Riyadh: reluctant US partner in Iraq

“We’ve seen the activities of Iran in Yemen,” Nauert affirmed. “We’ve seen the hand of Iran in Syria. We’ve seen the hand of Iran elsewhere.”

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) – The US opposes Iranian proxies everywhere, it seems, except in Iraq, and a key US partner in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, appears uneasy with this exception.

“I don’t have awareness of that conversation, but I would imagine that it has taken place,” a senior State Department official replied, in response to a question from Kurdistan24: have the Saudis complained to you about Iranian influence in Iraq?

Earlier, State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert had denounced Iran’s destabilizing role in the region. “We know exactly where the responsibility lies” in the Middle East “for much of the destabilization,” she said, pointing the finger at Tehran as she briefed reporters Tuesday.

Speaking of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Nauert explained that we “know the kinds of activities that Hezbollah has been responsible for,” including the Oct. 23, 1983, bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut.

She also noted that Vice President Mike Pence had delivered a speech at the Marine Barracks in Washington DC on the anniversary of the attack to “honor those that were killed.” (Pence’s older brother, Greg, was a Marine, deployed to Beirut then. Several days passed before his anxious family learned he was safe—his battalion had shipped out, just before the assault.)

“We’ve seen the activities of Iran in Yemen,” Nauert affirmed. “We’ve seen the hand of Iran in Syria. We’ve seen the hand of Iran elsewhere.”

But not in Iraq, it seems! Or not when it comes to formulating US policy on Iraq.

It is different with the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism. As it reported in July, “Three of the most significant leaders of Shia militias in Iraq” are closely associated with Iran—and specifically with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)”—which, three months later, the Trump administration designated a terrorist organization. This included its “officials, agents, and affiliates.”

Prominent Congressmen have criticized the administration for understating Tehran’s influence in Iraq and the role that Iran, along with the IRGC-associated militias, played in the assault on Kirkuk and other disputed areas.

Writing in the New York Times in late October, Sen. John McCain (R, Arizona) stated, “If the United States is forced to choose between Iranian-backed militias and our longstanding Kurdish partners, I choose the Kurds.”

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R, California) complained at a Capitol Hill press conference last week that “At best, the State Department has been derelict in their duties.” At worst, the former Marine Corps officer said, “They've been complicit in allowing the Iranians to take back what a lot of my brothers in arms and I fought for in Iraq.

It is an open secret that the ferocity of US opposition to the Sep. 25 Kurdistan independence referendum was driven by a desire to see Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi re-elected. For that purpose, in the Department’s view, the US must maintain the unity of Iraq.

Given the priority that the Trump administration places on containing Tehran’s ambitions, does the State Department believe that Abadi is the key to blocking Iranian domination of Iraq? Kurdistan 24 asked that question at the press briefing.

Nauert responded, “There are numerous ways to contain Iranian influence in the region,” and cited “a step that Prime Minister Abadi has recently taken: improving ties with Riyadh.

“They’re strengthening the relationship with the Government of Saudi Arabia,” she said. “That’s a real step in the right direction.”

“You’ve seen Saudi Arabia reopen the land crossing with Iraq. When we were at the United Nations, the Government of Saudi Arabia and others talked about helping to finance some of the big, major reconstruction projects in Iraq.”

“A lot of money will be required to rebuild Iraq,” she affirmed. “The fact that some of those nations are willing to take that on is pretty incredible.”

In his Capitol Hill press conference, Hunter suggested that neither President Donald Trump nor Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis was really aware of the extent of Tehran’s dominance in Baghdad and the role that it played in Iraq’s assault on the Kurds.

Does the State Department’s partnership with Riyadh obscure that point? Does the prospect of Saudi funding for Iraqi reconstruction influence US perceptions?

Riyadh is “very uneasy” with Tehran’s dominance in Iraq, Paul Davis, a retired Pentagon analyst on Kurdish affairs, told Kurdistan 24.

“The Saudis are not driving” the policy, he observed. They are “accommodating the US.” They can see the US wants Abadi, so they go along.”

They need the US to be friendly to them, and if that means accommodating the US on Iraq policy and helping Abadi, they’ll do it,” he concluded.

Editing by Nadia Riva