Iran and Iraq signed an agreement on Sunday that would see strengthened military cooperation aimed at fighting “terrorism and extremism,” a deal that probably won’t please President Donald Trump.
Iranian state media reports that the memorandum of understanding (MoU) “includes expansion of cooperation and exchange of experiences on combating terrorism and extremism, security of borders, as well as educational, logistic, technical and military support.”
There hasn’t been much response to the MoU in the United States so far. But given what we know, it’s doubtful that the deal with be met with high-fives.
The Trump administration has ratcheted up tensions with Iran, recently accusing the the Islamic Republic of violating “the spirit” of the nuclear agreement. The two countries have also butt heads over the civil war in Yemen, with the United States siding with the Saudi-led coalition that first intervened in the country two years ago.
Last week, Trump agreed to re-certify the deal, confirming that Iran was complying with the terms of the 2015 multilateral agreement. Still, White House officials noted that he did so with great hesitation, and one official who spoke with the New York Times on the condition of anonymity said that the president spent 55 minutes of an hour-long meeting arguing with his advisors that he did not want to do so. Trump is also still pushing for a new set of sanctions against Iran, which the House is set to vote on this week. The Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act focuses on Iran’s ballistic missile program and was passed by the Senate in June.
And in its annual Country Reports on Terrorism, released last week, the State Department yet again called Iran “the leading state sponsor of terrorism.”
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment on what it means for Iraq, where U.S. troops have been fighting for over 14 years, to sign a military agreement with the country the United States sees a major global security threat.
Although Iran’s presence in Iraq has, at times, been viewed as as a material threat to U.S. forces, the Pentagon appears to be taking a wait-and-see approach to the MoU.
“It’s not immediately obvious to me that the contents of this MoU would have any bearing on U.S. troops. We’re always going to take appropriate measures to protect ourselves,” Pentagon spokesman Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway told ThinkProgress.
“We main close and recurring communications with the government of Iraq. We work only with the government of Iraq and the security forces under their command and control,” he said, adding that U.S. forces are there at “their invitation.”
As ThinkProgress reported last week, the role of the United States in the future of Iraq is unclear as Iranian-backed Shia forces and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have increased their footprint in Iraq in the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS).
The role of Iran and the Hashed al-Shaabi forces it supports, however, now seems more clear than ever. The 122,000-strong, predominately Shia fighters were poised to maintain their position even before Sunday’s agreement was signed.
Iraqi Prime Minister Hayder al-Abadi has supported Hashed al-Shaabi’s role in Iraq. Following the liberation of Mosul from ISIS, al-Abadi said last week that the militias “must remain at least for years, as the terrorism threat still exists.”
The Baghdad government has “excellent relations with Iran,” and when ISIS was about to roll into Baghdad, Iran’s support was crucial until the United States joined the fight, said Paul Salem, vice president for policy analysis, research and programs at the Middle East Institute
“The Americans are quite aware that Iran will try to push Baghdad to get the Americans to leave after the push to liberate Mosul is over,” said Salem.
The danger is that Iran could go back to fighting the United States via the Shia militia, as it did in the earlier years of the war.
So how does this MoU look, from the U.S. perspective?
“It looks like the U.S. made the wrong decision in 2003,” laughed Salem.
“The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, bottom line, handed Iraq over to Iranian influence,” said Salem. “That’s a fact.” This MoU, he said, is just the continuation of an already strong relationship.
But, he said, that doesn’t mean that the Iraqis are Iranian lackeys — so, just because Iran wants U.S. forces out, it does not mean that Iraq will oblige.
Michael Knights, the Lafer fellow of The Washington Institute, specializing in the military and security affairs of Iraq, Iran, and the Persian Gulf states, offered a dissenting view. He sees the MoU as a PR game for Iran.
“The U.S. is by far the largest provider of military assistance to the Iraqi government… We have many months more of major combat operations and pretty significant Department of Defense budget for supporting the Iraqi security forces,” said Knights, adding that all of this means that the U.S. intends on maintaining significant presence in Iraq for at least the next three years.
Knights called the MoU as a “nothing burger” that exists as a face-saving tactic for Iran, perhaps a reminder of their relationship with Baghdad.
“They’re too smart to base their influence on military power. They’ve got a dozen other things other than supplying military power. That’s what we [the U.S.] do the best,” he told ThinkProgress.
“They’re not interested in competing with us on our strongest suit. They’re much more interested in places where we can’t go and we don’t matter,” — such as leadership of religious schools and institutions, said Knights.
“Plus they know how to outlast us. We care about Iraq now, but will we in five years?”