To understand how the hurried evacuation of U.S. special operations forces from Yemen is connected to Iran’s regional strategy, look no further than Atheel al-Nujaifi, the Sunni governor of Iraq’s Nineveh Province.
On Sunday, Nujaifi sent a letter to U.S. leaders warning that his country was at a tipping point with regard to Iranian influence. As U.S. forces wait on the sidelines in an Iranian-led campaign to liberate Tikrit, Nujaifi said he worried that his country was being lost to Iran.
In other words, what has just happened in Yemen — where an Iranian-armed and advised militia has overthrown a pro-American government — could happen soon in Iraq.
Nujaifi, whose province includes Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul, addressed his letter to Representative Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and asked that it be placed into the record for a hearing this week on the administration’s strategy against the Islamic State. The Iraqi governor also sent copies to President Barack Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, Secretary of State John Kerry and John Allen, the retired Marine general who is U.S. envoy to the coalition against the Islamic State.
Royce told me that he agrees with Nujaifi that the administration has failed to challenge Iran’s efforts to expand throughout the Middle East. “The fact that the governor is compelled to reach out directly to us in Congress speaks volumes about the sway that Iran holds over critical positions in the government in Baghdad,” he said.
Nujaifi wrote that Iran “has essentially taken over the fight in Iraq against ISIS.” He added, “But the threat goes even deeper — there is a grave and immediate threat that Iran is taking over decisive points in the government of Iraq itself.”
Some may see that as a statement of the obvious. It has been a refrain for years that America did the fighting in Iraq but Iran won the war. Iran’s Shiite government already has considerable influence with the Shiite-majority that rules Iraq today
But this was not always the case. In 2008, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sent forces to fight Iranian-backed special groups in Basra. And even though many Sunni Arabs boycott the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad today, some Sunni politicians, including Nujaifi and new Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi, are still trying to protect Iraq’s independence from Iran.
Since America’s troop withdrawal in 2011, Iran’s influence has grown, but Iraq is still in play. When Obama agreed last summer to begin bombing Islamic State targets and send military advisers to the country, many Iraqi Sunnis were hopeful that American influence would blunt Iran’s expansionism.
Nujaifi is now warning that this isn’t what happened. He said in his letter that he still has faith that Iraq’s prime minister, Haidar al-Abadi, was working to protect his country’s independence. But at the same time, Nujaifi warned about several recent developments that would undermine this goal.
The first is the presence in Iraq of Qassem Suleimani, the head of Iran’s powerful Quds Force. He said Suleimani led the campaign in Iraq to funnel roadside bombs used by insurgents against U.S. military convoys in the last decade.
Nujaifi also warned about recent public statements from the leaders of Shiite militias welcoming the Iranian presence in Iraq and the role of Abu-Mahdi al-Muhandis, a militia leader who is now in charge of the Iraqi volunteers fighting the Islamic State. In his letter he said that Muhandis, too, was responsible for terrorist attacks on U.S. soldiers.
Al-Nujaifi writes that he was particularly worried about Iran’s recent shipment of Fajr-5 artillery rockets and Fateh-110 missiles to Iraq’s military. “In addition to the billions of dollars in weapons and military equipment that Iran has previously provided,” he wrote, “this gives Iran the crucial ability to directly influence, even control, elements of the Iraq Government.” These weapons also make the Shiite militias deadlier, and undercut the authority of Defense Minister Obeidi.
Over the last two years, U.S. intelligence agencies watched a similar development in Yemen, with Iranian arms shipments to the Houthi militias. A recently retired senior U.S. intelligence official told me the Houthis were poorly organized and ineffective until they started getting better arms from Iran.
Now that the U.S. has no presence in Yemen — the embassy was evacuated in February along with the CIA station in Sana, the capital — other regional actors are filling the void. On Monday, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud Al Faisal, said his country was preparing steps to counter Iranian aggression. Over the weekend, Yemen’s weakened president, Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi, asked other Gulf States to intervene as well.
Yet the U.S. seems remarkably blase about all this. On Monday, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf acknowledged the Iranian role in arming the Houthis, but said that she did not expect Kerry and his negotiating team to raise Iran’s role in Yemen with the Iranian delegation at nuclear negotiations this week in Switzerland.
“Those conversations are complicated and difficult enough as it is without putting in all these other difficult issues,” Harf said. “Often issues in the news come up sort of in passing on the sidelines of these conversations, but the negotiations are focused on the nuclear issue.”
If a deal is reached before the end of March, it will require even more sanctions relief for Iran in exchange for more intrusive inspections. Royce said that even before the negotiations began, when the U.S. unfroze some Iranian assets at the end of 2013, ambassadors for Gulf countries predicted the cash would be used to destabilize the region: “We’re seeing today what every Gulf ambassador predicted Iran would do, we’re seeing Iran destabilize the region.”
U.S. allies in the Middle East — from Israel to Saudi Arabia — are certainly worried about Iran’s nuclear program. But as they watch events unfold in Iraq and Yemen, they must also wonder whether an agreement from such an aggressive country will be worth the paper it’s written on.