The Ball is in Washington’s Court: US-Iraq-Iran Security Relations under the Biden Administration
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January 3 marked the first death anniversary of General Qassem Soleimani and Popular Mobilisation Committee (PMC) commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis killed by a US drone strike. The anniversary passed without major incidents, apart from some thousands of Iran-backed militia gathering in Baghdad Tahrir Square or storming some buildings of the Baghdad International Airport. Still, the risks for the flare-up in tensions remain. Even more so with the continued presence of US military troops in Iraq, and Iran reserving the chance for revenge. Such a move would certainly threaten those living and working in Iraq, including expatriates that may be caught in between.
During the last weeks of the Trump Administration, there have been concerns on the possibility of US President Donald Trump carrying out military action against Iran. Two B-52 bombers had been spotted flying over the Gulf in the first days of 2021, in what Washington affirmed to be a show of force aimed to deter Tehran. By doing so, the US demonstrated “a unique ability to rapidly deploy overwhelming combat power on short notice”, as a US Central Command (USCENTCOM) statement reported.
Following Iranian threats against US President Donald Trump and other American officials, former Acting US Secretary of Defence Christopher C. Miller reversed his previous decision on redeploying the aircraft carrier Nimitz elsewhere, leaving the naval vessel in the Middle East area. Such initiatives, while not triggering a broader escalation, continues to strain relations with Iran and heightens risk should Tehran respond.
Nevertheless, Tehran seemed to be more interested in exerting great control over its proxies in Iraq, namely the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs - a coalition of mostly Shiite militias) and Kataib Hezbollah (KH), rather than responding to any US-related initiative. Despite the arrest of some members of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia group on the grounds of involvement in the December 20 rocket barrage on the US Embassy in Baghdad, tensions did not go beyond the simple war of words between Kataib Hezbollah and the Iraqi PM Mustafa al-Khadimi. Neither the US sanctions on two senior Iraqi security figures like PMC chairman Falih al-Fayyad and KH commander Abdulaziz Al-Mohammadawi have prompted any Iranian reaction.
The only significant show of force that Tehran undertook so far is the conduct of a fifth military drill along the country’s southeastern coast, just a few days after the second B-52 bombers flew over the Middle East.
However, with the Iranian Parliament recently passing a law in order to produce enriched uranium at a level of 20%, quickly followed by a short production of it, President Hassan Rouhani seems to be facing growing political pressure from conservatives and hardliners. On one hand, this move likely attempts to increase Tehran's leverage given chances that the US Biden administration will re-enter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement. On the other, adding another layer to the already strained US-Iran relations further threatens to exacerbate the overall situation, with risks to pour into the nearby countries.
What seems to play a significant role in defusing further military initiatives on both sides have been the recent events arisen in Washington - with thousands of people gathering and besieging Capitol Hill during the certification of Biden’s Electoral College votes. In the wake of such event, with some Trump Cabinet’s members reportedly started discussing to invoke the 25th amendments, and then moving toward a second impeachment trial, the ousting of President Trump has certainly been the focus of internal political affairs rather than to push effectively ahead vis-a-vis Tehran.
Given this, it is likely for Tehran to wait to see how the newly established Biden administration will tackle the JCPOA negotiation. If Iran should see or assess that Washington will not swiftly return to the negotiating table, the potential for retaliation – especially through proxies in nearby countries – would dramatically increase. This would also increase the risks for civilians to be caught in between. Expatriates and businesses of US-allied countries, like the Philippines, may likewise become a target of a heap of pressure, as with Washington. While over 220,000 overseas Filipinos have already been repatriated from the region due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is still a considerable presence of expatriates in the area. Early in January 2020, following Qassem Soleimani’s death, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the military to be ready to deploy its aircraft and ships to evacuate thousands of Filipino workers from the Middle East. While nothing has turned out in this sense so far, it is highly probable that President Duterte will proceed in the same way if an escalation actually breaks out between the US and Iran.
Now that tensions are temporarily defused, chances for civilians and expatriates to be caught in between are lessened. Both parties, however, are skating on thin ice. As the US military maintains presence in the Middle East region (especially in Iraq), and with Iran still reserving the potential to retaliate for Qassem Soleimani’s death, the odds of further jeopardizing US-Iran relations remain. However, with US President Biden still having to take any action toward the Iran nuclear deal, and Iranian President Rouhani affirming that “the ball is in Washington’s court” regarding the JCPOA dossier, there is still space for maneuver to finally put an end to the dispute.