Trump & Khamenei de-escalate. Political struggle inside Iraq continues.

It is less than 140 hours since Pres. Trump ordered the killing of Iran’s Qods Force chief Qasem Soleimani and Iraq’s Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Since then, the terrified world has watched as the leaders of Iran and the United States lobbed fierce rhetorical attacks against each other, leading to (quite rational) fears of a major shooting war between these two significant countries.

Today, actions by both leaderships indicated that they have decided to step back from the brink. (I indicated in this recent article, that this was a possibility.) The acts we have seen from both leaders today show that they have both taken a significant step back from the path of war. But now, attention will turn back to the political struggle between Tehran and Washington that will be continuing inside Iraq.

On Iran’s side, the country’s leaders clearly decided to launch last night’s rocket attacks against the two US bases in Iraq in a way carefully calibrated to help them show their own people that they were not cowed by Soleimani’s killing– while it would also send  two clear messages to Washington: (1) that Iran’s targeting capabilities, for mid-range missiles as well as for the drone-swarms used at Abqaiq, are pretty impressive, and (2) that they are not planning for now to undertake military actions that will kill Americans and therefore lead to a major escalation.

They succeeded. US arms control expert David Schmerler told NPR that satellite images (such as the one shown above) of the damage inflicted at the vast US base at Ain Assad, in western Iraq, indicated that the Iranian attack “was precise enough to hit individual buildings.”

NPR quoted Schmerler saying that, “Some of the locations struck look like the missiles hit dead center.”

Equally importantly, news has also emerged that prior to launching the attack, the Iranians sent fairly precise warnings to Washington, via both the Swiss government and the Iraqi governments, to warn US leaders what was coming. That allowed the US military to send troops in both the targeted bases to their bunkers before the missiles arrived, thereby preventing any US casualties at all.

The lack of US casualties allowed Trump to step back from threatening any further actions against Iran. The announcement he made on the matter this morning– in a scene surrounded with grim-looking generals– was full of rhetorical bombast but contained no threats of additional actions against Iran.

For his part, the Iranian Supreme Leader, addressing a mass gathering in Qom today, told the faithful that, “What is important in addition to retaliation is that military operations do not suffice. It is important to end the US corrupting presence in the region.”

This indicates that– as I have surmised all along– the major playing-field on which Iran’s leaders will be continuing their response to the many escalatory steps Trump has taken against them in the past 20 months will be the field of regional politics.

Most immediately, they will likely continue their campaign to oust US troops and US political-influence operations from both Iraq and Syria, while continuing to protect the distinctive position that their ally, Hizbullah, has established for itself within the politics of Lebanon.

(Of significant related interest: One of the most notable acts of international diplomacy the region has witnessed since the killing of Soleimani has been the visits and leadership-level meetings that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has made to both Syria and Turkey…)

Iraq has for long occupied a special role in the web of the relationship between Washington and the ayatollahs’ rule in Iran. Back in 1980, Washington supported Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein when he launched a large-scale invasion of Iran with the goal of toppling the recently-ascendant ayatollahs. He immediately got bogged down. There followed a war of attrition with massive losses on Iran’s side (many from chemical weapons whose precursors Washington had helped Iraq acquire.) After eight punishing years of war, Iran was able to restore essentially the status quo ante.

In 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam, the invasion gave new political clout to Iraq’s long-repressed Shiites, who form a majority of its population. Tehran initially welcomed Saddam’s toppling and the new empowering of the Iraqi Shiites. For eleven years after 2003, the United States and Iran jockeyed for influence among Iraq’s people, particularly the Shiites; and a shifting mosaic of militias loyal to one or the other side would intermittently clash on the ground.

Then in 2014, the Sunni-extremist (takfiri) organization ISIS erupted onto the scene in  northern and central Iraq, as well as in northeast Syria. Washington and Tehran both saw the speedy eruption of this genocidal organization as a massive threat, especially since Iraqi’s national army had almost completely collapsed as ISIS advanced. So the United States and Iran agreed, essentially, to work together in Iraq to counter ISIS and to rebuild Iraq’s own military.

(The post-2014 politics were very different in Syria. There, the army had not collapsed; and Washington had anyway been working hard since 2011 to topple the  Syrian government… which remained closely allied with Iran throughout.)

After Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018 and announced his campaign of “maximum pressure” against Iran, Iraq’s leaders found themselves caught in the middle.

On January 5, the embattled prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, went to parliament where he won the unanimous support of those present for his proposal for the immediate withdrawal of all US troops. He had a quorum of members there, so the vote had validity. But  Abdul-Mahdi was staying on in the premiership only in a caretaker role: he had resigned from the premiership in late November under pressure from the (largely anti-Iranian) street protests that have roiled the country since early October.

Also casting some doubt on the status of the January 5 vote was the fact that most of Iraq’s Sunni parliamentarians boycotted the session. One significant Sunni who did attend was Mohammad al-Halboosi, the Speaker. He allowed the holding of the vote, but it later emerged (Arabic news report) that there was a key part of what Abdul-Mahdi wanted to tell the whole parliament that Halboosi did not allow to  be broadcast.

In that un-broadcast part of his speech, Abdul-Mahdi reportedly said (my translation of the above),

The Americans are the ones who destroyed the country and wrought havoc on it. They are the ones who refuse to complete building the electrical system and infrastructure projects. They bargained with me [to work on] the reconstruction of Iraq in exchange for giving them 50% of Iraqi oil output, so I refused and decided to go to China. I concluded an important and strategic agreement there, and today Trump is trying to cancel this important agreement…

After my return from China, Trump called me and asked me to cancel the agreement, so I still refused, and he threatened me with massive demonstrations that would topple me. Indeed, the demonstrations started and then Trump called, threatening to escalate in the event I did not cooperate and do as he asked…

It is clear that a fierce US-Iranian tussle for influence in Iraq and over its politics has been underway for several months now. And it is likely that there– as, earlier, in Syria– US-backed and -funded “influence operations” have been a significant factor in the continuation of the street protests that have challenged Iran’s position in the country. (In 2018, the congressionally-funded National Endowment for Democracy budgeted $2.57 million for grassroots–or Astroturf– organizations inside Iraq.)

The coming weeks will almost certainly see an escalation in this political struggle between Iran and the United States, inside Iraq. It will be a struggle not only for the “hearts and minds” of Iraq’s long-suffering people and for influence over its decisionmakers, but also, quite likely, for the continued unity of the country itself.

An intense political struggle of this kind will almost certainly have its own casualties. But it is a thousand times less damaging than a US-Iran shooting war.