A shocking report by Josh Rogin and Eli Lake of Bloomberg indicates that the United States military is not only sharing a base in Iraq for the Iran-backed militias (that in the past killed American heroes), but they’re also using the USAF to provide air support.
Two senior administration officials confirmed to us that U.S. soldiers and Shiite militia groups are both using the Taqqadum military base in Anbar, the same Iraqi base where President Obama is sending an additional 450 U.S. military personnel to help train the local forces fighting against the Islamic State. Some of the Iran-backed Shiite militias at the base have killed American soldiers in the past.
At the very least this means that American leaders are allowing our troops to spied on by groups that could use that intelligence if they’re ordered by Iran to attack U.S. force, an act these militias have executed before. This threat may deter the Obama administration from pressuring Tehran.
Some inside the Obama administration fear that sharing the base puts U.S. soldiers at risk. The U.S. intelligence community has reported back to Washington that representatives of some of the more extreme militias have been spying on U.S. operations at Taqqadum, one senior administration official told us. That could be calamitous if the fragile relationship between the U.S. military and the Shiite militias comes apart and Iran-backed forces decide to again target U.S. troops.
From a diplomatic perspective, this news will confirm fears across the region that the U.S. is realigning with Iran or that, at the very least, Washington is literally and figuratively providing fuel for Iran’s expansionist campaign across the region.
The U.S. is not directly training Shiite units of what are known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, but the USAF is flying close air support missions for those forces. The U.S. gives weapons directly only to the Iraqi government and the Iraqi Security Forces, but the lines between them and the militias are blurry. U.S. weapons often fall into the hands of terrorist groups like Iraqi Hezbollah.
Sometimes the military cooperation is even more explicit. Commanders of some of the hardline militias sit in on U.S. military briefings on operations that were meant for the government-controlled Iraqi Security Forces, a senior administration official said… “There’s no real command and control from the central government,” one senior administration official said. “Even if these guys don’t attack us… Iran is ushering in a new Hezbollah era in Iraq, and we will have aided and abetted it.”
The fears have straightforward implications for the future of any nuclear deal worked out with Iran.
The key is what Saudi Arabia decides to do. Will they look at a P5+1 deal plus cooperation between the U.S. and Iran in Iraq as a big enough threat to go nuclear itself as soon as possible? If they purchase a weapon from Pakistan or build a bomb over the medium term, then no force in the world short of a military campaign could prevent the Iran Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) from matching their capabilities. The Iranians will not stand by while Saudis go nuclear no matter what a deal is meant to prevent. This then becomes the worst of all worlds: the administration will have seeded a nuclear powder keg in the Middle East, damaged Washington’s alliances with its traditional moderate Muslim allies plus Israel, shredded the sanctions regime, and they wont even have a denuclearized Iran to show for it.
While Israel gets all the press for their objections to the Iran deal the Administration is rushing toward, the House of Saud feels just as abandoned as the Jewish state. The Saudis are very clear about their decision calculus: they’ll not wait for Iran to go nuclear, but they will develop or purchase nuclear weapons as son as they concludes that it’s inevitable that the Iranians will go nuclear.
The Obama administration has rolled out three arguments for why that’s not going to happen, at the risk of losing the ability to rationalize the JCPOA. The first is that the Saudis are too poor to go nuclear, which is difficult to square with the existence of the North Korean program. The second is that the Saudis are too afraid of an international oil embargo to go nuclear, which is an argument that – generously – does not immediately strike analysts as in line with geopolitics as it works in our reality.
The president has made security assurances to U.S. Gulf allies that Washington will continue to push back against Iranian regional expansionism they believe those assurances will sufficiently calm down the Arab states, convincing them they don’t have to go out on their own for protection.
Those security assurances are not likely to survive revelations that we’re helping Iran to creating the “Hezbollah era in Iran.” And as soon as the Saudis lose confidence in those assurances (if they have any now) the Kingdom will go nuclear and the Iranians will back out of the JCPOA to match them bomb for bomb.
Instead of a status quo of no deal and no nukes, President Obama will be creating a Middle East of no deal and lots of nukes. And even worse, the new Middle East will not be kept in balance by an Iran trying to throw off the yoke of sanctions crippling their economy. Thanks to any deal sealed with Iran, the U.S. will have squandered decades-old alliances and the painstakingly built international sanctions regime against Iran.