is to work on small projects to plant their seeds real deep” that are not easily identifiable as targets.
One identifiable target was Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, who the U.S. killed in a January drone strike in Baghdad. The second order of effects remains in play despite its missile attacks on American outposts in Iraq. Tabatabai said, “Iran has made it quite clear that they’re not done with retaliation.”
She acknowledged “some tactical shifts” made by Soleimani’s successor, who is “not as well-versed” in the Middle East, toward his expertise in Afghanistan, but that’s only part of the picture.
In discussing the time between the Nov. 3 American election and the inauguration, Tabatabai said Iran “could take a number of actions to withdraw from the nuclear deal” or the Israelis “could decide they want to take matters into their own hands” in dealing with Iran.
She added that the United States missed an opportunity to rebuild relations with allies in Europe and the Middle East after it left the nuclear agreement and address their concerns over Iran’s missiles, naval actions interfering with energy markets and destabilizing actions through its proxies outside its borders.
Tabatabai added these were avenues that a Biden administration could pursue in a new joint agreement with Tehran and other nations beyond the original signers.