US-Iran relations on the brink of all-out war is the dominant narrative for the assassination of Iran’s Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani. Many observers have concluded that this fraught relationship has moved from a shadow war up the escalatory ladder and could well lead to open armed conflict between US forces in the Middle East and Iran. Iran’s leaders have already said that the attack on Soleimani was an act of war. Despite US President Donald Trump’s statements that it was a preemptive, defensive act to thwart new Iranian attacks on US assets in Iraq and beyond, tensions are rising and military and civilian officials in both countries are bracing for the next move by Iran to retaliate for the attack.
Caught in the middle is the increasingly fragile state of Iraq.
More than other territories in the US-Iran proxy war, such as Lebanon or Syria, Iraq’s predicament is most acute, and has more significant consequences for the United States. Of all the states in the Middle East, today’s Iraq is the product of recent US policies, from the aggressive intervention of the Bush era, with its devastating consequences for the stability of the state, to the lack of deep attention by the Obama and Trump administrations. The US bears a deeper responsibility for Iraq’s independence, stability and territorial integrity than to other regional states. But in the last few years, the focus on Iran has made Iraq a secondary interest to policymakers in Washington. The strike against Soleimani brings home the devastating effects of those choices.
First is the blatant disrespect for Iraqi sovereignty. By most accounts, the Iraqi government was not a party to the preparations, so was as shocked as the rest of the world when the US killed the Iranian commander as well as Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, on Iraqi soil. Perhaps any revelation that the Iraqi national security folks were in the loop would be worse for Iraq, but the attack is a severe blow to the military and intelligence cooperation that has been central to the bilateral relationship. To be sure, the Iranians violate Iraqi sovereignty all the time, but now US efforts to encourage Iraq to distance itself from Tehran have been rendered moot.
Iraq’s president, Barham Salih, who has skillfully managed cordial relations with both the US and Iran since his election in 2018, did not name the US in his statement on January 3. Calling for self-restraint, he said the attack would “undoubtedly have negative consequences on Iraq’s security, stability and the region as well, if wise men do not take initiative and raise a rational solution [to] further try to contain the effects of the aggression, which would clearly jeopardize peace over Iraq and the region.”
Second, the attack has exacerbated the floundering of the political authority of the formal institutions of government. In the face of widespread but mostly peaceful protests over the past two months, calls for the resignations of the prime minister and president have been made, and both have offered to step down, if it can be done in a way that would serve stability. Many believe that the resignations would only lead to more chaos and the virtual collapse of the political system that has slowly emerged over the past 15 years.
Third, the attack has now led to calls for the total withdrawal of American forces from the country. Such an outcome would only repeat the cycle that occurred when US forces departed in 2011, upon the expiration of the agreement negotiated by the Bush administration.
US forces returned three years later, when ISIS emerged as an existential threat to the survival of the Iraqi state, and Iraq formally requested help from both the US and Iran. This time, should the Iraqi parliament vote to end the US military presence, as is expected, it is Iran that would fill the gap. While some believe, or hope, that Soleimani’s demise will weaken Iran’s grip on Iraq, it would be naive to think that the work of integrating infrastructure and building cultural, religious and political networks, cannot not be sustained.
However the US-Iran confrontation plays out, whether through asymmetric means or a conventional war that would likely weaken Iran but inflame the region, leaving Iraq as a fragile, failing state would be a grave strategic mistake for the United States. It has, still, the potential to be the buffer state between Iran and the Sunni Arab world, and some progress had been made in improving Iraq’s relations with Gulf Arab states.
The disregard for Iraqi sovereignty, the apparent inability of Iraq’s leaders to quell domestic unrest from diverse parts of Iraq’s society, and the possible collapse of US-Iraqi political and security cooperation, will make this attack a net win for Iran, and a serious setback for US interests in Iraq and the region.
Ellen Laipson, a former vice chair of the US’s National Intelligence Council, is currently director of the international security program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Virginia. She is a former president and CEO of the Stimson Center in Washington. Prior to this, Laipson spent a quarter century in government service.