WASHINGTON - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday the United States has ordered a temporary relocation of diplomatic personnel in Iraq because of growing threats to U.S. diplomatic facilities by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force and its allied militias in Iraq.
In a written statement Pompeo said, “Given the increasing and specific threats and incitement to attack our personnel and facilities in Iraq, I have directed that an appropriate temporary relocation of diplomatic personnel in Iraq take place.”
Pompeo warned Iran against any attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in the region.
“I have advised the government of Iran that the United States will hold Iran directly responsible for any harm to Americans or to our diplomatic facilities in Iraq or elsewhere and whether perpetrated by Iranian forces directly or by associated proxy militias,” Pompeo said.
The secretary’s warning follows a hearing this week in the U.S. Congress on Iran’s growing influence inside Iraq.
Some experts and U.S. lawmakers voiced concerns that as Iraq is trying to put together a cabinet to form the new government following its general elections in May, Iran and its loyal Shiite militias in Iraq will not only have influence in the new government, but also have access to U.S.-provided military equipment.
“The Iranian-supported terrorists-turned-politicians regularly threaten Americans and our allies while their militias have committed countless atrocities across Iraq and Syria,” Republican Congressman Ted Poe, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, said during Wednesday’s hearing.
“While we do nothing, Iran is doing everything. They are expending all their efforts to consolidate their power in Baghdad and it is paying off. Decisive action must be taken now,” Poe added.
Michael Pregent, an analyst at the Washington-based Hudson Institute, echoed Poe’s concerns and told lawmakers that Iran’s influence in neighboring Iraq is unprecedented.
“The level of Iran’s influence in Iraq has never been as high as it is now,” Pregent said. “These militias [Iran-backed] are now in Iraqi security forces. That means they have access to U.S. intelligence, U.S. equipment, and U.S. funds.”
Pregent added that Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC] Quds Force, now has an armed political party under his influence in Iraq, and that party came in second in the country’s general elections.
Barbara Leaf, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute, said that Iran’s growing influence in Iraq is partly because of Washington’s relative disengagement in the country.
“We need a coherent approach and a visible high-level Washington engagement,” Leaf said. “The Trump administration appears fixed on fixing Iran’s destabilizing regional activities. If it is serious, Iraq is the place to set that effort into motion with method and energy.”
Kimberly Kagan, the president of the Institute for the Study of War, a nonpartisan public policy research organization, warned lawmakers about the potential consequences of the lack of U.S. engagement in Iraq.
“Victory for the Iranian proxies would likely lead to the expulsion of the U.S. from Iraq,” she said, adding that efforts must be made to implement a more coherent strategy in Iraq through which Iran would not be able to maneuver beyond its borders and destabilize the region.
Kagan says sanctions should be imposed against IRGC-supported elements inside Iraq and argues sanctions would help keep Iranian agents from gaining control of the Iraqi government.
But she said that the timing of imposing sanctions should be closely coordinated with U.S diplomats.
“Now is not the moment, however, for Congress to mandate the imposition of sanctions on these or any other specific groups or individuals in Iraq,” Kagan said.
“The threat of sanctions, either broad or highly targeted is the most powerful non-military weapon American diplomats in the region currently have,” she added. “They must retain the power to choose exactly when, where and how to deploy this tool.”
Behnam Ben Taleblu, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank, echoed Kagan’s assessment and told lawmakers that sanctions against IRGC have proved effective in the past and that they should be used against select Iranian proxies in Iraq.
“Three U.S. presidents have used designations before to disrupt the IRGC financial support networks, expose its agents and affiliates, and publically stigmatize them. It is now time to grow that approach in Iraq,” Taleblu said.
“It is my recommendation that use counterterrorism authorities to designate select Iranian proxies in Iraq that retain close ties to the IRGC. The legal authorities for such a move already exist,” he added.
Growing Iraqi consensus
Pregent of the Hudson Institute said there is a growing consensus among various ethnic and religious groups in Iraq that Iran’s influence inside their country must be countered and now is the perfect time to gain the momentum and introduce sanctions against Iran-backed elements.
“You have all Iraqis, Sunni, Shia and Kurds saying Iran needs to get out of Iraq,” Pregent said. “We ignored it when the Sunnis said it. We ignored it when the Kurds said it. We cannot ignore it when the 60 percent Shia population of Iraq saying it.
“Now is the time to use U.S. leverage and treasury tools to help Iraqis limit Iran’s influence,” Pregent added.
But ambassador Leaf said sanctions should be imposed with caution not to allow Iran to exploit them.
“It is a tool which should be levied with an eye to timing and sequencing to maximize the desired effects and minimize Tehran’s ability to exploit domestic Iraqi backlash,” Leaf said.