Iraq walks Iran-US tightrope as tensions escalate

The United States claims militia with ties to Iran are planning attacks against its personnel in Iraq. Whether true or not, tensions between Iran and the US are putting Iraq in a tough position.

The United States on Wednesday ordered all non-essential American diplomatic personnel out of Iraq amid heightened tensions with Iran.

State Department officials cited an "imminent" threat to US personnel from Iraqi Shiite militias with ties to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

The Trump administration labeled the IRGC a terrorist group last month despite warnings that the move could endanger US personnel in the region, particularly in Iraq and Syria. Iran subsequently labeled US Central Command, which oversees US military operations in the Middle East, a terrorist organization. 

Read more: Iran's military power: What you need to know  

The evacuation order comes amid international concern a major conflict could erupt, with Iran resisting the United States' "maximum pressure" campaign against Tehran following Washington's withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement.

Over the past few weeks, the US has made several provocative moves that could be perceived by Iran as a potential imminent military threat at a time when the US has already engaged in economic warfare. 

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In early May, Trump's hawkish US national security adviser, John Bolton, made a show of an already scheduled US aircraft carrier group deployment to the Persian Gulf and announced a B-52 bomber force would be sent to the region.

Days later, the Pentagon added a Patriot missile defense battery and an amphibious assault ship to the deployment. The New York Times reported the Trump administration has considered plans to position 120,000 troops in the region.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who as a congressman in 2014 once called for hundreds of airstrikes on Iran instead of pursuing diplomacy to reach the Iran nuclear deal, has said Washington doesn't want war. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has also said the Islamic Republic doesn't want a conflict.

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In recent days, there have been allegations of Iran sabotaging oil tankers in the United Arab Emirates and drone attacks by Yemen's Iranian-allied Houthi rebels on a Saudi oil pumping station.

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Iraq caught between Iran and US influence

Concern is growing that an incident — whether intentional, accidental or staged — could trigger an uncontrollable escalation into a devastating regional war.

The tensions have forced Iraq to manage an already tricky balancing act as a neighbor of Iran and security partner of the United States, which has around 5,000 troops in the country.

"Iraq has been in a very difficult situation in recent years because it is very closely associated with both the Americans and Tehran," said Guido Steinberg of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. 

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has said he has not observed any signals that there was a threat emanating from Iran, contradicting US claims. "We made it clear to the Americans that the government is fulfilling its duty to protect all those involved."

Iran wields influence in Iraq through its economic footprint and extensive ties to Iraqi political groups, Shiite militias and the country's elite. Tehran views the US military presence at its doorstep in Iraq as a threat and challenge to its influence in Baghdad.

That view was strengthened when Trump said earlier this year that it was important to maintain a US military presence in Iraq to "watch Iran," prompting sharp criticism from Iraqi officials.

Iran nuclear deal — treaty under threat

The deal breaker

President Donald Trump announced on May 8, 2018 that he was pulling the United States out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, arguing that the international accord was not in America's "national interest." The decision threw a cloud of uncertainty over the future of the nuclear accord and raised tensions with US allies in Europe.

Iran nuclear deal — treaty under threat

Slap in the face

Britain, France and Germany lobbied the Trump administration and Congress to remain in the nuclear accord, arguing that the deal was working and a US violation without a follow up plan would be destabilizing. In European capitals, the Trump administration's withdrawal was viewed as a slap in the face of allies.

Iran nuclear deal — treaty under threat

Iran scrap 'voluntary commitments'

A year to the day after Trump's announcement, Iran informed the other signatories of the accord that they would no longer adhere to certain "voluntary commitments." Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the signatory nations had 60 days to implement promises to protect Iran's oil and banking sectors or Iran would resume the enrichment of uranium.

Iran nuclear deal — treaty under threat

Response to US pressure

The decision came after the United States deployed an aircraft, the USS Lincoln, along with a bomber task force to the Middle East. Washington said the deployment was intended as a "clear unmistakable message." Iran said it took action because the European Union and others "did not have the power to resist US pressure."

Iran nuclear deal — treaty under threat

A triumph of diplomacy

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal, was signed in 2015 by United States, China, Russia, France, Germany and Britain (P5+1) and Iran following years of negotiations. Under the international agreement, Iran agreed to dismantle its nuclear program and be subject to monitoring in exchange for the lifting of international nuclear related sanctions.

Iran nuclear deal — treaty under threat

Compliance and verification

The JCPOA includes a robust monitoring, verification and inspection regime carried out by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The UN watch dog has verified Iran's compliance with the deal in 12 quarterly reports. The JCPOA allows Iran to pursue a peaceful nuclear program for commercial, medical and industrial purposes in line with international non-proliferation standards.

Iran nuclear deal — treaty under threat

Obama's achievement

The Iran nuclear deal was President Barack Obama's signature foreign policy achievement. Seeking to undo nearly every Obama administration legacy, Trump came into office calling it the "worst deal ever." The Trump administration argues the nuclear deal doesn't address other unrelated issues such as Iran's ballistic missiles, regional influence, support for "terrorist" groups and human rights.

Iran nuclear deal — treaty under threat

Iranians approved

The nuclear deal and lifting of punishing nuclear related international sanctions created optimism in Iran after years of economic isolation. However, even before Trump pulled the US out of the deal, Tehran blamed the US for holding back international investment and not fulfilling its end of the bargain due to the uncertainty created by Trump's threats.

Iran nuclear deal — treaty under threat

The opponents

After eight years with Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu found the US president he wanted in Donald Trump. The Israeli leader repeatedly slammed the deal despite his own military and intelligence chiefs' assessment the that JCPOA, while not perfect, was working and should be maintained. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the other main opponents of the nuclear deal.

Iran nuclear deal — treaty under threat

Who's left?

The EU-3 (Britain, France, Germany) have scrambled to ensure that Iran receives the economic benefits it was promised in order to avoid Tehran pulling out of the deal. As EU businesses face retaliation from the US for doing business with Iran, many are opting to avoid Iran. This would likely be a present to Chinese and Russian businesses.

'Political catastrophe for Iraq'

Although Iraq tends to consider the views of Tehran, it has tried to prevent an escalation of the conflict between both parties on Iraqi soil, according to Steinberg.

"It would be a political catastrophe for Iraq if it really comes to attacks, especially because it could lead to American retaliatory attacks, possibly against Iranian-controlled militias in Iraq," he said.

In any military conflict, the Iraqi government would seek to remain neutral, said Manaf Musawi, head of the Strategic Studies Center in Baghdad. But large sections of the security forces and Shiite militias, as well as parts of the population, would oppose the US, according to Musawi.

Although the United States has called on the Iraqi government to control the Shiite militias, former US diplomat Nabeel Khoury believes this could lead to a civil war in the country.

"Taking away arms from the Shiite militias would lead to conflict in Iraq. The attempt to disband these militias and fold them into the Iraqi army has failed," said Khoury, who is now at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

If it chose to, Tehran might be tempted to attack US forces in Iraq indirectly using Iraqi militias deploying irregular tactics rather than face overwhelming US military power directly.

"We should not expect big battles to take place between large units. A more likely scenario is that pro-Iranian militias act indirectly, for example by launching rockets or mortar shells at American bases. They have no chance in direct battles against US troops," Steinberg said.

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Distrust of US lingers

It's still unknown whether US warnings of Iranian attacks are real, fabricated or a selective use of intelligence by Iran hawks in the Trump administration.

Parallels with the US-led war with Iraq in 2003 come to mind. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, the US made specious claims about Iraq's support for al-Qaida and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, all of which turned out to be false. Figures such as Bolton were major players in justifying the war with Iraq. Since then, distrust of Washington is strong in the region.

One thing is clear: a military conflict would leave Iraq caught in the middle. 

"Trump does not want to go to war; it would be destructive for everyone. But provocative rhetoric is always followed by mobilization, and mistakes can happen," said Khoury. "The United States is going through a very strange time with a very unusual administration. It's difficult to predict anything."

Chase Winter contributed to this report

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