When two oil tankers were damaged in a suspected attack in the waters between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Iran last week, Iraq’s Ministry of Foreign affairs shyly condemned what “has happened” to the vessels.
In a statement, the ministry also criticised the missile attack that targeted the arrivals hall of the Abha Airport in southwestern Saudi Arabia on 12 June, injuring 26 people.
Iraq reiterated its opposition to “any aggression and its rejection of any escalation in the region and stresses the need to solve conflicts through peaceful means,” the statement said.
However, Iraq also emphasised that it rejects “the starving of people and the undermining of its security and the resort to military force.”
Iraq did not name names, as Washington and its allies in the Arab Gulf have blamed Iran for the attacks. Yet, Baghdad was clearly siding with Tehran by rejecting the US sanctions imposed on Iran and castigating the US-led escalation against the Islamic Republic.
Last month, Iraq refused to sign the final joint communiqué issued by the Arab Summit meeting in Saudi Arabia that denounced Iran for interfering in the internal affairs of the Arab states.
At the summit, Iraq’s President Barham Salih called upon neighbouring countries and allies to support Iran’s stability. He told the summit that Iraq’s good relations with both the West and Tehran and the security and stability of Iran were in the interest of all Muslim and Arab states.
As Iraq has offered to mediate between the United States and Iran, Iraq’s implicit support for Iran has raised doubts about whether its diplomacy is qualified for an effective role in bringing down tensions in the region.
Indeed, Iraq’s success as a third-party mediator in the on-going Iran-US tussle has been widely doubted by the international media and regional observers largely because of concerns about its impartiality.
What is telling is how Iraq has portrayed itself as active mediator in the ongoing crisis despite repeated remarks by senior Iraqi leaders that Baghdad will stand with Tehran after the United States ramped up its rhetoric against what it calls “Iranian threats”.
For those familiar with Iraq’s domestic and regional politics, the limitations of its diplomacy are quite well known, especially when a world power like Japan is at the forefront of a parallel effort to push for a de-escalation.
Iraq unquestionably plays a small role in international and regional affairs, and as such it is important to decide whether overarching questions such as Iraq’s desire to mediate between Iran and the United States are born of a genuine belief in diplomacy or are designed to protect its own interests.
Certainly, Iraq’s interests are strongly against any escalation in the Gulf. In his remarks to the Arab Summit, Salih made it clear that rising tensions with Iran could spark a war that could impact Iraq and asked the gathering to support Iraq’s stability.
The need for close relations with Iran is also widely understood. Iraq relies heavily on Iranian gas to feed several power stations, importing roughly 1.5 billion cubic feet of gas per day via pipelines in the south and east of the country.
Iran is a key trading partner of Iraq, and its exports to the country top $10 billion and include food, agricultural products, chemical products, energy, construction materials, automobiles, home appliances and others.
The two countries plan to build a railway line linking them with Syria. Iranian officials have said that the construction of the railway, which will connect the Gulf with the Mediterranean, will be financed by Iran.
More importantly, Tehran still plays a dominant role in Iraq despite US efforts to isolate the Islamic Republic. Over the past 16 years, Iran has expanded its influence in Iraq beyond business ties to cultural, political, and security ones.
Perhaps the most visible consequences of Iran’s influence in Iraq have been its links with the Iraqi Shia politicians and paramilitary groups that have emerged as the dominant forces in the country. Some of these groups are avowedly anti-American and have vowed to retaliate if Iran is attacked.
With tensions between the United States, its Gulf Arab Sunni allies, and Iran dangerously escalating in recent weeks, the most pressing question now is whether Iraq can rise to the challenge of the US-Iranian war that threatens to wrench it apart.
While Iraq may be fearful that it could fall victim to a military confrontation between the United States and Iran, the prospect that its diplomacy could resolve the US-Iran crisis looks dim despite all the huffing and puffing about mediation.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent failed mission in Tehran should serve as a lesson on how meditation in the Iran-US crisis is difficult to manage.
Indeed, Iraq needs to do more than simply engage in microphone diplomacy and repeat calls for efforts to achieve “calm” in the region in order to end the escalating tensions between Tehran and Washington.
Among other things, Iraq seems to be lacking the muscle to take up a crisis the size of the US-Iranian confrontation.
On the domestic level, a crisis nearer home has proven to be more divisive. While the country’s Shia groups seem to be guiding Baghdad’s pro-Iran policies, many Sunni Iraqis say that they have been neglected by the Shia-led governments and are concerned that their views on the issue are being ignored.
The Iraqi Kurds, who have their own narrative regarding Iraq’s foreign policy and enjoy good relations with the United States and its Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, also feel they have been sidelined.
Iraq’s bid to bolster its nascent role as a mediator between Iran and the United States has also stirred further confusion about the way the Baghdad government has been handling the crisis.
Illustrating such contradictions, Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Ali Al-Hakim has said that Baghdad will “stand with our neighbour” but is also willing to mediate between Iran and its adversaries.
What’s more, to the United States and its Arab allies, Iraq is part of the problem and not of the solution, and in order for Iraq to help broker a resolution to the standoff it will need to enter the mediation as a neutral player and potential deal-maker.
Evidently, Iraq is neither.
Last Friday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke by telephone with Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi as US President Donald Trump and other US officials talked about Tehran being responsible for the attack on the two tankers a day earlier.
A spokesman for Pompeo said he had shared with Abdul-Mahdi “our assessment that Iran was responsible for attacking two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.”
The real problem with the Iraqi stance is the security threat to US interests in Iraq if armed conflict with Iran escalates into a broader conflict. Iraqi Iran-backed militias have threatened to target US interests and force US troops out of Iraq if Iran is attacked.
Meanwhile, the United States has warned Iraqi leaders that if they fail to keep the Iran-backed militias in check, these operating as parts of Iraq’s security apparatus, the United States will respond with force.
Underscoring the volatility of the situation, Iraq’s Security Media Cell also reported explosions on Friday near the US embassy in Baghdad and a mortar attack at an air base north of Baghdad that houses American security contractors.
Whatever Iraq’s motives might be in offering mediation in the conflict, the country is facing significant challenges in the struggle to contain the escalating crisis in the Gulf that risks enmeshing it in the standoff.
A day after the attacks on the oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, the Trump administration said it was looking to “build an international consensus” against Iran.
US Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told reporters on Friday that Washington’s focus was now “to build an international consensus on this international problem”.
It will certainly be a tough diplomatic job for Iraq, whose foreign and security policy has so far relied on ambiguity, to decide on which side of an emerging anti-Iran coalition it will stand.
Iraq may not be willing to bandwagon with Iran in its conflict with the US, but Iraqi leaders should not act only as if they are simply disinclined to incur Iran’s wrath.
Iran, now considered one of Iraq’s closest allies in the region, is represented by senior Iranian officials as an Iranian strategic asset. Last week, top military advisor to Iranian leader Ali Khamenei, Yahya Rahim Safavi, described Iraq as “strategically complementary to the Islamic Republic”.
The conflict unfolding in the Gulf is serious, but Iraq’s leaders are far from having grasped the dangers of the situation and still prefer to pursue their ostrich diplomacy.
Their favourite talk about mediating without offering an alternative policy could turn out to be one of the more ill-fated polices of recent times.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Iraq’s disarmed diplomacy