US unilateralism has opened the door for other global powers to increase their regional influence.
After US President Donald Trump halted further military escalation with Iran and imposed fresh sanctions, the US and Iran have found themselves in a geostrategic stalemate that has created a leadership void in the Middle East.
– Russia and the EU, but not the US, are trying to salvage the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or the Iran nuclear deal)
– Until some agreement is reached, Iran will continue to enrich fissile materials beyond the threshold established in the JCPOA
– Hostility towards the US by certain Iraqi militias and political parties have ballooned tremendously since the onset of tensions
– Russia and China continue to gain influence in the region, exemplified by Russia’s role in mediating between Iran and the West and China’s close ties with a handful of actors in the Middle East
A GAME OF GEOPOLITICAL CHICKEN
On January 3, a US drone strike outside of Baghdad International Airport killed Qasem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Quds Force, as well as the deputy chairman of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and commander of Kata’ib Hezbollah, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. This strike was a response to a December 27 Iranian rocket attack that killed a US civilian contractor in a military base outside of Kirkuk, Iraq, and to alleged immediate threats to US embassies in the region. On January 8, after Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corp fired missiles at the joint US-Iraqi Ain al-Assad airbase, Trump announced that there would be no further military action.
Since this announcement, there have been three critical developments. First, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi asked US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to discuss the withdrawal of 5,200 troops and Iraqi lawmakers passed a non-binding resolution to expel all US forces. In response, Secretary Pompeo said a full withdrawal of US troops was off the table, as the main goal of their deployment to Iraq is to contain ISIS. Second, after Iran announced last week that it would stop obeying restrictions imposed by the JCPOA on uranium enrichment, European foreign affairs ministers and NATO heads have gathered to determine the best way to keep the JCPOA intact. The US has not participated in these negotiations in Brussels and Moscow. Experts believe that if the deal is not salvaged, Iran could hypothetically acquire a nuclear weapon within two years. Lastly, the White House announced it would impose a series of economic and travel sanctions on all facets of the Iranian economy, as well as Iranian politicians, military leaders, and those assisting Iran in business using dollar-denominated assets.
IRAN’S HISTORY IN IRAQ AND ITS CONSEQUENCES
Soleimani has long been a top target for the US. Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, he has led various Shiite militia groups in Iraq, used foreign bases to project power, assisted Hezbollah in Lebanon and President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and ultimately achieved a ‘Shia crescent’ — an arch of Shia Islamic influence stretching from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea. Iran was motivated to expand its presence in Iraq and to target US forces due to fears that a successful invasion of Iraq could pave the way for Iran to be invaded as well. Soleimani expanded Iranian influence by bolstering the Popular Mobilization Unit with military advisors and troops and, after the 2011 US withdrawal led to the eventual proliferation of ISIS in Iraq, the Iran-backed PMU successfully thwarted ISIS’s advance on Baghdad. From this victory, Iranian and Shiite paramilitary groups and cum-political parties like the Badr Organization and the al-Hakima group built a powerful lobby and a strong voice in former prime minister Haider al-Abadi’s government. Such groups continue to have a powerful influence on current caretaker Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi’s government.
Soleimani’s influence is palpable in Iraqi politics today. Following the US attack on Kata’ib Hezbollah command centres in Iraq and Syria, Iraqis protesting US presence received support from the PMU, while Abdul-Mahdi and Iraqi security forces turned a blind eye. Furthermore, Abdul-Mahdi said the US airstrikes killing Soleimani and al-Muhandis, who was an Iraqi, was a violation of national sovereignty, facilitating the vote to expel US forces from Iraq. Iraqi government officials have stressed that the attacks on the Iranian targets were not done with the consent of the prime minister or the president, a stark contrast from the strong bilateral relationship US forces had with Iraqi forces only a decade prior.
Iran’s use of Iraq to project power has given Tehran an advantage in asymmetrical and local warfare. Not only does the state possess elite cyber warfare capabilities, but it can carry out local pressure that will manifest in a series of small wins. For example, Iran could choke off the Strait of Hormuz, which is a critical passage for world oil exports, through mines. The attacks on Aramco’s oil fields in Abdqaiq and Khurais in eastern Saudi Arabia this past September had little blowback. In Lebanon, Hezbollah is now so well equipped that it mirrors a professional military force. The Islamic Republic is also considered capable of igniting domestic unrest amongst Shia populations Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. These examples highlight that Iran’s proxies are its ace card. Iraq is just another extension of Iranian dominance.
AN EMERGING LEADERSHIP VOID
As the US continues to act unilaterally, its adversaries are undermining US leadership by spearheading the multilateral peace effort — a complete reversal from the last couple of decades.
Russia has become the region’s de facto negotiator. Russian ties with Iran have been improving due to military cooperation in Syria, and particularly following Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and series of spats with Iran. Russia has also driven a wedge between Washington and its allies by spearheading the effort to maintain the JCPOA. After reports indicated that the US failed to warn its Western allies of the Soleimani strike, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and others met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin to hash out de-escalation. The meeting is a stark shift from the nadir of their relationship after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Unfolding events will also strengthen China’s hand in the region. While Beijing hasn’t been as vocal as other great powers, Iran will likely turn to China’s coffers to protect its economy during the new onset of US sanctions in exchange for Chinese sway in the region. Chinese leaders, like Chang Hua, the state’s envoy to Iran, have made clear that China will continue to sell arms to Iran — Chinese designs were critical in the production of Iran’s most effective short-range missiles, the Nazaret, as well as its long-range missiles, the Shahab. China and Iran have a Military Defence and Cooperation Agreement, allowing China to conduct joint military and naval exercises in the Strait of Hormuz. On several occasions, China has emphasised its commitment to Iran’s civilian uses of nuclear energy and Beijing has included Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in multilateral energy, economics, and security talks such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Kyrgyzstan.
Tehran’s statement that China and Russia could play an important role in preventing regional tensions symbolises the success of these two states in their Middle East policies; both Beijing and Moscow have undermined Washington’s traditional regional relationship. The two autocratic states proffer development and trade without any caveats, granting Iran and other actors’ autonomy over domestic politics. And, China and Russia, along with the international community, have agreed that the US had violated basic norms of international relations in acting unilaterally on many of the aforementioned developments.
Trump has called for international support, specifically from Russia and China, to contain Iran’s nuclear capabilities. This may yet occur, though not as he expects: China and Russia, with the support of the UK, Germany, and France, have continued their attempts to salvage the JCPOA and present a sustainable peace option agreeable to everyone but the US. As Russia and China maintain ties on opposite sides of the Middle Eastern power divide, and the US continues to renege its commitments to Middle Eastern actors, expect regional leadership to shift. Like the US once did to the UK, Russia and China will assume peace broker status unless the US alters its path.