Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Photo: Caren Firouz/Reuters
With ISIS largely defeated, Iraq has retreated to the periphery of American attention; America and its allies abroad have left Iraq on its own after over a decade of intense involvement. This lack of engagement leaves a power vacuum open for exploitation by Iran, and yes, even a potentially resurgent ISIS. A policy of complete disengagement is not only to the detriment of American interests, but those of its regional allies. The United States must decide whether it will stand idly by as the modest but appreciable gains made by trillions of dollars and the lives of thousands of US service members are swept away by Islamic extremism, or selectively engage in the region to counterbalance growing Iranian influence.
United States Central Command says that ISIS still controls “significant territory” in Iraq, an area described as ten times the size of the District of Columbia. Mop up campaigns are being conducted by the Kurds, Russians, Turks, Syrian government and rebel forces, Iranians, and Iraqis, but as the fight against ISIS winds down, these powers are beginning to viciously turn on each other. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” but as ISIS moves closer to defeat, these alliances of convenience are quickly breaking down. Turkey is already trying to dislodge the Kurds from Rojava, their self-declared autonomous federal zone in northern Syria. Without the continued presence of American troops, Kurds and other allies are vulnerable to foreign actors seeking to destabilize the region and attack American interests. The only thing saving the Kurds from complete destruction is the presence of American soldiers embedded in their ranks as combat advisers and fire support coordinators. A force of Iraqi army units and Iran-supported militia forced the Kurds to withdraw from Kirkuk, an oil-rich city they had liberated from ISIS in 2014.
Female Peshmerga take the fight to ISIS. Photo: Safin Hamed/Associated Foreign Press
The security of Kurdistan’s semi-autonomous region is enshrined in the Iraqi constitution, but Kirkuk is not within Kurdistan’s designated borders. The Iraqi government therefore did have the word of law on its side. But one must also stop and consider that the bulk of local Iraqi forces are not actual army units but Shi’ite, Iranian-funded militias. A coalition of communists and Iran-backed militias secured a plurality in the recent parliamentary elections, thus there may be some uncertainty about whether or not Kurdistan’s security will be guaranteed by future Iraqi governments.
Indeed, Iran has rushed in to fill the void left by a collapsing Iraqi government, ISIS in retreat, and an increasingly isolationist United States. Iran has provided for Iraqi security by paying for and equipping the militias that now dominate the Iraqi army—it is on their behalf that legislation was passed specifically targeted at these Iranian militias that designated these forces as official, paid extensions of the Iraqi army. These militia are not led by local leaders but commanded by the Revolutionary Guards of Iran, and the Iraqi military has only nominal control over them. These militia are reliant on Iran and Iraq is reliant on the militia—not just for physical security, but for jobs. Militia service pays well—one signs up, trains in Iran, and is deployed in Iraq, Syria, or Lebanon under the Revolutionary Guard. Local jobs opportunities simply don’t exist, and this is an additional consequence of Iranian intervention. Cheap Iranian products flood the Iraqi market and crush all local businesses because they simply cannot compete with the absurdly low prices of Iranian government-subsidized imports.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Photo: Charles Platiau/Reuters
In securing Iraq, Iran is free to seize its “land bridge” stretching from Iran, through Syria, and extending all the way to the Mediterranean. This land bridge serves as a conduit for arms, war materiel, propaganda, and Iranian influence, all to the detriment of the interests of America and its allies. Iran promotes radical Islam to present itself as the true defender and center of Islam, pointing at a Saudi Arabia that has been “Westernized” and “corrupted” by foreign influence. Under Mohammad bin Salman Saudi Arabia has indeed been moving from Islamic fundamentalism, reducing its efforts to export the violent form of Islam known as Wahhabism, expanding freedoms and opportunities for women, and forging a de facto working relationship with Israel. This creates an opportunity for Iran to spread radical Islam, supply and control local Muslim militias, and wage a not-so-covert war of attrition across the Middle East.
Southern Iraq, which was spared from conquest at the hands of ISIS, fares no better. Northern Iraq may be in ruins as a result of the recent conflict, but southern Iraq has remained a pile of rubble since the start of the second Gulf War. Southern Iraq produces and exports most of the nation’s oil, but a lack of power plants means that that oil cannot remain in the country and be used to power Iraq’s electricity-starved cities. Iran pays for schools, infrastructure, and urban development while Iraqi government money earmarked for the same expenditures is stolen by local officials or distributed as bribes.
Citizens are in revolt, and rightly so. They cite graft, bribery, tainted water supplies, lack of electricity, sewage treatment, and trash disposal as among their chief concerns. Iraq is 5 million gigawatts per day short of electricity demand, collects fees on only 12% of its electric grid, and neglects its water supply to such an extent that water coming out of faucets is discolored and piping hot. The Iraqi government has requested $88 billion in an open letter to the international community to rebuild its devastated infrastructure, and while they demonstrably do require aid in some manner, no-strings-attached donations are not the solution. Any money handed over to Iraq is going to result in the same delays, waste, and irresponsibility that all previous funding has.
Iraqi protestors demanding services and jobs burn tires during a demonstration. Photo: Uncredited/Associated Press
The United States is of course blamed for the destruction of the country’s basic infrastructure, but the most recent development has been America’s renewed sanctions on Iran. The Iraqi government had been purchasing electricity from Iran to make up for its own shortfalls, and Iran abuses its position by making Iraqi compliance a requirement for additional power. In recent months, as the United States has reimposed and expanded its sanctions against Iran, the Iraqi government has now been forced to look for alternative sources.
In the meantime, Iran has faced its own series of popular demonstrations. A lack of access to basic infrastructure and no improvement even after Western sanctions had been lifted as pursuant to the nuclear deal has led to an explosion of civil unrest. Additional charges against the government include not just the usual grievances of corruption and lack of infrastructure investment, but also the failure to translate positive foreign policy developments into real gains for the Iranian people. Citizens are outraged that the newfound revenue from lifted sanctions was spent on foreign adventurism instead of rebuilding the once affluent and now impoverished country. They see these interventions as wasteful and care little for the religious justifications presented by the ayatollahs. People on the streets, once compelled to shout “Death to Israel” now move en masse chanting “Death to Palestine.” These riots may very well leave the Iranian government with no choice but to pull back resources from its western battlefronts—at the expense to the ayatollahs’ claim to legitimacy across the wider Muslim world.
Demonstrators hold Iranian flags. Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press
Should Iran reduce its foreign military and religious presence, Iraq would be the first to suffer. Iranian support is what has allowed Iraqi militias to secure the region and quite literally keeps the lights on. Another power vacuum in between the Euphrates and the Tigris is in the making, and so the United States must make a choice. The US can re-engage in Iraq or allow forces outside its control, whether Islamic extremists or Russia, to fill the void. Should the nation not wish to throw away trillions in taxpayer money and the lives of countless American servicemen and women, support for Iraq is the only option. What form that support takes is entirely up to the American government’s willingness to work on ending a decades long bloody chapter in its history. The United States cannot remain Iraq’s benefactor forever, but it must commit itself to Iraq’s continued security or face the consequences.