As Iran consolidates its influence in the Arab world American policy continues to be in disarray.

While in Riyadh for a rare meeting with Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al Abadi and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on October 22, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared, “Iranian militias that are in Iraq, now that the fight against [Daesh] is coming to a close, those militias need to go home” and “allow the Iraqi people to rebuild their lives with the help of their neighbors.”

Yet the following day, hours after officials in Baghdad rebuffed America’s top diplomat’s “Iranian militias” remark, Tillerson arrived in Baghdad from Afghanistan to meet with Abadi. Iraq’s Prime Minister opened the meeting defending the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs). Abadi maintained that such forces, which he specified are Iraqi (not Iranian), belong to Iraq’s institutional framework and “should be encouraged because they will be the hope of country and the region.” He hailed the PMU fighters as heroes of Iraq who “have sacrificed greatly to defend their country” and he asserted that “no side has the right to intervene in Iraq’s affairs or decide what Iraqis should do.”

Elements within the PMU rejected Tillerson’s calls too. Sheikh Qais al Khazali, a leader of Asaib Ahl al Haq – a group with the PMU – responded to America’s chief diplomat, “Your forces should get ready to get out of our country once the excuse of [Daesh's] presence is over.” Ahmed al Assadi, a PMU spokesman, condemned Tillerson’s comments as “unacceptable.”

Evidently, as Donald Trump’s administration seeks to isolate Iran, the White House will face major challenges in terms of convincing the Iraqi government, which allies with both Washington and Tehran, to cooperate with such an agenda. Nonetheless, the Trump administration is attempting to help Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members bring Iraq back toward the Arab fold. While meeting with the Iraqi prime minister and Saudi monarch in Riyadh, Tillerson participated in the Saudi Arabia-Iraq Coordination Committee’s inaugural meeting. Building on the two countries’ decision in August to reopen a major border crossing and resume direct flights between both capitals, Tillerson said that there is “great potential” for Riyadh and Baghdad to “improve relations and strengthen cooperation on a host of issues” which Washington takes “great interest in” promoting.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Abel al Jubeir, in his joint press conference with Washington’s top diplomat, declared that the kingdom seeks “to make up for lost ground” in Saudi-Iraqi relations which deteriorated for years following the Gulf War of 1990/1991 and after Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003.

To be sure, any Saudi plans to fully eject Iranian influence from Iraq are unrealistic. By virtue of common security threats, as well as a long border between these two countries that maintain deep historical, religious, economic, and political links, Iran has consolidated substantial influence in post-2003 Iraq. The rise of Daesh in 2014 served to essentially institutionalize Iran’s role in Iraq’s security landscape. The threat that Daesh poses to Iran will prevent Tehran from pulling its forces out of Iraq for the foreseeable future, particularly given that the so-called caliphate still maintains control over portions of Iraqi territory.

Despite Iran’s roads in Iraq, some Sunni-Arab states seem to see the time as opportune for improving their ties with Baghdad and, at least, putting some limits on Iranian influence in Iraq. Among Sunnis and Shias in Iraq’s urban working-class who identify as Arabs first, there are heightened concerns about Tehran’s influence in Iraq in the so-called ‘post-Daesh’ period. Muqtada al Sadr, who represents this strain of Iraqis, has played a key role in Iraq’s outreach to Sunni Arab states over the last several months. The influential Iraqi Shia cleric’s calls on the PMU’s “imprudent militias” to disarm have been well-received in the GCC.

After Muqtada al Sadr’s summer visits to Jeddah and Abu Dhabi – in which he emphasized the need for Arabs/Muslims to foster harmonious relations across sectarian divides – he traveled to Jordan to meet with King Abdullah II while Tillerson was in Riyadh. In the Hashemite kingdom, Sadr praised Jordan as a “model of moderation” and expressed gratitude for Amman’s support for “unity, stability, and prosperity” in Iraq. In turn, King Abdullah II stressed his country’s support for bringing Iraq’s political groups together and welcomed Sadr’s efforts to improve Baghdad’s ties with other Arab capitals.

Another layer of complication added to Tillerson’s agenda of convincing Baghdad to shift away from Iran’s sphere of influence is the situation in Kirkuk. Although President Trump and other officials in Washington declared that the United States was neutral in the Baghdad-Erbil standoff over this oil-rich city, it is difficult to imagine that the Iraqi Army would have conducted its takeover of Kirkuk without approval from the US, or at least without notifying Washington in advance. Tehran’s interests in Kirkuk pertain in large part to bringing Iraq’s Shia militias into the city to leave the Iraqi Kurds more divided while enhancing Iran’s leverage of Baghdad. Although doubtful that it was Washington’s objective, a likely result of the Trump administration’s support for the government in Baghdad asserting its authority over Kirkuk was the United States indirectly helping Tehran.

As Trump made clear in his address before the Arab Islamic American summit in Riyadh in May, he sees Iraq as a key battleground in the struggle to push back against Iran’s conduct in Arab countries. The anti-Iran hawks in Trump’s administration see the Middle East through a certain prism in which blame for virtually all instability in the region belongs on Tehran’s doorstep. Yet just over one week after Trump’s October 13 speech on decertification of the nuclear accord and confronting Iran’s conduct more broadly, Tillerson’s chilly meeting in Baghdad will likely be the first of many challenges which the administration faces in attempting to establish “a stable Iraq that is not aligned with Iran” as National Security Adviser H R McMaster said is Trump’s goal in Iraq.

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