On January 3, 2020, the United States assassinated the head of the Iranian Quds Force, General Qasem Soleimani, and the deputy chief of the Popular Mobilization Forces, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. This operation followed a series of escalating incidents between the two sides, beginning on December 26, 2019 when the Hezbollah Brigades militia fired Katyusha rockets on the United States’ K1 military base in Kirkuk, killing an American contractor. Washington responded by bombing the militia’s base in the border town of Al-Qa’im, leading to the deaths of some 40 militia members. On December 31, 2019, the Popular Mobilization Forces attacked the US embassy in Baghdad and attempted to storm it. They retreated only in response to resigning Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s threats to leave his post vacant for as long as their supporters occupied the area in front of the embassy.
This paper will examine the repercussions of the recent escalations between Iran and the United States in Iraq and the possible conflict scenarios between the two sides that may emerge in the coming months.
Why kill Soleimani now?
The US Department of Defense (the Pentagon) have stated that they targeted Soleimani — who was killed upon exiting Baghdad International Airport, accompanied by Muhandis, following his arrival from Syria — in order to protect US citizens in Iraq. According to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Soleimani was planning to attack the US embassy again and to send members of the Popular Mobilization Forces to occupy it. In a statement to CNN on January 3, Pompeo asserted that Soleimani was also plotting to carry out operations against US and regional interests.
The killing of Soleimani was the first time that Washington has directly targeted Iranian leaders or interests in Iraq since 2003. It appears mainly to be a response to miscalculated Iranian plans to besiege the US Embassy in Baghdad, which triggered a sensitive area in the memory of US officials, recalling both the 1979 US embassy hostage crisis in Tehran and the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi in which the US ambassador was killed.
Through the Soleimani operation, the United States aimed to:
1. Deter Iran from continuing its series of attacks against US interest and assets in the Gulf, which began with the downing of a US drone on June 20, 2019.
2. Force Iran to accept that the rules of play have changed in the region, meaning that the United States will view any hostile action towards it by Iranian agents as an “Iranian” hostile act and will direct any response against Iran itself.
3. End the terrorist career of a person who helped strengthen Iranian influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.
4. Make Iraqi militia leaders realize that, while killing the most important military figure in Iran and the effective leader of the Popular Mobilization Forces was not difficult, it would be even easier to target them.
5. Achieve a publicity boost for US President Donald Trump during an election year, and win over public opinion at a time when Democrats in the House of Representatives are launching procedures against the President on the charges of abuse of power and obstructing Congress.
Although the killing of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was accompanying the Iranian procession from the airport to Baghdad, was accidental, the practical impact of his absence cannot be ignored. The network of relations that he formed over years with tribal leaders, businessmen, and Iraqi militia leaders enabled him to become the only person capable of liaising between the Popular Mobilization Forces, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the Iraqi government, and influential figures from many Iraqi cities. It will be difficult for any other Iraqi figure to replace him in his role, in particular given that the rivalries and differences between Iraqi militias often leads to significant infighting. Through his relations with Sunni and Shia political parties alike, he managed to expand the influence of the Popular Mobilization Forces and prevent successive Iraqi governments from restructuring it into an “official security agency”. Choosing who should replace Muhandis will therefore be very difficult. Sources say that the leader of the Badr Organization, Hadi al-Amiri, will replace Muhandis as the effective head of the Popular Mobilization Forces. However, given that Amiri is known for his isolation, his inability to form board relationships, his weak personality, and his poor management of positions that he previously held, he will be unable to fill the void left by Muhandis.
“Calculated” Iranian response
The leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, quickly appointed Esmail Ghaani to replace Soleimani, in order to show that the Iranian strategy would not be affected by the absence of any of its leadership, and that Iran remains focused on achieving its goals in Iraq and the wider region. In statements to the press, Iranian leaders reiterated that Iran would seek “revenge” for Soleimani’s death, and that the price of the US operation would be the expulsion of all US forces from Iraq and the wider region.
In practice, however, Iran’s response has been far more muted. On January 8, Iran launched a dozen ballistic missiles at the Ain al-Assad base in Al-Anbar province and Harir base in Erbil province. There were no US casualties, however, in what appeared to be a “precisely calculated” response; Tehran informed the Baghdad government about the operation shortly before it took place, in the full knowledge that the information would reach Washington, thereby enabling them to take the precautions required to protect US soldiers on the bases.
This very precise response from Iran reflects the leadership’s unwillingness to escalate the situation and their desire to simply save face by “dealing a slap to the image of the United States as a superpower”, as Khamenei put it. Tehran was afraid of how the Americans would respond, particularly given that President Trump had repeated his threat that the United States would bomb 52 Iranian targets if American lives were attacked.
The Iranian regime’s real response to the killing of Soleimani is reserved for the Iraqi arena, however:
1. Iran is forcing the political blocs loyal to it in Iraq to take steps to pass a law overturning the security agreement concluded between Baghdad and Washington and to form a fully competent government loyal to Iran that will implement its plan to expel US forces from the country.
2. In parallel, Iran is encouraging the “State” factions serving as its proxies to target US troops in Iraq, under the guise of retaliation for the killing of Muhandis and the inclusion of their leaders on the US list of terrorists. This aligns with the promises made by Iraqi militia leaders, including Qais al-Khazali, leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous), who announced that his followers would respond independently from Iran.
3. Iran is suppressing all forms of public protest and is taking advantage of recent events to hold demonstrators responsible for the instability of the situation, claiming that they are working on behalf of the United States.
Expulsion of foreign forces
As part of its response to the US operation in which Soleimani and Muhandis were killed, on January 5, during an extraordinary session in the presence of resigning Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, the Iraqi House of Representatives voted to “oblige” the Iraqi government to “revoke its request for assistance from the international coalition to combat Islamic State” and to “work to end the presence of all foreign troops in Iraqi territory”.
However, given the following facts, this decision serves merely to give Iran and its Iraqi elements the impression that the Iraqi House of Representatives is responding to the US operation:
1. The Iraqi Parliament is not authorized to issue decisions. Its duties are confined to writing legislation and monitoring the work of the government only. Therefore, although the decision was written to be obligatory in nature, it is not legally binding on the government.
2. The decision does not refer explicitly to the “American” presence nor to the Strategic Framework Agreement and the Security Agreement concluded between Baghdad and Washington in 2008 (Status of Forces Agreement). According to the agreement, the US forces destined to remain in Iraq after December 31, 2011, would focus primarily on training Iraqi forces and teaching them how to carry out combat missions as part of the work of the Global Coalition Against Daesh, which was formed in response to the request made by Haider al-Abadi’s government for international assistance to eliminate Islamic State. Revoking the mandate of the Global Coalition Against Daesh does not necessarily mean that US troops will leave Iraq, however, as their presence is regulated by the Status of Forces Agreement, article 30 of which stipulates that: “This Agreement shall terminate one year after a Party provides written notification to the other Party to that effect.”
3. The Iraqi Constitution does not provide for a mechanism for terminating agreements and treaties. The resigning Prime Minister is not entitled to negotiate or request the termination of agreements according to the Iraqi Constitution. To revoke the Status of Forces Agreement, therefore, a fully competent government is required, which may be formed in one of two ways: first, the government may continue under the leadership of Adel Abdul Mahdi while early elections are held. This scenario is supported by some figures within the Construction Alliance. It is unlikely to be realized, however, as it is rejected by the public, and as a strong government is required to oversee the election process. Second, Parliament may vote in a new leader on whom the majority of the political blocs are in consensus.
Although the parliamentary decision was approved by 170 MPs, it cannot be said to have the support of the country as a whole, as most of the representatives who attended the session belonged to the Fatah and Saeroun alliances, both of which are Shia groups. Conversely, Kurdish and Sunni representatives — who support the US presence in the country as a way of controlling Iranian influence — were notably absent.
The Soleimani assassination may prove to be a turning point in the process of choosing the next prime minister. Sunni and Kurdish blocs, which have understandings with the Construction Alliance, will reassess their standing and will be reluctant to accept a leader who may attempt to end the US military presence in Iraq or claim to support protesters demands and the conditions previously imposed for the nomination to the position. Conversely, the leader of the Sadrist Movement, Muqtada al-Sadr, tweeted on January 5 that he was dissatisfied with how Parliament was operating and that his position was “insufficient to combat the American violation of Iraqi sovereignty”. He called for the US ambassador to be expelled from Iraq and for it to become a crime to work with Washington.
Despite knowing that the decision of the Iraqi parliament is not legal, and that several political factors in Iraq stand in the way of the expulsion of US troops, Washington has suggested that sanctions may be imposed on Iraq if the government insists on expelling US forces. President Trump has said that the United States will not leave Iraq until the Iraqi government reimburses the United States for the cost of its military bases there. Speaking to reporters upon his return from Florida, he said that, if US forces were made to leave Iraq, the United States would “charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before, ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”
Resigning Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi anticipated such a response, however. In his statement during the extraordinary session, he recommended that Parliament take the decision to end the US military presence in Iraq, even though he was aware that such a decision would have significant consequences. “If the process [to expel US troops] becomes confrontational and is viewed as hostile rather than corrective, there may be political, economic, financial, and security costs, and it may have an impact on international relations not only with the United States but with many countries belonging to the Global Coalition,” he said.
The US Department of State’s denial that there have been discussions about imposing sanctions on Iraq may be seen as an attempt to calm the Iraqi government following Trump’s comments, which were heard by politicians and the public alike. It may also be an attempt to prevent other countries that are awaiting the collapse of Washington–Baghdad relations, such as Russia and China, from exploiting the situation. In a televised statement, Department of State spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said that: “There is no intention or discussions in the Department of State to impose sanctions on Iraq”. She added that: “There is a special link between Iraq and America”, and that: “Iraq is a US ally, and problems may arise between allies.” On January 7, a number of other US allies, in particular the United Kingdom, rejected the idea of imposing sanctions on Iraq and of allowing Iraq to be lost to Iran at that time.
Possible scenarios for the US–Iran conflict
1. Escalation: The situation may escalate if Iran, either directly or through militia loyal to it, takes retaliatory action against US assets in Iraq or even the wider region or if it succeeds in forcing the Iraqi authorities to take proper legal measures to end the US presence in Iraq. The United States will respond in force against Iran to any such action, which could lead to a major confrontation. Factors contributing to this scenario include:
a. The lack of any effective official party in Iraq capable of preventing “State” militias from interfering in national security affairs or targeting US interests;
b. The continued dispute over the method and conditions for negotiations between Tehran and Washington concerning Iranian nuclear activities, and the continued tightening of US sanctions against Iranian institutions.
c. The US refusal to leave Iraq, and the continued arrival of US military reinforcements in the region.
2. De-escalation (most likely): Having flexed its muscles through the missile attacks against the two US bases in Iraq, Tehran is aware that it is in its interests to instruct its followers in Iraq, Lebanon, and the wider region not to target US interests, for fear that it may be drawn into a war it cannot afford to fight at this time. As Iran is subject to heavy economic sanctions, it is more likely to favor the maintenance of the status quo, thereby ensuring that it will be able to maintain its influence in the region and develop its military arsenal. Furthermore, a war with the United States may lead to the overthrow of the current Iranian regime, which is what the regime most fears. Factors contributing to this scenario include:
a. The Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Javad Zarif, has announced that the bombing of the Ain al-Assad and Harir bases marked “the end” of Tehran’s response to the killing of Soleimani.
b. President Trump has announced that the strike did not lead to the loss of any US forces. He has not threatened to respond to the Iranian attacks, but rather has merely increased economic sanctions against Iran.
c. Tehran sees Baghdad’s decision to end the US presence in Iraq as the real response to the killing of Soleimani. It will likely increase its efforts to expel US forces from Iraq through its Shia militia proxies.
d. The struggle to end the popular protests and ensure that a pro-Tehran Prime Minister is chosen is strategically more important to Iran than engaging in open conflict with the United States.
e. Washington is keen to avoid entering into a war during the current electoral year. There is also strong opposition within the US House of Representatives to the escalatory steps taken by President Trump. As a result, on January 9, the House of Representatives approved a resolution to curb the President’s ability to take military action against Iran without the approval of Congress.
f. Many European countries, as well as China and Russia, oppose war with Iran at this time.
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