Rising US-Iranian tensions over the past week have seemingly brought the two sides closer to outright confrontation than at any time in the past four decades. Tehran’s vow to take revenge for the US drone strike Jan. 3 that killed the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, along with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy head of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), or Hashid Shaabi, last week in Baghdad has been met with equally bellicose statements by US President Donald Trump, who sent 3,500 additional troops to the Middle East after the assassination and promised that any Iranian action would be met with a massive US military response.
Meanwhile, rockets have been aimed in the vicinity of the Green Zone housing the US Embassy in Baghdad, and the Iraqi Council of Representatives — under pressure from Iranian-linked militia groups within the PMU — passed the first reading of legislation demanding the complete withdrawal of American forces from Baghdad.
Recognizing the risks of a conflict no one wants, some world leaders are urging caution. This plea may, for the moment, fall on deaf ears among the main protagonists. But equally, the immediate danger of war may be overblown.
Tehran will almost certainly react to the killing, but its response may not be immediate. It will likely be asymmetric, spanning a wide theater of operations than just Iraq, as some early analysis has posited, or even the wider Middle East. Iranian leaders will want to send a strong message of their own in any retaliatory moves, but they may also want a measure of plausible deniability rather than prompting a direct, full-scale conflict with US forces.
But while outright war may be avoided, Washington’s ill-judged operation to kill Soleimani will still exact a heavy price in the Middle East, nowhere more so than in Iraq. The country’s immediate fear is that it will be ground zero for any US-Iranian confrontation. But what may be lost in the fallout from the Soleimani assassination is something far more valuable: a chance for real reform that could eventually reduce Tehran’s influence in the country. One of the most bitter ironies of the assassinations is that they may help to derail and undermine the most potent force for positive change that Iraq has witnessed in three generations and strengthen Iran’s grip in the process.
Demonstrators have taken to the streets in Baghdad and southern Iraqi provinces for the past three months at huge personal cost to demand more representative and effective government, economic development and an open society, precisely the goals that the United States laid out in 2003 when it removed the Saddam regime. These young nationalists also reject the interference of any external powers, Iran included, in Iraqi affairs.
Two weeks ago, there were tangible signs that the protests — which have left over 500 dead and over 20,000 injured so far — might bear fruit. Responding to calls from the demonstrators, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani — whose support is critical to the legitimacy of the government — called for early elections under a new, more representative electoral law. Just afterward, President Barham Salih rejected two formal candidates for interim prime minister selected by the parliamentary bloc most closely allied with Iran, insisting the men were unacceptable to the protesters.
These two moves illustrated the influence the protests were beginning to have and represented the first clear signs of a willingness by some senior Iraqi leaders to push for change against the wishes of both the vast majority of the political elite and Tehran.
Moreover, Sistani’s and Salih’s actions looked like the first workable steps to bridge the yawning gap that hitherto has separated the demonstrators and the political elite, finally offering a compromise formula that moderates on both sides could agree to and thereby offering an alternative to either more violent repression by government forces and associated Hashid Shaabi units or potential civil war.
The assassinations and their aftermath could all but end this progress. Pro-Iran Hashid Shaabi and political hard-liners among the elite who have argued for months that the demonstrations are part of a US-led, anti-government plot now feel vindicated and have the bit between their teeth. Fake news articles are already circulating alleging Salih is planning a coup, and he is being pilloried by Hashid Shaabi for not being suitably tough on the United States in his statements.
This reversal makes the assassination of Soleimani and Muhandis, however justifiable, appear even more like an act of opportunistic hubris. By insisting on viewing Iraq purely through the lens of its Iran policy, Washington has missed the bigger picture. Its actions have knocked the wind out of the protests for the time being, as the question of external interference in Iraqi affairs takes center stage.
Meanwhile, even politicians who were sympathetic to the demonstrators — and who, more importantly, supported clipping the wings of the militias — are now forced to toe the line in defense of Iraqi sovereignty. As a result, their ability to stymie efforts to replace the current prime minister with one less tied to the political elite and Tehran may have been fatally weakened. They have also been powerless to stop the rush to force out US troops, which US commanders have hitherto said were critical in the ongoing fight against a resurgence of the Islamic State.
Washington must develop a policy and strategy for Iraq — and the wider region — beyond combatting malign Iranian influence and rogue military strikes if it wants to preserve its interests in the Middle East, which includes, at the very least, stable states that are not a threat to the United States.
And there is a movement for the United States to seize and support — albeit tacitly: The protests in Iraq (and in Lebanon, Egypt, Algeria and Sudan) illustrate that a generational change is taking place across the Middle East. It will not happen overnight, but it is irreversible. Demographics, economics and technology are coming together to transform societies and achieve demands for political rights and civil liberties. It still may be too early to write epitaphs for the Arab Spring.
Washington need not nation-build in Iraq or even intervene directly in support of the demonstrators; indeed, any effort to do the latter is likely to backfire. However, the United States should engage with these changes and proponents of reform. It could do more to ensure the Iraqi protest movement has space to continue by acknowledging and supporting the goals of the demonstrators and condemning violence against them from kidnappings to killings; asserting Iraqi sovereignty; and welcoming efforts by Iraqi political leaders to drive reforms. Washington can advocate for and ensure free and fair (early) elections – key to a path forward in Iraq— via UNAMI and outfits like International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES), congratulate and support reform minded leaders while holding erstwhile political allies in Iraq (Islamist Shia, Sunni and Kurdish) accountable when their agendas are so clearly in stark opposition to even Washington’s narrowest goals. Sanctions remain a powerful tool for isolating and debilitating such characters, militia and mafia leaders. The United States could also use its influence internationally, including through the United Nations, to help compromise on first steps — such as a prime minister and government acceptable to the protest movement — and provide impetus to further such initiatives that can usher in a new era for Iraq.
The reform mantle has been delayed and interrupted but is not yet dead – protestors are still in the streets, though under greater threat from militias, and are planning for large demonstrations this Friday, Jan. 10. There is no way to hit reset after Soleimani’s death, but with the right strategy of engagement, Iraq may be able to get back on track toward the stable, prosperous state the US has been fighting for since 2003.