US drone strikes have been a deadly reminder to Iran that they cannot push the US too far in Iraq.

It is not as though diplomacy in the Trump era has ever been known for its subtlety and deftness, but Iraq may once more find itself on the receiving end of blunt American instruments of power that will leave no confusion in the minds of the Iraqi political elite about what Washington expects. 

While this may seem like it should come across as a victory for Iran and its proxies in Iraq, even they are scrambling to ensure the White House does not entirely lose patience and quit the country altogether. If that happens, Shia militant leaders may find themselves going the same way as their previous benefactor, Iran’s powerful Qassem Soleimani who was assassinated in a US drone strike in Baghdad in January.

Iran and its Iraqi lieutenants must now balance across a treacherous tightrope of continuing to maintain appearances of being the spearhead of the so-called “Axis of Resistance” whilst simultaneously not angering the most powerful nation on the planet to the point where it decides to once more bare its military might and cut the careers of a number of radical Shia militants spectacularly short.

A Trump White House scares Iran

The United States has given numerous indications that it strongly supports the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Mustafa al Kazimi. Where Washington draws the line, however, is on various institutions of the Iraqi state that have been infiltrated by pro-Iran political groups.

At the forefront of these institutions is the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), an umbrella organisation of largely Iran-backed Shia militias that was formed in 2014 by a fatwa from Iraq’s leading Shia religious authority, Ayatollah Ali Sistani. 

Although nominally within the formal chain of command that has Prime Minister Kazimi as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the PMF operates largely on its own initiative as directed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

The IRGC’s influence is such that, although Iraq has no formal military engagement in neighbouring Syria apart from a barely functioning intelligence sharing agreement, the PMF’s men are fighting there alongside Afghan and Pakistani Shia militias in support of the tyrannical and sectarian rule of the Bashar al Assad regime.

Indeed, the United States and Israel have both repeatedly bombed their positions, barely making a distinction between them and their IRGC counterparts.

Militias within the PMF, in particular Kataib Hezbollah (KH) and Asaib Ahl ul-Haq (AAH), have repeatedly attacked American and allied forces and their interests in Iraq, repeatedly demanding they withdraw. These attacks saw a significant uptick following the reinstatement of US sanctions as part of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign to force Tehran to renegotiate the terms of the largely defunct Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration in 2015.

However, and rather than withdraw, the White House lashed out at both Iran and the PMF in one fell swoop in January by terminating both the IRGC’s Qassem Soleimani and the PMF’s Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, one of Iran’s most powerful made men in Iraq.

The combination of Trump’s economic and kinetic responses to Iran’s escalations facilitated by its Iraqi allies have both of them wishing for a Joe Biden victory in next month’s US presidential elections. 

Indeed, Biden has already confirmed he would recommit the US to the nuclear deal.

Diplomacy by drones

Irrespective of Washington’s pledged support for Kazimi's government, American officials are not blind to the real power dynamics at play in Iraq and are fully aware that they are dealing with a multitude of different Iranian-sponsored actors who often overpower the prime minister and bully his administration into doing what they want.

Indeed, when Kazimi tried to assert the dominance of the state by arresting pro-Iran militants in July this year, factions within the PMF drove almost one hundred pickup trucks loaded with armed men into Baghdad’s heavily fortified but seemingly totally permeable Green Zone and put on a show of force outside the premier’s residence to force him to release their comrades. 

Kazimi promptly did so, despite his pledges to hold them to account for killing protesters and attacking foreign interests.

Now seemingly at the end of their tether, the United States has formally threatened to shutter its embassy in Baghdad and quit Iraq altogether. Indeed, and perhaps to emphasise the point, the US withdrew 2,500 troops from Iraq earlier this month and there were also reports that the Pentagon had drawn up a list of 80 targets including secret bunkers and headquarters belonging to Iran’s most powerful proxies.

Rather than pump their fists into the air in victory, Shia militias close to Iran have seemingly gotten the American message and instead announced a ceasefire against US targets

Evidently, the Trump administration's demonstration of American military might by killing Iran's most powerful and prominent general have made armed Tehran-backed militias wary of pushing the White House too far for risk of being located and killed in a manner similar to how Soleimani's career ended.

It is for this reason that Iran and its Iraqi allies will now likely adopt a wait-and-see approach until the US presidential elections are over, breathing an audible sigh of relief if Biden is election. 

If Trump remains in the White House, however, they will be rightly concerned that sanctions against Iran will deepen and its assets in Iraq will risk annihilation in a wave of drone strikes targeting its most valuable allies, and may decide to renegotiate the terms of the nuclear deal. 

This would be the modern-day equivalent of gunboat diplomacy, except it would be more accurate to describe it as diplomacy by drone strike. 

Trump has already shown he will kill Iran’s most powerful generals, and no Iraqi militia leader believes he is better protected than Tehran’s favourite son was who still ended up dead. This will prove to be a pivotal factor should Trump win in next month’s elections and may set Iraq’s relationship with the US on a new track.

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