Despite conflicting reports on how many people were involved – with some saying thousands and others tens of thousands – Iraqi protesters took to the streets around Iraq’s Tahrir Square in the capital Baghdad to mark the anniversary of the killing of a major Iranian commander this week.
During Sunday’s protests, Iraqis chanted anti-American slogans including “America is the Great Satan”. Qassem Al-Suleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Al-Quds Force who managed Iranian-backed militias in the Middle East, was killed in a missile attack by US drones near Baghdad Airport at the beginning of last year.
He had been travelling to Iraq from the Syrian capital Damascus, with Iran backing militias in both states.
The recent protests in Iraq are one of many signs reflecting how strained US-Iranian relations have become.
Trita Parsi, vice president at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a NGO in Washington, said that Iraq has “unfortunately become one of the arenas where the backlash against the Trump administration’s unsuccessful Iran policy is manifesting itself most clearly.”
Parsi, an expert on Iran, told Al-Ahram Weekly that this showed how US-Iran tensions, driven by Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy against Iran, had negatively affected stability in the region.
The outgoing Trump administration had “chosen this moment to escalate tensions” against Iran ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration as US president on 20 January. Parsi expected that any attack on Iran by the US could lead to the “complete death” of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal with Iran, and “eliminate Biden’s chances” for successful talks with the country.
“There is little to suggest that this is an even game of escalation: the US pulled out of the [nuclear] deal, assassinated Al-Suleimani and declared economic warfare on Iran, while Tehran has largely remained inside the deal. All US President Donald Trump’s efforts to get the Iranians to take drastic measures and even leave the JCPOA have failed thus far, which may be why he may try to make one final attempt in his last days in office,” Parsi added.
The Iranians are also adopting escalatory measures, however. In December, Trump accused Iran of firing rockets at Washington’s Embassy in Baghdad, causing limited harm to the embassy and residential sites in the area. “Now we hear chatter of additional attacks against Americans in Iraq. Some friendly health advice to Iran: If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over,” Trump tweeted.
Iran has denied the accusations, warning the US against any “unwise moves” in the meantime. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who played a key role in the nuclear negotiations in 2015, claimed that Trump was looking for a “pretext for war”.
Both American and Iraqi officials remained concerned about a potential attack by Tehran ahead of the anniversary of Al-Suleimani’s death, especially after a statement by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard chief on its eve.
On 2 January, Hussein Salami stressed that “we will respond with a reciprocal, decisive and strong blow to whatever action the enemy takes against us.”
Jason Brodsky, policy director for United Against Nuclear Iran, a US pressure group, believes that Iran “has the ability to easily target US interests in Baghdad by virtue of its network of militias, and that’s one of the reasons why Iraq is seen as fertile ground for attacks.”
Brodsky said that Iraq’s “recent history of being a theatre of US-Iranian competition,” “internal leadership” and “political dynamics” has contributed to these tensions, referring to the “firm grip” that Al-Suleimani had over “Iran’s axis of resistance” in Iraq.
“There is evidence of fissures developing among some militias. There are also reports that these groups have received less funding as a result of the economic strain Tehran is under from US sanctions,” Brodsky said.
Reversing an earlier move, acting US Defence Secretary Christopher Miller ordered USS Nimitz, an aircraft carrier, to stay in the Gulf on Monday “due to threats” coming from Iran. He did not give details on what those “threats” might involve.
Perhaps the only move recently taken by the Iranians has been their decision to enrich uranium to 20 per cent purity, widely considered as the largest violation of the nuclear deal, which Trump withdrew from in May 2018.
Throughout Trump’s four-year term in office, both the US and Iran have exchanged warnings and hinted at the likelihood of conflict. The US accused Iran last year of attacking oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and shooting down a US drone in the Gulf.
Kanishkan Sathasivam, a professor of international relations at Salem State University in the US, said it was obvious that the Iranian side wished to wait until Biden was president before taking action against either the US or Israel as retaliation for US and Israeli assassinations of Iranian figures.
“They believe any actions they take while Biden is president, so long as they are within certain limits, will be accepted by Biden as being justified and that Biden will not take any further actions himself. Knowing this, both Trump and Netanyahu see this as the perfect time to increase pressure on Iran because the Iranians are caught in a dilemma,” Sathasivam said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.