America, Turkey and Iran Could Be Headed Toward a Showdown

U.S. Soldiers fire an M777 A2 Howitzer in support of Operation Inherent Resolve at Platoon Assembly Area 14, Iraq. DVIDSHUB/Public domain

The three-way competition between Ankara, Tehran and Washington reveal the difficulties of combating the Islamic State. 

Note that Turkey is not a member of the U.S. coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq, though Ankara is a member in Syria. Turkey’s Special Forces present in northern Iraq to counter PKK and Turkmen population from Mosul and immediate vicinity thereof give Turkey incentives for coordinating with the anti-Islamic State coalition in northern Iraq. President Erdogan expressed regret for the peshmerga fighters killed when Turkish warplanes bombed Kurdish fighters in Iraq and Syria on April 25. This forceful operation exacerbated the complications for the U.S military campaign against the Islamic State, revealing difficulties inherent in the three-way competition among Ankara, Tehran and Washington.

On March 8, 2017, Hashem al-Mousawi, spokesman for the Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia militia al-Nujaba, gave an interview to Iran’s Tasnim News Agency. He highlighted the militia’s activities in Iraq and Syria. The spokesman accused Riyadh and Washington of being responsible for operations of the Islamic State. He said his militia would not permit foreign forces to remain in Mosul and accused the Trump administration of pressuring Baghdad to prevent the Shia Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) militia from entering Sunni cities liberated from the Islamic State.

In Al Monitor, on March 20, 2017, Zakiyeh Yazdanshenas penned a post, “The coming Iran-U.S. confrontation in Iraq.” In it he asked, “One key question is who will step in to fill the power vacuum in post-Islamic State Mosul. Will the United States revert to its previous retreat from the Middle East, or will it opt to reassure its regional allies by keeping at least a part of its current forces in Iraq? Will Iran seek to establish a presence in northern Iraq, either directly or through its allies?” The answer is that having withdrawn in late 2011, Washington is, and should be once again, militarily engaged in Iraq and Syria, deploying over five thousand troops and special forces, as well as spending over $10 billion combating Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Indeed, per Politico, on April 5, 2017, the number of U.S. forces in northern Syria has doubled since March. There are four hundred U.S. Marines and Army rangers joining the five hundred U.S. Special Forces deployed by Obama; reports suggest the Pentagon may soon request even more forces to support the assault on Raqqa. In Iraq, hundreds of American soldiers have been deployed to reinforce the assault on the Islamic State in Mosul, with more waiting in Kuwait.

Because Tehran supports large parts of the PMU militarily and financially, a PMU presence in Mosul is creating consternation in Washington about the possible expansion of Iran’s influence in Iraq.

The upshot of the militia’s allegations is that they accentuate clashes of interests by adding militias under Iran’s control to the mix. Baghdad’s oil fields are clustered in the south around the city of Basra and in various northern areas. These are regions where Iran has been expanding its military and economic influence, per Ellen Wald. Indeed, the combined power of the oil of Iran and Iraq could soon rival Riyadh’s in production capacity and total resources.

A Washington Institute for Near East Policy report of April 2011 states Iraq’s reemergence as a major oil exporter, probably at Iran’s expense, will most likely heighten tensions between the two oil-exporting nations.

The Way Forward Trump

First, diminish the role of Tehran by aiding development of Iraq’s oil and energy sectors. Trump seems to focus less on soft power and more on hard power. The two, however, can be combined. Trump comes from business and Tillerson is an alum of ExxonMobil; hence, they might be amenable to weave soft power and hard power together in a winning counter to Tehran.