Ten rockets struck Ain al-Asad airbase this month, where about 2,000 U.S. personnel are currently stationed. No casualties have so far been reported, but one American civilian contractor died of a heart attack during the strike. This is the latest outbreak of growing tensions between the United States and Iran. Last week, the United States bombed Iranian proxy targets in Syria, along the Iraqi border, in retaliation for rocket attacks against U.S. targets in Erbil last month. These military actions between the United States and Iranian proxies are taking place amidst the United States pursuing a diplomatic track to diffuse tensions with Iran and to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal.
Many experts applauded the Biden administration’s effort to pursue both diplomacy and military action simultaneously. The Brookings Institution’s Suzanne Maloney tweeted soon after the U.S bombing of Iranian-aligned proxies that the “Biden admin [is]demonstrating US can walk and chew gum at the same time. Nuclear diplomacy can (& must) coexist with US readiness to push back against Iranian proxies that seek to harm Americans. Signals that Iran policy will not be Obama retread.”
Around this time last year, a similar attack was launched by Iranian proxy forces against Ain al-Asad, which heightened both U.S. and Iranian brinkmanship, heightening the threat of war. This attack in March of 2020 came soon after a U.S. airstrike targeted and killed Major General Qassem Soleimani, the leader of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
This current escalation will be a test for the Biden administration, as well as its regional allies, including the Baghdad and Erbil governments, and allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). How can Iraq, Arab Gulf states, and the United States work together to limit Iranian regional influence and to mitigate regional conflict?
National Security Priorities Under the Biden Administration
As the Biden administration outlined in the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, American foreign policy “requires a new and broader understanding of national security.” The document laid out these three areas of focus:
Defend and nurture the underlying sources of American strength, including our people, our economy, our national defense, and our democracy at home;
Promote a favorable distribution of power to deter and prevent adversaries from directly threatening the United States and our allies, inhibiting access to the global commons, or dominating key regions; and
Lead and sustain a stable and open international system, underwritten by strong democratic alliances, partnerships, multilateral institutions, and rules.
Inherent in the priorities outlined in this national security document is a sense that the Biden administration is focused on restoring the strength of traditional processes and institutions, such as rebuilding traditional alliances, strengthening international institutions, and recommitting to multilateralism, while also creating new policy priorities that do indeed require more collective action than ever before—such as battling COVID-19 and future public health crises, climate change, technological threats, and global economic fragility that has opened the door even further to the forces of authoritarianism and nativism.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken also gave his first major foreign policy speech this week where he outlined how the United States was seeking to charter a new foreign policy course that is “not disconnected from our daily lives,” and as Biden has said himself, a foreign policy that advances the interests of America’s middle class. In many ways, Biden’s foreign policy appears more focused on U.S. domestic priorities than ever before.
But in reality, the new administration is looking to strike a middle ground between those calling for U.S. disengagement for global affairs and those supporting greater interventionism. They are looking to broaden the concept of national and human security to counter the new manifestations of global security threats and to make the case for continued U.S. engagement in international relations. This rejects the binary of military intervention versus total disengagement and represents a valiant effort to strike a balance between diplomacy, military actions, and diversifying areas of strategic engagement between the United States and its allies.
This strategy is being put to the test in the Middle East primarily through the prism of the administration’s Iran policy, which is seeking to walk a tightrope of both diplomacy and military deterrence. US-GCC relations constitute an integral aspect of this, as does the fate of Iraq.
U.S. interests in Iraq
Iraq has found itself deeply sequestered in U.S.-Iran tensions since the 2003 U.S. invasion of the country, which opened the door to greater Iranian influence in the country and realigned fault lines across the Middle East while also fomenting widespread violence and the expansion of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS. This was one of the pivotal moments that the American public’s dismay with “forever wars” began to gain steam.
Iranian proxies exert enormous political, military, and societal influence in Iraq. These militias launch strikes against U.S. targets, thus directly harming U.S. citizens and strategic interests in Iraq and in the wider region. Battling the influence of these proxies in Iraq is a key element of the United States’ security interests in the region, as well as its nuclear negotiations with Iran. However, as Ranj Alaaldin emphasizes, military action is but one element of curbing their influence. In the longer term, local actors in both Iraq and Syria must strengthen their capacity to counteract the influence of these militias through military and non-military avenues. He argues, “At the root of the challenge is the instability of the local political environment, as well as weak institutions that lack the ability to deliver services and security to communities, and hold to account the militia groups that operate outside of the state.”
In other words, an essential pillar to battling the influence of Iranian proxies in Iran must focus on rebuilding local institutions, improving governance, and increasing economic prospects. This means that securing U.S national security interests will depend heavily on supporting stability and economic investment in Iraq. This is where other American allies can play a major role—notably the GCC countries.
Arab Gulf states can play a greater role in Iraq
GCC countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE have attempted several goodwill measures to counteract strained relations with the Biden administration, including ending their blockade of Qatar, expressing support for diplomacy with Iran, releasing political prisoners, and publicly supporting diplomacy in regional flashpoints such as Yemen and Libya. Both countries were major Trump allies and have come under fire from Biden and top security officials for the wars in Yemen and Libya, human rights violations, and their role in fomenting conflict in the Middle East more broadly.
Gulf states are reliant upon the United States for much of their regional security, and no other country can play this sort role at this point in time. These states are concerned that the United States will continue its disengagement from the region, and understandably so given the hostile domestic political climate regarding U.S. engagement in the Middle East. However, the Biden administration appears to be ready to actually increase U.S. engagement through diplomacy and areas of cooperation outside of traditional military engagement, including cooperation in climate change, public health threats, nuclear deterrence, and technological threats. The Biden administration’s expanded view on human security needs to be embraced by Gulf states in strategic settings like Iraq and supported with greater levels of foreign investment and development aid.
If Gulf states want the United States to remain committed to acting as a regional security guarantor, they need to engage in multilateral support for U.S. interests, including nuclear diplomacy with Iran and supporting stability in Iraq. Increasing foreign investment and development aid to Iraq should be a priority for Arab Gulf States and an essential element in their bilateral ties with the United States. While it is still too early to tell, Gulf states appear to be supporting efforts to stymie regional conflict on multiple fronts. Saudi Arabia is spearheading the end of the Gulf feud with Qatar, UAE is calling for talks with Iran, Oman is supporting mediation in Yemen, and Qatar is seeking to mediate between the US and Iran. This newfound spirit of GCC cooperation needs to include a more coordinated strategy on stabilizing Iraq.
Are Iraq-GCC relations improving?
There are signs that this is already happening. Last month, a GCC delegation visited Iraq. Secretary-General Nayef Al Hajraf promised that they would support efforts to support Iraq stability and economic development. They discussed expanding trade ties and supplying electricity from the Gulf region to help mitigate Iraq’s electricity cuts. Al Hajraf also expressed support for counterterrorism efforts in Iraq. Over the last year under Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and Finance Minister Ali Allawi, Iraq has asked for $3 billion in debt relief from Kuwait (which it owed as reparation after the 1990-1991 Gulf War) and has sought out greater Saudi investment in Iraq’s electricity, agriculture, and telecommunications sector to improve its economic woes.
Integral to U.S. foreign policy priorities in the Middle East is stabilizing Iraq. Expanded economic and security support from Gulf states can help mitigate the reach of Iranian proxies based there. The United States is focused on returning to the Iran nuclear deal, ending the war in Yemen, and mitigating regional conflict at a broader level. Nowhere is this more pressing than in Iraq, where the United States and the GCC need to pursue a broader security relationship that includes greater support for economic revival, public health, education, and governance. The Biden administration’s renewed focus on multilateral diplomacy in the Middle East and curing Iranian regional influence must include Iraq.