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Irina Tsukerman explains how the Iraqi incursion into the Kirkuk province has sparked a problematic situation for the US. However, she argues that the Iranian aid that Baghdad is receiving should have triggered the Trump administration to end its “hands-off approach” to the issue.

Iraqi forces in Kirkuk

Iraqi forces in Kirkuk Photo Credit: EPA-EFE

The current standoff between Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s national sovereignty claims in taking over the Kirkuk province and gaining control of the oil-rich fields has placed the US in a difficult position of having to mediate between allies in an attempt to preserve a semblance of stability in a region already plagued by diverse and persistent conflicts. Another NATO ally, Turkey, is likewise placing pressure in an already complicated situation. The US is bound by the terms of a defense treaty to defend other NATO members from all attacks, but Turkey sees even countries outside its own borders as its spheres of influence and has been increasingly aggressive in intervening in the course of events in areas it claims as its territory or potential for future conflicts.

Whether such an expansive interpretation of national interests merits support from other NATO members certainly merits reexamination, but in the instant case, the predicament is directly contributing to further complications and forces the US to have to juggle competing claims of legitimacy in a way that is inching closer to being unresolvable. However, Baghdad’s incursion into Kirkuk has crossed the lines of discussion and created a situation where discussing the conflicting interests of various parties in a diplomatic setting is becoming increasingly moot.

Reports of Kurds being forcibly displaced, coupled with actions that caused the Kirkuk’s Kurdish governor to flee the area altogether, defy Baghdad’s claim that the operation is in place merely to prevent the dissolution of the country. Likewise, Vice President Al-Maliki’s comments placing the blame for the creation of ISIS on Erbil in order to break up the country add disturbing and disingenuous undertones to this course of events.

Through it all, the US continues to issue statements claiming that it’s “closely monitoring the situation” and trying to mediate among all sides. Without a question, it’s in the US’ interests to avoid any action that would lead to deterioration of any possibility of returning to a diplomatic track or further destabilizing the region. However, the current hands-off approach not only plays into the hands of its enemies but emboldens action that goes far beyond the securing of Baghdad’s perceived interest in preserving its territorial integrity. 

How should, then, the US act in situations where its allies – one, a state armed directly with US weaponry, and another, a courageous nation that has been an important asset in the war against ISIS – are in a state of conflict? I would posit that the resolution of the instant scenario should be guided by the same norms the US utilizes in evaluating any situation where its allies come to a head.

First, how does the situation affect US national interests, in particular, any security considerations?

Second, does the US have binding defense treaties with either of the allies and what are the terms of those treaties? In the event that there is no such agreement, or where the agreement amounts to little more than arms trade or promises of assistance in the event of an invasion by outside forces, what is the nature of the relationship between the US and that ally?

Third, has either party involved in the conflict been the aggressor or violated any international laws, norms, or committed any acts deemed unconscionable during the course of the conflict?

Fourth, what role can the US constructively play in order to preserve good relations with both sides, and to mitigate possible damages, including minimizing the number of any casualties, property damage, population displacement and political and economic complications?

Fifth, are there any other factors to be taken into consideration, such as involvement of third parties, such as state and non-state actors, and their role in this conflict, and goals with respect to the US’ own interests and agendas?

Sixth, how are this situation and the US action or inaction affect US relations with other allies, who are likely to be affected by the conflict?

In the past, the US has tried to keep its involvement to a minimum or even stay completely neutral during wars between Pakistan and India, even when those wars took place during the Cold War and Pakistan was largely US-oriented while India had a far stronger relationship with the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, the nature of the US outlook on the matter was affected by the fact that the US-Pakistani relationship at the time was largely governed by the view that Pakistan played a role as part of buffer states and that US interests included backing any state that could either potentially fall under Soviet influence or could be helpful in preventing Soviet expansionism.

At the moment, however, the situation in the Middle East is in flux, and our stated goals and unarticulated considerations are far from black and white. Our limited goal of defeating ISIS in the area has been largely met with the help of both Baghdad and the Kurds. The next issue looming large on the minds of the administration and policy experts alike has been the containment of Iran’s aggression. Whether containment is the best way to characterize the current stand on Iran, whether it’s feasible, or the best possible course of action in the current climate are all questions deserving of independent evaluation. However, there is no doubt that Iran’s aggressive actions in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and elsewhere have given cause to concern in the White House, so much so that just a week ago, Trump placed the IRGC on the list of global terrorists. 

Balancing respect for the right to peaceful self-determination with the national sovereignty and territorial integrity rights of others would be a complicated matter under the best of circumstances, but there is one factor that shifts the tenor of the discussion altogether – the role of Iran and the IRGC in Baghdad’s forcible takeover of the Kirkuk province.

Baghdad had invited Iran’s tanks to its borders days prior to the invasion, so Iran’s involvement in the matter should come as no surprise. Those who have been following the events closely should be well aware that Iran’s interest in the matter is preventing similar secessionism from taking root among its own minorities, including the Kurds, who have grown restless and have had long-standing conflicts with the Iranian regime.

A joint operation between Iran and Iraq in this matter would be concerning enough, but the fact that Iran sent the IRGC, rather than its military or police forces, to participate in this operation should have been the red line for the US, changing the calculus of conflict. Baghdad’s invitation of the IRGC and continued involvement with Qasem Soleimani after the US had designated the IRGC a terrorist organization is an act of betrayal of whatever defense interests we have with Baghdad. It is indisputably a strike to our national security interests – because the US President has deemed that it is so and because the executive branch has taken decisive action in making clear that IRGC is a security threat. Admittedly, the administration sent some mixed signals with respect to the level of seriousness as to the enforcement of the new policy.

For instance, the administration seems to disregard the fact that the IRGC, as all other entities in Iran, get their marching orders directly from the Supreme Leader-guided regime. The IRGC is not an independent entity. It’s not a non-state terrorist organization. It is a central part of the Islamic Republic. So when Secretary of State Tillerson makes comments that the US will not interfere in the European trade with Iran, he is, in essence, saying that despite the fact that the US finds that Iran directly sponsors terrorism, it is okay for its allies to trade with Iran and that somehow it’s possible to separate trade and investment, from Iran’s other activities. The argument that has not worked in the designation of all of Hezbollah (interestingly, an Iranian proxy) as a terrorist entity is somehow still being applied to the Islamic Republic. It’s not helpful. 

Nevertheless, the new policy is what it is, and as such, requires some level of intervention if the IRGC directly and opens threatens US national security interests, which is exactly what it is doing at the moment. That becomes an overarching consideration. If other allies, including Turkey and Baghdad, refuse to recognize why the IRGC involvement is such a central concern to the United States and ignore this issue, their status as allies comes into question. Any actor that openly cooperates with the US enemies and aids and abets activity by US-designated terrorist organizations in a way that will likely directly impact US interests and security is not acting as a friend.

All other questions, under such circumstances, fade into the background. The first and foremost concern should be: how does this affect the US? The answer is simple: it is harmful to the US, the presence of its troops in the region, its relationship with other allies, and it’s most certainly detrimental to its new policy and the goals of countering Iranian aggression. The news that the IRGC, led by Qasem Soleimani, whose forces pressured PUK into giving up control of Kirkuk behind KRG leader Barzani’s back, has now established five military bases and headquarters in Kirkuk is both a disaster and an embarrassment. Continuing to deny Iran’s involvement will not make it so. Rather, by taking no action to deter the IRGC from spreading its influence in the area, we are openly contradicting our own policy, violating our own laws, betraying our own constituents who are relying on the US government for protection against enemies, and emboldening the openly adversarial Iranian regime. And that is all before we even get to our practical and moral obligations to the Kurds, our other important relationships in the region, or any other considerations. We are showing ourselves to have no principles, to be a lawless nation, that is incapable of consistently enforcing its own national security strategies, and by failing to stop the incursion of the IRGC into the Kirkuk province, we are opening ourselves to future attacks.