Iranian Attacks in Iraq Are More About Messaging Than Reality

Protester poses in front of torched Iranian mission in Basra, Iraq (mashreghnews.ir)

US and Iranian officials traded accusations earlier this month over an attack on Iran’s consulate in the southern city of Basra, followed by mortar or rocket attacks that appeared to target US missions in the capital, Baghdad.

Tehran blames Washington for being behind the trashing of its consulate. The allegation was simply untrue. The protesters that did it were possibly loyal to the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr—whose bloc recently won the majority of seats in parliament—and is no ally of America by any stretch of the imagination. More likely the young men were angry over persistent unemployment, power cuts, and lack of services, and were probably behind the sacking—a means of venting against Iran because it is perceived as dominating the political class. 

Washington accused Iranian-backed militias of firing the rockets targeting its missions. That allegation was likely accurate. But the attacks also may have taken place without Tehran’s sign-off. In any case, the rockets appeared to be more message than menace.

“Iran took a bloody nose and their militias soaked up that humiliation and struck back at the US for no particular reason,” said Michael Knights, an Iraq expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But the Iranian-backed militias seem to have deliberately missed when they targeted the consulate and embassy. This is pretty mild messaging. Because they know exactly where to fire.”

This month Iran also fired missiles at a Kurdish Iranian opposition base inside Iraq. Tehran has been bombing Kurdish opposition encampments inside Iraq for decades. But this was different. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps used strategic Fateh 110 missiles which sailed over Koya, a city of 50,000 in the Kurdistan region, and killed at least eleven people. Iran targeted the base in response to rising tensions with the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (DPKI), a group seeking autonomy for Kurdish Iranians. It was also a bit of messaging aimed at the United States. Iran had urged its armed forces days earlier to “scare off the enemy,” as tensions rose with Washington. A base used by the US-led coalition lies not far away from the target.

That attack came a month after Turkish warplanes bombed the Iraqi city of Sinjar, targeting an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Turkey considers the PKK a terrorist group, but its fighters also played a heroic role in saving members of the Yazidi minority in that corner of Iraq from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’s (ISIS) wrath several years ago.

The geopolitical violence coincided with political troubles in Baghdad, Iraqi parties and coalitions are struggling to form a new government more than four months after general elections in May. That process, too, has become enmeshed within global struggles, with Tehran and Washington duking it out to promote factions viewed as more sympathetic to its interests.

But that, too, is more about messaging and shaping narratives within circles of punditry back home rather than reality: the Iraqi government is too ineffective to actually implement policy one way or the other. The United States is in Iraq to stay, and its hasty withdrawal may facilitate a disastrous return of an already resurgent ISIS that would hurt Iran and the rest of the region. 

Iran and Iraq share a 900-mile border, overlapping historical, religious, and ethnic ties that make them inextricable. “Iran’s economic interests are deeply linked into Iraq and breaking those connections will be difficult at the local level,” said Theodore Karasik, a senior advisor to Gulf State Analytics. “One cannot separate the peoples by an international border anymore.”

Increasingly, the contrast between how Iraqis and those inside the country experience its reality and the way it’s described by powerful officials abroad is jarring, as if it were not just two different countries but two different dimensions of reality.

There is the Iraq that officials and pundits in world capitals talk about: an oil-rich Persian Gulf land that is a playground of empires, where proxies of Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States vie for influence in a tough, zero-sum game played out on desert flatlands and in the villas of the Green Zone in Baghdad.

Then there is the Iraq as lived by the people inside in the country, even those have spent more than a few weeks there: a place where psyches damaged by decades of war and deprivation struggle through frequent power cuts, sewage-filled streets, tedious traffic jams, and disastrous services overseen by utterly corrupt and incompetent officials seemingly getting rich off public office.

Both Iraq’s neighbors and its Western patrons pay lip service to the latter version of the country, lamenting the suffering of the Iraqi people and expressing the wish to ameliorate their hardship, while actually acting as if it were the former.

“This is one of the problems we have in Iraq,” said Abbas Kadhim, an Iraq expert. “Stability doesn’t hinge on Iraqi problems alone. International powers are all are playing their game in indirect battles.”

In fact, no country is playing a positive role right now in Iraq. In addition to its so-far failing and ham-handed plot to get an “anti-Iran” faction into power in Baghdad, the Trump administration has refused to contribute to Iraqi reconstruction. Iran has so far been more successful at installing those perceived as more sympathetic to it into positions of power, but has also made itself despised among many Iraqis for its maneuvering, and for skimping on promised aid.

World powers such as Russia, China and the EU play hardly any role, disengaging from Iraq and preferring to direct investment and business toward more stable countries in the Persian Gulf.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are believed to bankrolling politicians to do their bidding inside the Green Zone, according to Kadhim.

Turkey increasingly views Iraq through the prism of its hostility toward the PKK, and no longer seems engaged either in the politics of Baghdad or Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Jordan facilitates the transfer of ill-gotten gains siphoned out of the country. “All of the dirty deals happen to be taking place by Iraqi actors take place in Jordan,” added Kadhim.

Iraq’s governance failures gave birth both to Sunni ISIS and the proliferation of Shia militias across the region. Iraq’s neighbors and world powers recognize that. But they do not act on it. Instead they continue to play high-stakes geopolitical games of messaging and menacing that destabilize the country, drain its political class of even more credibility and authority, and perpetuate its cycle of failures.

Borzou Daragahi is an International correspondent for The Independent. He has covered the Middle East and North Africa since 2002. He is also a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Security Initiative. Follow him on Twitter: @borzou.