With the middle eastern proxy war rapidly coalescing into an actual kinetic war, moves are now in motion to determine the shape of alliances once the shooting begins. And while it is quite clear that Russia and China will back Iran in spirit - although it remains to be seen if they will also back it in deed - it is increasingly questionable if that long-term US ally, Europe, will do the same for the US military-industrial complex.
The first hint of trouble emerged late on Friday when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a Fox News interview that the United States' European allies were not as helpful as he was hoping following the US strike in Iraq on Thursday that killed Iran’s top military commander, Qassem Soleimani. Pompeo compared the European response unfavourably with US "partners in the region", a reference to Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which Pompeo consulted after the Suleimani assassination.
"I spent the last day and a half, two days, talking to partners in the region, sharing with them what we were doing, why we were doing it, seeking their assistance,” Pompeo told Fox News. “They’ve all been fantastic. And then talking to our partners in other places that haven’t been quite as good.
"Frankly, the Europeans haven’t been as helpful as I wished that they could be," Pompeo said adding that "the Brits, the French, the Germans all need to understand that what we did, what the Americans did, saved lives in Europe as well. We’re trying to get Iran to simply behave like a normal nation."
In justifying the unilateral airstrike, Pompeo said that "Qassem Suleimani led and his IRGC [Revolutionary Guard] led assassination campaigns in Europe. This was a good thing for the entire world, and we are urging everyone in the world to get behind what the United States is trying to do to get the Islamic Republic of Iran to simply behave like a normal nation."
A similar shift in tone was apparent in Pompeo's social media remarks: the Secretary of State has tweeted comments about speaking with a various foreign leaders in the past few days, including the Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, the United Arab Emirates’ Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Pompeo tweeted that he thanked the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan region of Iraq “for his steadfast partnership. We agreed on the need for continued, close cooperation.”
Meanwhile, his tweets about European allies hinted at a cool response: “Countering the Iranian regime’s malign activity is a shared priority with our European allies. Our resolve to protect our people & our interests is unwavering,” Pompeo tweeted after his conversation with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
After speaking with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, Pompeo commented, “Germany is also concerned over the Iranian regime’s continued military provocations. The U.S. remains committed to de-escalation.”
British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab, who spoke with Pompeo on Friday, in a statement likewise urged “all parties to de-escalate.” Raab said the U.K. “recognized the aggressive threat” that Soleimani posed, but “further conflict is in none of our interests."
Similarly, French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted, “The escalation of tensions in the Middle-East isn’t inevitable.” He focused instead on supporting Iraq’s sovereignty and security, “as well as the region’s stability; the fight against [ISIS} terrorism.”
European reaction to the drone-strike killing of Suleimani and Iraqi Shia militants travelling with him in Baghdad has been cautious and apprehensive. While noting Suleimani’s destructive role in the region, governments have called for restraint. Policy towards Iran has been a deeply divisive issue between the US and Europe since Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 multilateral agreement with Iran that imposed strict limits on its nuclear programme in return for sanctions relief. European officials have blamed Trump’s efforts to strangle Iran economically for the rising tensions in the Persian Gulf.
Meanwhile, the killing of Suleimani has had an immediate impact on the coalition's effort to wipe out Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Nato suspended its training of Iraqi security forces, currently led by Canada, and the US-led counter-Isis mission in the region, Operation Inherent Resolve, also cut back its activities, including the training of Iraqi counter-terrorist units.
Michael Knights, an expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that “over the last few days we’ve literally stopped the anti-Isis fight – everything stopped", adding that the counter-Isis campaign had already been severely hindered over the past year as Shia militias extended their influence. US-led forces have been stopped from flying over a large part of Iraq and banned from communicating with Sunni tribal forces, which had been seen as an important part of the strategy for keeping Isis suppressed.
Knights also said that the increased militia threat has also meant US special forces have had to abandon remote positions which they had been manning with Iraqi army units, because such small 30-strong detachments had become too vulnerable. “You just can’t do that because those guys could easily be overrun, killed or kidnapped by the militias, by the Iranians,” Knights said.
“It’s been very challenging to keep counter-Isis operations going under these conditions, and now with the really ramped-up threat to operating locations, it’s even harder, and if they kick us out of the country, even harder still.”
In a preview of what happens next, Knights said that if the Iraq parliament votes to eject the US military - which it did on Sunday - other partner countries in the coalition will leave too: "It operates on an ‘in-with-us out-with-us’, meaning those countries that came in with the US, will leave with the US."