Is war with Iran on the horizon?

So far, Iraq has always been neutral in the face of a possible war between Iran and the USA. But recent Israeli air raids on Iranian bases in Iraq reveal a different reality: Tehran's rulers apparently can no longer count on the neutrality of its neighbouring country, writes Ali Sadrzadeh

By Ali Sadrzadeh

"Trump talks, Netanyahu acts and Iran loses its 'strategic depth'," the newspaper Al Sharq al Awsat wrote at the end of July. ʹStrategic depth' is a paraphrase for a buffer of Iranian allies in Syria, Iraq and southern Lebanon. The satisfaction in these lines is unmistakable. The Arabic daily newspaper published in London belongs to the Saudi royal family. It appears in almost all Arab capitals and is considered influential and opinion-forming.

The facts speak for Al Sharq al Awsat. In July, Israel bombed Iranian targets in Iraq with its modern F-35i stealth jet fighters, the newspaper reports. The attacks were aimed at bases of the Shia Hashd Al Shaabi militias, who have close ties with Iran.

The first attack took place on the night of 19 July and was directed against a base in Amerli in the Iraqi province of Saladin. Ten days later, a second Israeli attack followed, this time bombing the Ashraf base, 90 kilometres northeast of Baghdad and only 80 kilometres from the Iranian border. "Diplomatic sources" confirmed this, Al Sharq al Awsat wrote.

Two days after this report, other Arab media also wrote about the incident and gave details of the objectives of the nightly Israeli air operations. The targets were apparently Iranian advisers at the bases as well as large camps with ballistic missiles that had just arrived from Iran. The Israel Times and other Israeli media published the news, but added that, as always, there was no official confirmation. There was talk of 40 Iranian military experts killed and dozens of Lebanese Hezbollah fighters injured, as well as the destruction of numerous missiles.

Several Israeli media outlets posited that with these air raids, Israel had entered a new phase of anti-Iranian operations. Whereas Israeli planes and missiles have targeted Iranian targets in Syria on an almost regular basis in the past, Iraq had now become the target and that not far from the Iranian border, wrote the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on 31 July.

Fighters belonging to the Hashd Al Schaabi Shia militias in Iraq (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/ C. Petit Tesson
Hat Israel seine Luftangriffe gegen irantreue Milizen von Syrien auf den Irak ausgeweitet? Die saudisch finanzierte, panarabische Zeitung „Al Sharq al Awsat“ berichtet, Israel habe im Juli mit seinen modernen Stealth-Düsenjägern vom Typ F-35i iranische Ziele im Irak bombardiert. Die Angriffe zielten auf Stützpunkte der schiitischen Milizen „Haschd Al Schaabi“, die Iran nahestehen. Sowohl das Regime in Teheran auch die israelische Regierung schweigen darüber. Israelische Experten vermuten die eigene Armee dahinter.

Speechlessness in Iran

In the Iranian media, however, one searched in vain for reports about the events. A "friend of Iran" merely twittered a short message on 20 July showing photos of a funeral ceremony in the West Iranian city of Kermanshah. A leading commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Abolfazl Sarabian, was buried. He had fallen in Iraq, read the tweet. Two days later, Fars, the Revolutionary Guard news agency, published a brief report about an Israeli air raid in Iraq, without giving further details. Otherwise there was silence.

The silence is understandable. Iraq is the most important link in the "strategic depth" of Iran. Should the US ever attack Iran, Iraq would be the first place where Iran would respond massively. Thousands of well-trained and battle-experienced Shia militias, trained and financed by Iran, are ready to take up the fight and, according to Tehranʹs calculations, there are plenty of targets in Iraq: US soldiers, US bases and US allies.

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In fact, Iraq is a neuralgic point in the USA's Iran strategy. Washington has not forgotten the bloody years after the fall of Saddam Hussein. At that time, the US military had to withdraw most of its troops after murderous terrorist acts, and the remaining soldiers were forced to protect themselves in bunkers.

If Israel begins attacking Iranian bases in Iraq now, before the USA has even taken action, this will alter a whole range of military calculations – in Tehran, as well as in Washington. Are these the harbingers of a great war to come? In Tehran, at any rate, they are apparently lost for words.

End of Iraqi neutrality?

Interestingly, the government in Baghdad has also remained silent about the recent Israeli attacks. The Iraqi silence may seem odd, but this silence is also meaningful: where will Iraq stand in the worst-case scenario? That is uncertain and the question remains unanswered.

"Why keep silent? Do you intend to break your promise?" the influential Iranian journalist Ali Mussawi Khalkhali asked Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi. Khalkhali is editor-in-chief of Iran Diplomacy, a portal that strives to explain Iranian foreign policy in an understandable way and with as little propaganda as possible.

"Is Iraq no longer neutral?" It was with this question that Khalkhali began his article, which was published in Iran Diplomacy on 1 August, three days after the last Israeli attack. He described the events objectively, as they had been reported days before in Israeli, Arab and Western media – and then asked: "Iran is being threatened from within Iraq and the Iraqi government remains silent. Iraq has allowed Israel to attack Iran on its territory. Will Iraq also remain silent if we strike back?"

For Iran Diplomacy, the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif is virtually a star that no one on the international stage can hold a candle to. The tributes to Zarif have reached new heights on the portal. Ever since he was sanctioned by the USA, Zarif has been celebrated as a hero whose arguments and interviews have driven the world power USA to despair.

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Indeed, the eloquent foreign minister always appears smiling and articulate in the Western media. Yet he is not taken seriously by his US counterpart, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. For Pompeo, Zarif is nothing more than a lackey to the Iranian revolutionary leader Ali Khamenei.

In defence of the sanctions against Zarif, Pompeo wrote in a tweet in Persian that Zarif was nothing more than a tool, someone left to clear up the mess made by others.

Zarif's offer to the USA

But it was precisely this man who received an unexpected invitation from the USA: Zarif could meet US President Donald Trump in the Oval Office.

Senator Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, made this diplomatic offer to Zarif at a meeting in New York on 15 July, according to an article published by The New Yorker magazine on 2 August.

With Trump's blessing, Paul finally met the Iranian foreign minister in the elegant residence of the Iranian ambassador on New York's Fifth Avenue. Apparently, this invitation is part of Trump's tactic to circumvent traditional diplomacy, as he did in the conflict with North Korea.

During the one-hour discussion, Zarif presented the Trump emissary with many ideas on how to get out of the nuclear impasse, The New Yorker continued.

According to the magazine, Zarif subsequently told a group of journalists that as a diplomat he "must always think about alternatives". If Trump wanted more, he would have to offer more. Iran could, for example, sign the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or sign a so-called Safeguards Agreement, which would allow unlimited and unannounced inspections of international experts in Iran.

Senator Rand Paul, on the other hand, issued an invitation on behalf of President Trump to Zarif for a meeting at the Oval Office for the same week, writes The New Yorker. A high-ranking official confirmed the invitation on 28 July in the White House: President Trump was always ready to talk to representatives of the Tehran leadership.

Zarif replied that he was not in a position to decide whether to meet Trump in the White House. He contacted Tehran and received the answer: not yet, The New Yorker continued. So much for the hero of Iranian foreign policy as celebrated by Iran Diplomacy.

"If you sanction diplomats, you will have less diplomacy," the AP news agency dubbed an article about the sanctions against Zarif. But there is not only less diplomacy: there is no diplomacy at all. The secret channels of communication seem to have dried up, everyone is preparing for the emergency. Israel has already taken action, the US is forging alliances in the Persian Gulf and the Europeans want to go their own way, which admittedly they have yet to find.

From Iran's point of view, however, it is much more dangerous that Iraq no longer wants to remain neutral in a possible war.

Ali Sadrzadeh

© Iran Journal / 2019

Ali Sadrzadeh is the Iran expert of Hessischer Rundfunk. He works as an editor for hr-iNFO. He was born in 1945 in Estahbanat, Iran. After graduating from high school and teacher training, he worked as a teacher in Tehran. In 1970 he came to Germany to study Psychology and Engineering in Kiel and then German and Political Science in Frankfurt. In 1980 he returned to Iran. He worked for DPA and Frankfurter Rundschau, since 1984 for hr. Ali Sadrzadeh was ARD correspondent in North Africa from 1990 to 1994.