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Iran officials predict greater influence in Iraq and US withdrawal from Middle East

“Today the best and closest friend [of Iran] are the rulers of Iraq,” Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Major General Qasem Soleimani said in the city of Babol in northern Iran, according to a speech published on February 21. Quoted at length in Iranian media, he expounded on Iran’s role in the region and the willingness of the IRGC to be “martyrs” in its battle against adversaries. Two days later Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, hinted that US troop withdrawals would not end with Syria, but might include reduction of US forces in Iraq.

The two statements form part of an increasingly open rhetoric from Tehran that goes beyond the usual boasting and confrontational statements regarding US policy in the Middle East. They hint at specific Iranian interest in the US presence in Iraq and a belief in Tehran among senior regime members that the US withdrawal in Syria could serve Iran’s interests if Tehran can also bring pressure among its allies in Iraq.

Shamkhani, an Iranian Rear Admiral, was speaking about the close support Iran has provided Syria. His comments were quoted extensively at Tasnim News and also Aftabnews, while in English Iranian media played down his Iraq comments. “In my opinion the decision of US President Donald Trump about withdrawing from Syria is due to the realities imposed by the region on the United States,” he said. The US decision to reduce forces in Syria, made in mid-December, is based on Washington’s reading of reality on the ground, he indicated. “It is said that these troops are supposed to be transferred to Iraq, however the Iraqi government, parliament and nation strongly oppose the presence of US forces in that country.” He noted that there were strong sensitivities to the US military presence in Iraq. He said the sensitivities were “high.” America will have trouble, he predicted. “In my opinion, by the end of 2019, the United States will have to leave the rest of the region.” Trump had indicated on February 3 that US troops in Iraq could “watch Iran,” a statement that caused controversy in Iraq.

"By the end of 2019, the United States will have to leave the rest of the region"

These are precise predictions by the senior Iranian official. But he backed them up by indicating that Iran believes there are divisions among US allies. He argued that the UAE and Saudi Arabia do not have the same policies and that Kuwait, Oman and Qatar want to reduce tensions with Iran.

His comments come in the context of a major Iranian naval drill being carries out near the Straits of Hormuz. Asked about the potential threat to close the straits, he said that oil exports via the straits could be blocked in “several ways,” without going into detail. Tasnim’s English translation of his statement did not include this threat.

Shamkhani’s comments also came as Iran claimed it had been able to intersect US footage from a drone over Syria and Iraq. IRGC Aerospace Commander Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh said on February 22 that Iran had monitored footage from eight US drones and Iran released video appearing to show the feed from a US drone that was sent to destroy a second downed US drone. Iran’s PressTV said that the US feared the downed drone, which allegedly suffered a mechanical failure, “might be seized by resistance forces in Iraq and Syria.” The reference to Iraq paints Iraq and Syria as one country in terms of Tehran’s views of the “resistance” operating from both. This term is usually used for Iranian allied groups, such as Hezbollah.

Soleimani’s comments about the close alliance between Iranian allies in Iraq and Tehran were also an important symbol. Soleimani does not give long public speeches regularly. This one included threats against the US and Saudi Arabia with references to a militant attack on February 13 in Baluchestan and Sistan province that killed more than two dozen IRGC members. Soleimani's reference to the rulers of Iraq is likely due to his own intimate knowledge of Iraq as commander of the Quds Force. He helped advise Iraq on its war against Islamic State.

Another indication of Iran paying close attention to US troop changes between Iraq and Syria can be seen in a joint statement released after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on February 13. The statement “took note in this regard that the US decision on the withdrawal of its forces from Syria, if implemented, would be a state that would help strengthen stability and security.”

The two speeches also come in the context of increasing Iranian press coverage of threats to US forces in Iraq. This includes an article on February 2 in PressTV highlighting how a Shi’ite militia connected to the Popular Mobilization Units (Hashd al-Shaabi) had “stopped” a US patrol near Mosul. A January 15 article also claimed that a PMU unit had stopped a US recon mission in Anbar province. Iran said last year that US bases are within range of its ballistic missiles.

Of particular interest is that Iranian media tends to emphasize comments about the close relations with Iraq in Farsi while its headlines in English tend to emphasize that Iraqis oppose the US presence in Iraq. For instance a December 27 article in Mehr News asserts that “Iraqi MPs condemn Trump’s visit to Iraq, call for US withdrawal.” The PressTV reports about harassment of US forces in Anbar and Mosul are also in English. This indicates that Iranian media, which is influenced by the regime, seeks to portray Iraq's opposition to the US presence as indigenous abroad, while portraying Iraq as a key ally to Iran at home and highlighting Iran's influence in Iraq at home.

Taken together these articles paint a clear picture of Tehran’s increasingly aggressive stance regarding the US in Iraq and Syria. It illustrates that senior regime members are thinking that after the US drawdown in Syria that Iran can pressure the US to leave Iraq.

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