Is Trump's 'maximum pressure' campaign blowing up in Iraq?

By Nahal Toosi

President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran is coming under some maximum pressure of its own.

As protesters tried to breach the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday, and Iraqi and American officials feuded over the necessity of recent U.S. airstrikes, critics blamed the chaos on the Trump team’s laserlike focus on cracking the Islamist regime in Iran.

The “maximum pressure” initiative is backfiring, former U.S. officials and other Iran watchers argued. They said it was far too heavy on economic sanctions and military deterrence, far too light on serious diplomatic outreach, and not focused enough on the other countries caught in the middle. Trump and many of his aides often send mixed messages on what they seek from Iran, the critics said — ranging from regime change to narrow nuclear talks.

“It’s not working because the administration has no idea why it’s applying pressure or what it wants,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former Pentagon and State Department official in the Obama administration. “It’s not even a maximum pressure strategy. It’s a maximum pressure policy.”

Even some supporters of “maximum pressure” quibble with the administration’s execution. Lebanon and Iraq, for instance, have seen major anti-corruption protests in recent months, with many demonstrators chanting against Iranian interference in their countries. But the U.S. has done little beyond offer verbal support, squandering a chance to lure those countries out of Iran’s orbit.

“There’s a huge opening that we’re not exploiting,” said Ilan Berman, senior vice president of the conservative American Foreign Policy Council.

As reports came in of the embassy attack in Iraq, U.S. officials confirmed they were planning to announce new sanctions on Iran, although they declined to give a time frame.

“Leadership is huddling on next steps,” one U.S. official said.

The Pentagon said it was sending more troops to help secure the embassy. The staffing there had already been reduced significantly over the past year, and the U.S. consulate in the Iraqi city of Basra was closed in 2018, but a full U.S. diplomatic pullout from Iraq has not been announced.

Diplomatic security is an especially sensitive issue for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who, as a Republican congressman, made a name for himself castigating his predecessor Hillary Clinton over her handling of the 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including a U.S. ambassador.

“Pompeo has long dreaded having a Benghazi-type event on his watch,” a former senior Trump administration official said.

As tensions mounted this week, Pompeo spoke with leaders in Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates, all of whom view Tehran as an adversary, in a bid to show that the U.S. has plenty of support in its anti-Iran tactics. But it was not clear whether Pompeo would travel to Iraq — he’s scheduled to visit Ukraine and several of its neighbors starting later this week.

Pompeo did speak with Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi and President Barham Salih. The Iraqis “assured the secretary that they took seriously their responsibility for and would guarantee the safety and security of U.S. personnel and property,” the State Department said.

Reports from Baghdad, however, suggested that Iraqi officials may have turned a blind eye as protesters headed toward the heavily guarded U.S. diplomatic compound.

The developments this week were a remarkable turn of events for the United States in Iraq, where it maintains some 5,000 troops nearly 17 years after U.S. troops invaded the country and toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

In recent months, it seemed that U.S. efforts to isolate neighboring Iran’s clerical leadership were bearing some regional fruit, and not just by depleting Tehran’s coffers. Trump aides pointed to the protests in Iraq and Lebanon — as well as demonstrations in Iran itself — as proof that people across the region are tired of the Iranian regime’s antics.

“What we are also seeing regionally — the protests in Iran, the protests in Iraq, and the protests in Lebanon are a consistent rejection of the Iranian model of undermining sovereignty, endemic corruption, weaponizing sectarian grievances and destabilizing the region broadly,” a senior State Department official told reporters Monday.

But Iran-affiliated militias in Iraq also appeared willing to take advantage of the moment.

Many such militias are technically part of Iraq’s security forces and are known as the Popular Mobilization Forces. They have found at least one common cause with the U.S. in the past: battling the vicious Islamic State terrorist group.

Still, the U.S. alleges such Iran-backed militias have been behind a string of attacks aimed at American forces in Iraq. U.S. officials said they pleaded with Iraqi leaders to do more to prevent such attacks and protect American troops but that not enough was done.

Last week, an attack blamed on an Iran-backed group, Kataeb Hezbollah, killed a U.S. contractor and wounded several U.S. troops. The U.S. responded by bombing the militia’s weapons storage sites and command posts at three locations in Iraq and two in Syria; some two dozen militiamen were reported killed.

The U.S. retaliation alarmed Iraqi leaders, who described it as an attack on their forces, in this case the “45th and 46th Brigade.” Iraq’s National Security Council denounced the U.S. attack as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and said it would review its ties with the United States.

By Tuesday, protesters described in various media accounts as militiamen likely backed by Iran breached the embassy grounds, though not its main buildings, and set some fires. The scene was an ominous reminder of past such assaults, including in Benghazi and the 1979 storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran that led to the Iran hostage crisis.

Amid reports of U.S. diplomats barricading themselves inside, Democrats and other critics of the Trump administration said the chaos in Iraq was a natural consequence of a maximum pressure strategy that appeared to have no clear — or realistic — goals beyond pressure itself.

A set of 12 demands that Pompeo laid out last year for Iran is so broad that analysts argue it’s effectively a call for regime change and thus a nonstarter for Tehran.

Trump’s detractors noted that Iran’s regime appears firmly in control of its territory — it crushed the recent spate of protests there in part by blocking the internet — and that it is suspected to have carried out a string of attacks on international oil tankers and Saudi oil facilities.

“The results [of the maximum pressure campaign] so far have been more threats against international commerce, emboldened and more violent proxy attacks across the Middle East, and now, the death of an American citizen in Iraq,” said Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Trump administration officials deny that the maximum pressure campaign is the culprit in the escalating tensions. They argue that had the U.S. not responded to the Kataeb Hezbollah attacks, that would have invited even more Iranian aggression.

“President Trump directed our armed forces to respond in a way the Iranian regime will understand. And this is the language they speak, and so we’re confident about that,” the senior State Department official told reporters on Monday.

Despite the provocations that U.S. intelligence officials have linked to Tehran, Trump has hesitated to strike targets inside Iran, saying he wants to avoid a bloody, costly war. But, along with ramping up sanctions, he has sent thousands more troops to the Middle East in hopes of deterring Tehran.

Trump also has repeatedly said he wants to talk to Iranian leaders, and he came close to doing so during September’s United Nations General Assembly. Publicly, however, there has been little movement on the diplomatic front, something critics say is as much the fault of hawkish Trump aides as the Iranians themselves.

The president used Twitter on Tuesday to convey some tough rhetoric toward Iran in the wake of the embassy attack, saying it “will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities. They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat. Happy New Year!”

In a tweet 20 minutes later, he simply wrote: “The Anti-Benghazi!”

Trump also appealed to Iraqis in a tweet that, once again, offered little beyond verbal support. “To those many millions of people in Iraq who want freedom and who don’t want to be dominated and controlled by Iran, this is your time!” Trump wrote.

The White House added that Trump had spoken with Iraq’s prime minister and that he “emphasized the need to protect United States personnel and facilities in Iraq.”

Even if Trump and his aides pursue a major effort to bring Iran back into negotiations, Tehran is likely to hesitate, Goldenberg and others said.

The clerics have little reason to trust that the U.S. will honor an agreement. After all, it was Trump who walked away from the Iran nuclear deal, which was negotiated under his predecessor, Barack Obama, and re-imposed economic sanctions on Iran. Former Obama aides say the Iran nuclear deal helped calm relations between Washington and Iran, with benefits for the stability of contested Middle Eastern countries like Iraq.

“You don’t start a diplomatic negotiation by torching an agreement that already exists and then expecting your adversary to come back to the table for any kind of good-faith negotiation,” Goldenberg said.

Supporters of the maximum pressure campaign counter that the Iran nuclear deal gave Tehran more money and leeway to engage in non-nuclear military activity beyond its borders.

They say Iran’s lashing out in Iraq and beyond is a sign that the Trump approach is working.

If anything, they argue, now’s the time to ramp up the pressure, so that an even weaker Iran will eventually be forced to negotiate a new, more comprehensive agreement that goes beyond the Obama-era nuclear deal.

“The regime is facing a severe economic and political crisis at home and an open rebellion in Iraq and Lebanon against the corrupt governments and militias it has installed,” said Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank that advocates a tough line against Iran. “The administration should keep turning the screws financially, increase the military pressure and back the protesters.”

Berman, though, said the U.S. also should see what more incentives it can offer to countries such as Iraq and Lebanon to side with Washington over Tehran. That could include anything from trade agreements, to aid conditioned on governmental reform, to promises to become more deeply involved to supporting infrastructure projects, Berman said.

“The broader point would be that you don’t have to rely on the Iranians because we’re present and more engaged,” he said.

It won’t be easy. For one thing, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia Hezbollah is a major political player in Lebanon, and concerns over its role are believed to be one reason the U.S. temporarily delayed releasing a $105 million military aid package to the country this past year.

Aside from often corrupt coordination among their security and intelligence forces, Iraq and Iran — who once fought a brutal war with each other — have in more recent years tried to increase their economies’ integration. Baghdad views Iranian investment as key to helping its business sector; Iran views Iraq as a crucial partner amid the strain of U.S. sanctions.

And even while anti-Iran sentiment may be on the rise in Iraq, anti-American sentiment has lurked there for years, especially since the U.S. invasion of the country in 2003.

Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.