Iraq 2021-2022: A Forecast

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY (Download the full report here)

The United States cannot stabilize—or safely deprioritize—the Middle East without first stabilizing Iraq. Regional powers treat Iraq as a battleground to carry out proxy conflicts that harm US interests and exacerbate instability through the region. Stability begets stability; strengthening the Iraqi state such that foreign proxy wars cannot easily take place within its borders would reduce tensions in the region. A more resilient Iraqi state will be better protected from future foreign interference like internationally sponsored militia activities, political influence, and jihadism. A stable and sovereign Iraq could provide a physical and political buffer between its heavyweight neighbors: Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, and between Iran and its projects in Syria and Lebanon. That buffer could help enable a desired pivot in US policy and security focus away from the Middle East and toward pressing concerns elsewhere in the world. 

Unfortunately, Iraq is not moving toward increased stability in the medium-to-long term.  The decisionmaking of external actors will likely overwhelm and derail the results of Iraqi leadership decisionmaking in the next 18 months. Continuing governance of Iraq’s corrupt political system by many of the same elites who have shared power since 2006 may produce some degree of domestic resiliency following Iraq’s 2021 elections, but will likely be unable to overcome the meddling of other regional powers. 

In the spring of 2021, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) conducted a series of workshops with internal and external experts to forecast the most likely and most dangerous trajectories for the Iraqi state in the next 18 months. This paper presents the conclusions of ISW’s research and offers initial assessments of the most likely, most beneficial, and most dangerous paths for US interests and Iraqi stability in that timeframe. This paper will also provide a series of alternative scenarios and highlight the indicators that can help US policymakers anticipate inflections and better understand the implications of major events as they occur. The paper builds on the assessments of Iraq’s stability outlined in the author’s previous paper: Iraq Is Fragile, Not Hopeless: How Iraq’s Fragility Undermines Regional Stability.

ISW found that Iraq’s internal drivers will reinforce its corrupt political status quo, providing short-term continuity without addressing the state’s deep-seated flaws. Most of Iraq’s political elites, particularly the collection of Shi’a and Kurdish political faction leaders who have shared power since 2006, have bought into the country’s spoils-based political system. They will remain invested and avoid all out conflict or civil war so long as they retain their share of the spoils. Continuity of governance following the 2021 parliamentary elections will not improve quality of life for the Iraqi people but may increase near-to-medium-term state sta-bility and create room for a new system to develop. However, Iraq’s political and economic status quos are ultimately unsustainable. The Iraqi state cannot afford to keep creating government jobs to appease its underemployed, ever-growing, and increasingly dissatisfied population barring a dramatic and sustained increase in oil prices.

Iraq’s stability is, in many ways, outside its control; its difficult internal dynamics are likely to be overwhelmed by larger and more threatening regional ones. Iran, Saudi Arabia, other Gulf states, Israel, and Turkey each play out their conflicts on Iraqi territory, destabilizing Iraq and the broader Middle East. Of these conflicts, those involving Iran are the most dangerous and carry the highest risk for Iraq and the region. The United States must work to manage or suppress the most negative external conflicts, thereby creating room for Iraq’s domestic system to evolve into one that is stronger, less corrupt, and more representative.

  • Iran will continue its campaign to expel the United States from Iraq and the Middle East. Iran and its proxies likely intend their attacks to directly shape reviews of the US force posture in the Middle East and, specifically, outcomes of the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue. Iran-backed militias will regularly conduct attacks on US forces and facilities (and those associated with them) to incentivize a complete US withdrawal from Iraq and possibly the entire region, both core Iranian objectives. Future Iranian proxy attacks on US assets in Iraq will likely rely on newer attack types like drones, increasing the accuracy and potential lethality of attacks. The lethality, frequency, and scale of these attacks will most likely be determined by the state of US-Iranian tensions.  In a most dangerous scenario, however, Iraqi militia leaders could get ahead of Iran’s calculus and conduct attacks to further their separate but complementary campaigns to shape US and Iraqi government decisionmaking and oust US forces. Independent militia activity would risk an uncalculated escalation between the United States and Iran.
  • Iran will increasingly conduct attacks via Iraqi proxies and from Iraqi territory into Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Iran-backed attacks on regional actors will continue as Iran’s Iraqi proxies improve their drone capabilities unless Iran and Saudi Arabia can reach some sort of de-escalation. Iran will increase these attacks alongside its talks with Saudi Arabia to drive a wedge between Saudi Arabia and its US partners and to prevent any improvement in Saudi-Israeli ties. Iran will likely simultaneously deny responsibility for the attacks and promise to curtail them should Saudi Arabia acquiesce to Iranian demands and distance itself from the United States.
  • Iran may increasingly threaten Israel from Iraq and Syria, triggering further retaliatory Israeli strikes in those countries. Iran is using Iraq to build strategic depth and help deter a conventional attack by Israel or others on Iran. Israel will conduct additional airstrikes against targets within Iraq if it perceives a growing threat from Iran-backed Shi’a extremist groups in Iraq. This perception could arise from increased demonstrations of long-range drone capabilities by Iran’s Iraqi proxies, the participation of Iraqi groups in anti-Israeli activities in Syria or Lebanon, or the departure of US forces from Iraq. Israeli airstrikes would likely trigger destabilizing retaliatory attacks by Iran’s proxies against US or partnered forces and against the Iraqi government should Iran’s proxies deem the government response to Israeli violations of Iraqi sovereignty insufficient.
  • Turkey’s further disruption of the last quarter-century’s status quo in northern Iraq and elsewhere in the region could trigger destabilizing Turkish-Iranian competition in Iraqi territory. Turkey’s attempts to expand its influence and security presence outside the traditional Turkish sphere of influence in Iraqi Kurdistan and into the traditionally Iranian-dominated parts of northern Iraq have already prompted at least one lethal Iranian proxy attack on a Turkish base. Iran and Turkey are most likely to compartmentalize this tension. However, in a most dangerous scenario, Iran and Turkey risk igniting a proxy conflict for influence over parts of Iraq that Turkey may increasingly view as rightfully belonging in a Turkish sphere of influence.

While Iran and other adversaries seek to coerce Iraqis into supporting corrupt policies and ideologies that harm Iraq’s future, the United States should continue to strive for a stronger, more democratic, and more independent Iraq that can provide a regional buffer to mitigate future conflicts.  It must therefore balance four oftcompeting Iraq policy priorities: 

  • Continue providing US assistance, training, and advice to every level of the Iraqi Security Forces. The continuing counter-ISIS mission still relies on US intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) support to the Iraqi Security Forces. US support will maintain the enduring defeat of ISIS and prevent the resurgence of that threat while helping build a more professional Iraqi military. Meanwhile, the United States must provide targeted, small-scale advice and training to the security forces responsible for protecting senior officials in the Iraqi government. This support can enable those officials to make the difficult choices necessary to secure Iraq’s future while protecting themselves from foreign and domestic threats.
  • Deter and disrupt Iranian interference in Iraq as much as possible. The Iranian regime likely views its nuclear negotiations with the United States as compartmentalized from its proxy attacks in Iraq; the primary objective of that campaign is to expel US forces from Iraq rather than to shape US-Iran negotiations. The United States should therefore be less concerned that its negotiations will be derailed by US responses to malign Iranian activities and attacks in Iraq. Retaliating for Iranian proxy attacks that threaten US forces and facilities within Iraq is a necessary component of reestablishing deterrence against Iran and its proxy militia network. The United States should also call out Iran’s harmful political and economic activities in Iraq, including smuggling, vote-buying, and threatening activists.
  • Use diplomatic and security cooperation with US regional partners and allies to discourage destabilizing activities within Iraq. Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states have the potential to dramatically destabilize Iraq through their responses to Iranian activities there. The United States should work with these partners to create a shared regional approach to Iraq that better manages the threat posed by Iran’s entrenchment in the state.
  • Support the demands of Iraq’s popular protest movement and longer-term civil society efforts to lay the foundation for a more representative Iraqi system. US projects that set conditions for long-term civic participation will likely have the largest positive impact on Iraq’s future. In the immediate term, that means encouraging voter participation and electoral transparency and calling out actors who threaten either. The United States should also consider supporting civil society efforts like student government, civics classes, or debate clubs that introduce the next generation of Iraqis to core elements of a secular and participatory democracy. Such programs can help counter insidious, Iran-backed programs that indoctrinate vulnerable youths into extremist ideologies and destabilize the Iraqi state.

US decisionmakers must approach the Iraq problem set not only with an eye for anticipating and pre-empting the significant political and security events of the next 18 months, but also with a whole-of-government approach intended to set conditions for a more stable Iraqi system in the decades to come. That outcome is one worthy of the last 18 years of American and Iraqi investment.