Reviving U.S.-Iran friction over Iraq may have more to do with deteriorating relations over Iran’s nuclear programme than with uncertainty over U.S. troop levels in Iraq beyond the end of this year.

In recent weeks, a chorus of U.S. officials has accused Iran of providing lethal weapons to Iraqi Shiite militias that have targeted U.S. soldiers and caused a spike in U.S. death tolls. Similar charges have been made against Iran in the past.


Last month, Robert Gates, then U.S. defence secretary, said Iran- backed Shiite militias were responsible for the deaths of five U.S. soldiers on Jun. 6, the single largest toll for the U.S. in two years. Overall, 15 U.S. servicemen were killed in Iraq in June, also a two- year record.

Gates’s successor, Leon Panetta, repeated the charges this week during his first trip to Iraq as defence secretary.

“We’re seeing more of those weapons going in from Iran, and they’ve really hurt us,” Panetta told reporters in Baghdad on Monday. He threatened Iran with unspecified retaliation if the attacks did not cease.

Panetta did not reveal any concrete evidence for the charges. U.S. officials and military experts say he was referring to rocket-assisted mortars.

“The main mass casualty producer for U.S. troops has been the IRAMS (improvised rocket-assisted munitions) which have been around for several years, and which I believe are used exclusively by Iranian- supported groups,” said Michael Eisenstadt, an Iraq expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank closely tied to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

“There are indications that they may have gotten more lethal lately, though I don’t know if this is a function of modifications to the weapons or to improved training,” he said.

U.S. accusations are hard if not impossible to prove given the fact that Iraq is awash with weapons and smuggling across the border with Iran is rampant. Iran denies the allegations.

“I believe the Americans are trying to make excuses, create Iranophobia, and cause doubt and anxiety among Iraqi officials and society,” Iranian ambassador to Iraq Hassan Danaeifar told Press TV, an Iranian state-owned channel. “The Americans are trying to suggest that if they leave Iraq, Iraq will be threatened by Iran.”

Analysts say the clashes – both rhetorical and real – may have more to do with Iranian anger at mounting U.S. economic sanctions than they do with Iraqi security. Iraq – and Afghanistan – are convenient venues for Iran to target U.S. forces.

“It’s not about Iraq at all, it’s about U.S.-Iran relations,” Vali Nasr, professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a former State Department adviser, told IPS.

“There is no doubt that the Iranians are escalating” to retaliate for U.S. sanctions over Iran’s nuclear programme, Nasr said.

The Barack Obama administration has been increasing economic penalties against Iran for the past year and pressuring foreign entities to boycott Iranian banks, shipping and airlines. The latest blow came Jun. 30 when Maersk, a major Danish shipping line, ended operations at Iran’s three largest ports. A week earlier, the U.S. had stated that the company operating the ports was controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Iran has refused to suspend uranium enrichment although it is required to do so by six U.N. Security Council resolutions. Attempts to negotiate a resolution with the U.S. and the other permanent members of the Council plus Germany have failed due to internal Iranian political divisions and a lack of creativity and political will on both sides.

The fallout of the nuclear dispute is landing in Iraq, compounding political problems for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who has struggled to form a stable coalition government more than a year after parliamentary elections.

U.S. officials, concerned about the logistics of withdrawing troops on short notice, have been pressuring Maliki to make up his mind about keeping a residual U.S. force. Under a 2008 Status of Forces agreement, all remaining U.S. troops – which currently number 46,000 – are to be out by Dec. 31.

“Do they want us to stay? Don’t they want us to stay?” Panetta complained Monday before a U.S. military audience in Baghdad. Panetta also urged Maliki, who has been serving for months as interim defence and interior minister, to name full-time officials to head those key ministries.

“Damn it, make a decision,” Panetta said.

U.S. officials have expressed concern over whether Iraq will be able to defend itself against terrorists and foreign intruders eight years after U.S. invaders toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime. No matter what Maliki decides, a few hundred U.S. troops are likely to remain as military trainers for U.S. weapons. Some Special Forces are also likely to stay as well as forces based in semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, where the U.S. presence is popular.

A smaller U.S. military footprint would be in line with phasing out counterinsurgency doctrine, once in vogue in the Pentagon, in favour of counterterrorism.

“There’s been a shift in thinking in Washington,” Nasr said. “You don’t need as many troops. You need trainers and access to bases where you can use drones and Special Forces.”

Testifying before Congress last month, Eisenstadt suggested keeping 1,500 troops in Kurdistan to prevent clashes between the Iraqi military and the Kurdish Pesh Merga.

He told IPS that in addition, “a small Joint Special Operations Command task force would be essential for hunting down members of al Qaeda… and Iranian-supported special groups… You might also need troops to serve as quick reaction forces to help Iraqi security forces deal with insurgent groups, and civilian contractors providing protection for U.S. diplomats. Some military might serve as military movement teams for U.S. diplomats and civilians as well.”

However, a smaller U.S. force will remain vulnerable to attack by Shiite militias. That in turn could cause clashes between the United States and Iran.

“The U.S. is suggesting that the gloves will come off” if attacks on U.S. forces continue, Nasr said. “The question is, ‘Who will blink?’ This is very dangerous.”

Barbara Slavin is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. This article originally appeared on

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