Skip to main content

Is the Trump Administration More Interested in Combatting Tehran Than ISIS?

First Washington went after the nuclear deal, now it wants Iran-backed defenses against ISIS out of Iraq.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson exits his plane on October 24th, 2017.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson exits his plane on October 24th, 2017.

The White House has made repeated commitments to fight ISIS and global security threats, but analysts say that it now seems Washington's opposition to Tehran, where the Iranian government had been abiding by deals penned with the Obama administration, trumps all else.

On a visit to Saudi Arabia Sunday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson commented that the fight against the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria armed group was coming to a close in Iraq and that it was time for foreign fighters against the group to leave. "Iranian militias that are in Iraq, now that the fight against Daesh and ISIS is coming to a close, those militias need to go home," Tillerson said. ("Daesh" is the Arabic-language acronym for ISIS.) First, a quick fact check: The ISIS-fighting Popular Mobilization Front, an Iraqi umbrella organization of mostly Shia militia, receives support from Iran—it is not, as Tillerson suggested, comprised of Iranian fighters.

In addition to inaccuracy, Tillerson's comments display what many would call an Iranophobic subtext, much like the anti-Iranian sentiment that led Washington to ignore international pleas to stand by the Iran Nuclear Deal. This time, the United States is arguing against an Iran-backed military group that—although controversial—has recently helped Baghdad regain ground from ISIS.

"[President Donald] Trump's new call to arms against Iran will further complicate the situation in Iraq, where American military advisors go to work literally next door to the Iranians," says Alan Noory, a political science professor at northern Iraq's American University of Iraq Sulaimani. "Tillerson is juggling two balls at the same time: expressing serious concerns about [the militia] as 'legal' yet unconstitutional armed forces that are a huge threat to the future of democracy and communal peace in Iraq on one hand, and trying to link that to Trump's Iran not-much-of-a-policy policy."

That anti-policy of sorts has been not just misguided but also unwaveringly hostile, analysts say.

Tillerson's "comments show a lack of a clear understanding of the region's complexities, which could lead to misguided policies," says Ali Vaez, the senior Iran analyst at International Crisis Group, a think tank that studies international conflict resolution and prevention. "Iran's influence in Iraq is innate and neither persuasion nor pressure can eliminate it. Only engagement can balance it. The U.S. should not adopt the zero-sum policies of Iran's regional rivals."

Tillerson's comments certainly roiled Iraq Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who countered that it is not for a U.S. secretary of state to determine when the PMF leaves Iraq.

"The Trump administration seeks to drive a wedge between Iraq and Iran, or at least convince Prime Minister Haider Abadi to keep his distance from Iran."

Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who was central to bringing about the Iran nuclear deal with the administration of former President Barack Obama, scoffed at Tillerson's remarks. "Exactly what country is it that Iraqis who rose up to defend their homes against ISIS return to? Shameful U.S. [foreign policy], dictated by petrodollars," he wrote on Twitter. Zarif observed that Washington's antagonism to Tehran is driven by its relationship both to Israel and to Saudi Arabia, both of which have sought to deflate Tehran as a means of maintaining their own political and military gravity in the region.

It bears recalling here that Trump campaigned on promises of non-intervention in foreign politics, particularly the catastrophic, costly foreign wars wrought by former President George W. Bush. It was this sense of isolationism that prompted many across the Middle East to suggest the Trump administration might usher in an era of unprecedented self-determination in Arab states. It is now apparent that is not the case.

"Tillerson's statement is part of the U.S. ratcheting pressure on Iran," says Fawaz Gerges, an international relations professor at the London School of Economics and author of ISIS: A History. "The Trump administration seeks to drive a wedge between Iraq and Iran, or at least convince Prime Minister Haider Abadi to keep his distance from Iran."

The effect is to create unprecedented challenges for Baghdad, still struggling to make its way after the chaos wrought by the prolonged U.S. occupation there.

"The Iraqi prime minister finds himself between a rock and hard place. He wants to chart an independent foreign policy away from Iran, but he is too dependent on Iranian military and political support. He cannot afford to do what the Americans ask him to do overtly because that would trigger an internal revolt by Iran's powerful allies in Iraq," Gerges adds.

Abadi's response was to insist that the PMF is "the hope of the country and the region," Al Jazeera reported, citing a statement from Abadi's office. Baghdad's rejection of Washington's incursions arguably dealt a notable blow to Washington's reputation in the region.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi gives a press conference on October 5th, 2017.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi gives a press conference on October 5th, 2017.

"The suggestion has already been rejected by the Iraqi prime minister, so it is inconsequential like most, if not all, statements about the region given by the Trump administration," says Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, an international studies professor and chair of the Centre for Iranian Studies at the University of London. "The Trump administration displays a lack of strategic vision and diplomatic intelligence. The role of Iran is too complex for them to comprehend."

Analysts warn against the kind of inflexible, ideological antagonism to Iran that led Trump to decertify the Iran nuclear deal earlier this month. At first, Trump accused Tehran of not abiding by the deal, but was contradicted by a host of global actors—including international observers of Tehran's cooperation. By the time he decertified the deal on October 15th, his reasoning was yet unclear: It's simply not in the U.S.'s interest, he said. Washington's traditional allies disagreed, pledging to maintain the agreement, even without the U.S., in what amounts to a sign that Trump is causing fissures with the rest of the so-called Free World.

But Trump's moments of erratic hostility to Iran could do much more harm than burn bridges with Europe.

Crisis Group's Vaez warns that Washington's baseless antagonism against Iran could deter from counterterrorism efforts and precipitate the rise of another, even more treacherous foe in the future. "The rivalry between Iran and the U.S. and its allies could further destabilize Iraq and create the space for the emergence of ISIS 2.0 or Al Qaeda 3.0," Vaez says.

Several analysts have blamed the pitfalls of U.S. policy in the region for the emergence of ISIS and other such groups. The effects of the administration's gaffes and intransigence as regards Iran could very well result in threats to global security more serious than even ISIS.