Iraq’s New Prime Minister Wants to Push Back against Iran, but He Needs America’s Help

March 25, 2020 | John Hannah
About the author: John Hannah is senior counselor at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Last week, Iraq’s president named Adnan al-Zurfi to serve as the new head of government, ending a political crisis that began in November when the then-prime minister stepped down due to mass protests. The nomination of Zurfi—a pro-American Shiite who appears acceptable to protestors—represents a defeat for Tehran, which had tried and failed to force the more pliable Mohammed Allawi into the position. To John Hannah, Zurfi has a chance to get his country out from under the thumb of the Islamic Republic:

Already, in the days leading up to Zurfi’s nomination, Iraqi militias [controlled by Tehran] targeted U.S. troops and diplomats in multiple rocket attacks, a significant escalation of their efforts to force an American withdrawal and claim some semblance of strategic victory for Iran. Efforts to intimidate, blackmail, and, if necessary, violently attack those supportive of Zurfi’s candidacy—including Zurfi himself—are not only possible, but likely.

The Trump administration should understand that Zurfi’s nomination is a sign that Iran is now on the defensive in Iraq. This situation carries great dangers of violent escalation as Iran flails to reassert its dominant position, but it also offers a strategic opportunity. Whether Washington has the bandwidth to take advantage as it rightly focuses on America’s own coronavirus crisis is an open question—a fact that no doubt gives Iran great heart.

Of course, if pro-Iranian militias continue to escalate their targeting of U.S. personnel, the administration will have little choice but to respond in some fashion. It should err on the side of strength, not restraint. Prominent militia leaders should be targeted à la the strike [on the senior Iranian general] Qassem Suleimani. Sanctions should be imposed on Iran’s most prominent allies, particularly [the Shiite cleric and militia leader] Muqtada al-Sadr.

Making clear that Iran’s proxies will pay a painful price for their aggression offers the best means not only of deterring further attacks on Americans, but also of keeping the pro-Iran camp on the defensive while exacerbating its divisions. The fact that it would also weaken the forces that now have a bullseye on Zurfi’s candidacy would be an added benefit, albeit one of potentially great strategic consequence for both Iraq and U.S. interests.

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