On Wednesday 15th May 2019, the U.S. State Department released an urgent message calling all “non-emergency” U.S. government employees to leave Iraq. U.S. citizens were advised not to travel to Iraq because of the “high risk of violence and kidnapping.”
This order was given amidst rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran after four oil vessels were attacked at the mouth of the Persian Gulf the previous weekend. The U.S. suspects Iran of being behind the attacks. As a result, the U.S. has tightened sanctions against Iran and mobilized an aircraft carrier, bombers and an antimissile battery to the gulf.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an unannounced trip to Iraq on Tuesday May 14th to meet with Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi, President Barham Salih, and other prominent officials.
Regarding the meeting, Pompeo told CNN that the officials “provided assurances that they understood that [the safety of Americans in Iraq] was their responsibility.” This was an interesting comment, given that the following day U.S. affiliated people were told to leave Iraq.
So why are U.S. citizens being advised to leave Iraq if all of the increased animosity has been with Iran? Though Iraq and Iran once harboured negative sentiments for one another, the two nations have become reliant on each other both politically and economically. Following Saddam Hussein’s ousting in 2003 and the rise of a Shiite-led government, the Iraqi government has seen political groups with connections to pro-Iran Popular Mobilization Forces, gain influence. In addition, economic relations have prospered between the two regions. As a result, the U.S. and Iran have been in direct competition for gaining political and economic influence over Iraq.
Following the State Department’s announcement directing non-emergency U.S. citizens to evacuate Iraq, the reason for the urgency of the message became evident. On Sunday May 19th, a rocket hit Baghdad’s Green Zone half a kilometre away from the U.S. embassy. A State Department official told Reuters, “We will hold Iran responsible if any such attacks are conducted by its proxy militia forces and will respond to Iran accordingly.” The attack was claimed by a new group entitled “Operations of Shahid Ali al-Mansour.” The group suggested that the attack was in response to Trump’s release of Michael Behenna, convicted of killing an Iraqi prisoner, in May.
As reported byin Al-Monitor, on May 13th, Nasr al-Shemmary, the Assistant Secretary General of Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, made it clear that the Popular Mobilization Groups in Iraq were ready to target U.S. forces as appropriate. Al- Shemmary added that “Confrontation with the United States will stop only when it is eliminated from the region, along with the Zionist entity.”
This announcement was likely a primary reason for the U.S’ removal of all non-emergency citizens from the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and consulate in Erbil. Prominent Iraqi leaders say the Popular Mobilization Groups operate independently of the Iraqi government and are working to avoid any conflict on Iraqi soil. On Monday, the leader of the largest parliamentary bloc in Iraq (the Sairoon alliance), said, “I’m against fueling war between Iran and America, and I’m against putting Iraq in this war and making it a battlefield for the Iranian-American conflict.” Shortly after, he added, “Any party that pushes Iraq into war and makes it a battlefield will be an enemy of the Iraqi people.”
Other, less immediate, interactions between Iran and the U.S. have further pushed tensions to their current height. In 2015, Iran agreed to limit the creation of nuclear weapons, and substances with the potential to be used for nuclear weapon construction, once sanctions on Iran’s trade were lifted. Originally, these sanctions enforced by the U.S., EU, and UN, were set in place to stop Iran from creating enriched uranium that could be used to make reactor fuel and nuclear weapons. Such sanctions crippled the country’s economy and resulted in them losing more than $160 billion in oil revenue between 2012 and 2016, according to BBC news. Once these sanctions were lifted as a result of the nuclear deal (also called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), Iran was able to gain access to more than $100 billion dollars in assets that were frozen overseas and re-establish their place as a major oil source for numerous countries.
Despite the deal’s success, President Donald Trump abandoned the deal in May 2018 and reinstated sanctions on Iran in November 2018. Following this decision, the Iranian economy was again put under immense pressure and the value of its currency was pushed to record lows. On Monday, May 20th, Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization announced that they were quadrupling production of enriched uranium, directly violating the restrictions of the deal signed in 2015.
This announcement came after an unwarranted tweet from Trump that read “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again.” On Monday Trump added that Iran will be met with “great force” if they attempt anything against U.S. interests in the Middle East. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, wrote back on twitter saying “Iranians have stood tall for millennia while aggressors have all gone. Economic terrorism and genocidal taunts won’t ‘end Iran”. He added, “Never threaten an Iranian. Try respect – it works!”
When two nations approach their differences with respect, war can be evaded. But after Trump’s decision to take the U.S. out of the nuclear deal, and lack of respect for both Iran and Iraq, it is unclear whether a war will be evaded successfully. For peace to occur, the nuclear deal must be reinstated, so long as Iran stops producing such large amounts of enriched uranium. In addition, Popular Mobilization Groups in Iraq must not approach the conflict with violence as it will likely lead to more death and destruction on Iraq’s territory. War will bring no success for any nation involved.