Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is slated to visit Iraq on Monday, but State Department Deputy Spokesperson Robert Palladino declined to comment on that trip.
Rouhani will be accompanied in his visit to Baghdad by an Iranian trade delegation, and one might have expected at least a warning about the need for Iraq to comply with the US sanctions on Iran.
When asked about Rouhani’s trip, Palladino focused, instead, on Iranian support for militias in Iraq.
He criticized “Iran’s support of armed groups, many of which engage in criminal behavior that undermines the security of Iraqi civilians, especially those from persecuted religious communities.”
“That’s why we insist that armed groups in Iraq must be under the effective command and control of the central government,” Palladino continued. “We remain concerned about any actions that could heighten sectarian tensions in Iraq.”
Iraq’s foreign relations is for the Iraqi government to answer.”
“After years of conflict, we believe that the Iraqis, first and foremost, would value their sovereignty and independence,” he concluded.
Paul Davis, a former Pentagon analyst and currently a Senior Fellow at Soran University, suggested that Palladino’s remarks seemed “rather mild.”
“The US should say clearly that it will impose secondary sanctions on Iraq, as it would for other countries trading with Iran in violation of US sanctions,” Davis said.
“That is particularly so,” he added, “because it is suspected that Iran will try to sidestep the sanctions by going through Iraq.”
On Tuesday, the US designated the Iranian-backed Iraqi militia, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, a terrorist organization, but in other respects, the US position toward Iranian influence in Iraq may be weakening. As recently as January, the US was pushing Baghdad to comply with the Iran sanctions, but such pressure was little evident in Palladino’s remarks on Thursday.
It is a particularly sensitive time for the US in Baghdad, as leading Shia factions in parliament are pressing for passage of legislation demanding the ouster of the US-led coalition troops that have assisted Iraqi and Kurdish forces in the fight against the ISIS.
Following President Donald Trump’s interview last month, in which he said that US troops would remain in Iraq, where they could “watch Iran,” Iraqi President Barham Salih, considered sympathetic to Washington, where he spent much of the 1990s as the representative of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), remarked, “Don’t overburden Iraq with your own issues.”
“It is of fundamental interest for Iraq to have good relations with Iran,” Salih said.
Turkey is another regional ally with which US ties are troubled. On Tuesday, Palladino warned Ankara against proceeding with the purchase of the Russian air defense system, the S-400.
However, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan affirmed the following day that the purchase of the S-400 was a “done” deal. “There can never be a turning back,” he continued. “Nobody should ask us to lick up what we spat.”
Asked on Thursday to respond to Erdogan’s remarks, Palladino referred to his earlier comments, saying, “I have nothing further to add.”