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How Iran could benefit from Iraqi outrage over U.S. airstrikes

A tense new year has dawned in Baghdad after U.S. airstrikes against an Iranian-backed militia prompted one of the worst attacks on a U.S. Embassy in years. Bilal Wahab of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Kirsten Fontenrose of the Atlantic Council join Nick Schifrin to discuss whether the U.S. is falling into an Iranian “trap,” what the Iraqi people want and what to expect next.

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  • Nick Schifrin:

    For more on the latest developments in Iraq, we get two views.

    Bilal Wahab is a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a foreign policy think tank. And Kirsten Fontenrose is director of the Middle East Security Initiative at The Atlantic Council. She previously served as senior director for Gulf affairs on the National Security Council staff during the Trump administration.

    Bilal, how connected is Kataib Hezbollah to Iran?

  • Bilal Wahab:

    The closest any militia can get to Iran.

    There is a documentary that Iran has made celebrating the leader of Kataib Hezbollah, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in which he clearly says that he sees himself as a member of the larger Iranian-led resistance against the United States and Israel.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, Kirsten Fontenrose, if this group is so controlled by Iran, does that mean that Iran effectively is attacking the U.S. Embassy today?

  • Kirsten Fontenrose:

    We believe that it is a direct — direct relationship.

    We also know that the number two, Muhandis' deputy, has announced yesterday that they have the backing from Tehran, the thumbs up from Tehran to kind of go full-throttle against our forces in Iraq.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So let's zoom out and talk about the last couple days, the strikes on Sunday.

    We were talking to you earlier, and you suggested that the U.S. was actually falling into an Iranian trap, that there's now a proxy war between the U.S. and Iran inside Iraq. What do you mean?

  • Bilal Wahab:

    Iran managed to put the United States in a position of damned if you act and damned if you do not respond.

    There have been 11 attacks on Iraqi military bases that house Americans military advisers, 11 such attacks, and the Iraqi government failed to protect or even investigate thoroughly who those attackers were.

    So, the United States was put in a position to defend itself. And I think that's an inherent right. Nonetheless, the trap there is that there is a protest movement against the role of militias in Iraq, demanding a better freedom, a better democracy, that started on August 1 — as of October 1. It's been going on for three months.

    And that part — part and parcel of that protest movement was on the nefarious influence that these militias have played by defying the Iraqi sovereignty, by defying the Iraqi state, and also indulging in foreign adventurism that has brought in external attacks on Iraq.

    So, in a way, by having today's protests at the embassy, they have managed somehow to turn themselves from perpetrators into victims. And that's why, if this U.S. attack is part of a larger strategy of deterring Iran and forcing accountability into these unruly militias, then that's a positive thing.

    What the Iraqis fear, what the Iraqi reformers fear is that this is a one-off that is going to simply divert the attention from the protest movement for reform into the grievances of Kataib Hezbollah militias.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Kirsten Fontenrose, I was talking to Iraqi officials over the last day-and-a-half. And they point out exactly what Bilal Wahab was just saying, is that there has been a protest movement against Iran in the center of Baghdad.

    And instead of talking about that, these strikes have meant we have been talking about U.S. in Iraq, and that is against U.S. national interests. Do you agree?

  • Kirsten Fontenrose:

    Absolutely.

    And it's entirely in Iran's strategic interest, because when their proxies attack, and the U.S. reciprocates against this, or does reciprocal attacks against them, Iran loses nothing. No Iranians die in these attacks. No Iranian infrastructure is harmed in these attacks.

    And Iraqi resentment against the U.S. for their losses grows. So there — this is in Iran's interest and against the U.S. interest.

    To Bilal's point, we are not paying attention to the fact that the Iraqis are protesting against the influence of Iran and groups like Kataib Hezbollah on their attempts to reform their own governments.

    You have remnants of a government that are all Iranian-backed and Iranian-controlled still calling the shots. And all international attention is now on with the U.S. is doing, instead of on what the Iraqi people really want.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So is the U.S. falling into a trap?

  • Kirsten Fontenrose:

    It's not that we fallen into a trap as a country.

    I think — I think we don't have a choice right now, because we do have men and women on the ground who are sitting in harm's way. We have not given them the authorities to respond previously. We haven't as a country legislated to allow action, kinetic action, against the Iran threat network.

    So we have a training mission in Iraq that is there to work with the Iraqi armed forces. And there's — they do not have the authority to protect themselves in insufficient ways. So, we don't have a choice right now but to react in a way that protects them.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Bilal Wahab, but do we have a choice? And do we have a choice on targets?

    Some of the other criticisms by Iraqi officials about these strikes on Sunday was that especially the ones in the west of the country targeted some of the fighters who are fighting ISIS, even though, yes, they're backed by Iran, but they are fighting ISIS? And yet the U.S. attacked them.

    Is that not a concern?

  • Bilal Wahab:

    That could be a concern, but that — I think that is a nuanced detail.

    Kataib Hezbollah is part and parcel of the Iraqi grievance, the protest movement, on one hand. On the other, they have clearly defied the Iraqi state.

    Let's look at the targets. There were five targets. Three of them were in Iraq. The other two were in Syria. Why is an Iraqi group fighting in Syria? They're not taking orders from the Iraqi state. They're not serving an Iraqi interest. They're serving a non-Iraqi interest.

    So they are a legitimate target as far as targets go. However, the part that is worrying more for the Iraqis, aside from turning the headlines from the grievances of the Iraqi people and reforming the Iraqi government into the victimhood of these groups, is what happened in Syria, the one-off shot on the Assad military base after the Assad regime used chemical weapons — he crossed the red line. The United States acted.

    Now, that was a one-off. That didn't create deterrence, because Assad is still powerful and recovered from that. Those Iraqis that seek a greater U.S. engagement in support of reform, they're afraid that this is also a one-off, just because the Hashd or the Iraqi militias have crossed an American red line on one hand.

    And they're afraid that the withdrawal of U.S. troops is only a tweet away, again as it happened in Syria.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Kirsten Fontenrose, you have worked for the president.

    Is the withdrawal of U.S. troops just a tweet away?

  • Kirsten Fontenrose:

    I don't think so.

    I actually think that we're going to see a ramp-up in terms of action.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, you think this is not a one-off? This is the beginning of a slightly different strategy?

  • Kirsten Fontenrose:

    I think it is the beginning of a slightly different strategy.

    The president will have asked the question, why should we not pull out? If we are there with a training mission, and if this training mission is now training forces that are under the control of an Iran-backed Ministry of Defense, why should we leave our people in harm's way? Why should we not just pull them all out?

    But the answer he will have gotten from DOD now has shifted. Department of Defense was really where the administration had the most pushback against escalation with Iran in Iraq, because of the safety of our forces there, the thinking being that, if we did anything to escalate, then attacks would begin in true form against our personnel.

    Well, that's happened. So we have crossed that Rubicon. And what the president will have watched is the U.S. public opinion it. And there are not the outcries against additional action. We do have men and women in harm's way. He has until January 7 to act in terms of imminent danger without a congressional opportunity to stop him.

    So I think we're going to see a bit more action in terms of addressing imminent threats only. That's all the authorities can cover at the moment, but I think it will be an interesting few days.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Kirsten Fontenrose of The Atlantic Council, Bilal Wahab of Washington Institute for Near East Policy, thanks very much to both.

  • Bilal Wahab:

    Thank you.

  • Kirsten Fontenrose:

    Thanks for having me.

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