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Decoupling Iraq from Iran

The idea of an Iraqi-Iranian divorce is becoming more and more popular, but the question remains of whether it will be possible, writes Salah Nasrawi

Salah Nasrawi , Tuesday 16 Jun 2020
Decoupling Iraq from Iran
Iraq’s prime minister looking out during a tour of Mosul, the most damaged by Islamic State’s takeover in 2014 (photo: AFP)
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Now that the United States and Iraq have agreed on a roadmap to advance their bilateral relationship, speculation is rising that the nation’s new government has a better chance of ending Iran’s malignant role in Iraq.

The election of Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, not known as an ally of Iran, as Iraq’s new prime minister in May has increased the potential for a back-peddling in Iraqi-Iranian relations with potentially dramatic consequences.

This assumption was reinforced by a “strategic dialogue” with Baghdad called for by Washington on the future of the bilateral relationship, a sign that the United States is seeking warmer ties with Iraq.

Last week, senior diplomats from both sides met by video conference for the first session of the dialogue and came out with a set of resolutions on advancing bilateral relations.

The process is based on the Strategic Framework Agreement concluded between the US and Iraq in 2008 and guidelines for long-term relations laid out by the two countries.

Based on an assessment of the final statement from the meeting, the United States and Iraq may be on a new path to deepening their cooperation, taking advantage of opportunities raised by the new government in Iraq.

In the statement, the two countries “reaffirmed the importance of the strategic relationship and their determination to take appropriate steps to enhance it in the interest of both countries and to achieve security, stability and prosperity in the region.”

While the United States renewed its commitment to developing “close bilateral security cooperation” with Iraq, it also expressed its preparedness to developing political relations on all levels.

Washington also promised to help Iraq across a range of other key issues, including the economy, investment, government reforms, humanitarian efforts, rebuilding the country and elections.

Since the US troop withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, Iraq’s ties with the United States have weathered post-invasion era distrust and pressures from Iran and its proxies.

But if the two countries are now to succeed in warming their relations and increasing cooperation, they will likely need to strengthen their ties and change their relationships in fundamental ways.

This may turn out to be an increasingly uncomfortable development for Iran, which has been engaged in an intensive and costly struggle with the United States over Iraq.

Iran has showed no sign of changing the dynamics of its engagement in Iraq, and it has continued to make inroads in its troubled western neighbour.

A few days before taqIraq’s FIraIIraq’s Prime he US-Iraq dialogue took place, Iran dispatched its Energy Minister Reza Ardakanian, at the head of a large political, economic and security delegation to Baghdad to play on its increasing influence in Iraq.

During a two-day trip, Ardakanian signed a key energy deal that allows Iran to continue to export badly needed electricity to Iraq, something which the United States has always opposed.

Ardakanian also announced that the Iranian delegation had secured “half of a disbursement worth $400 million” from cash-strapped Iraq and reviewed a three-year plan for reconstructing the Iraqi electricity industry by the Iranian private sector.

The deal was another sign of defiance to Washington, and it shows that Tehran will not give in to US pressure to end its free rein in Iraq.

The United States has imposed economic and oil sanctions on Iran as part of its policy of “maximum pressure” to compel Iran to renegotiate the nuclear deal with the West, but it has repeatedly exempted Iraq, allowing it to use crucial Iranian energy supplies for its power grid.

Ahead of the strategic dialogue, Washington granted a 120-day sanctions waiver for Iraq in May to continue importing electricity from Iran in order to help the new Iraqi government succeed and give it time to cut back its ties with Iran.

But as the US-Iraqi strategic dialogue progresses, Washington will hope that it will provide an opportunity for “decoupling” Iraq and Iran and serve its goal of binding the US closer to Baghdad under the new government of Al-Kadhimi.

However, the question remains of how Washington will be able to achieve this ambitious twofold goal when it has failed to produce a clear, comprehensive and functional strategy to confront Iran and win back Iraq.

To try to mitigate the lack of a concrete strategy, the US has set out some priorities that it believes could force Iran to scale back its interference in Iraq.

These include assisting Iraq in implementing wide-ranging plans to reform its government and the performance of its judiciary that include human rights, electoral reforms and efforts to strengthen the rule of law and anti-corruption.

In addition, the United States has placed the emphasis on the return and reintegration of people displaced in the war against the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq and helping ethnic groups that were targeted by it.

The United States has also made it clear that it will support Iraq through the international financial institutions to help it meet the challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic and declining oil revenues.

But beyond the rhetoric of the diplomatic statements, the United States seems to be setting preconditions for resetting its relationship with Iraq mainly by slapdash efforts to sever Iraq’s dependence on Iran.

In order for Iraq to get the help it needs to confront the Covid-19 pandemic and plummeting oil revenues, which are threatening Iraq’s healthcare system and economic collapse, Washington has made it clear that Iraq will have to choose between Iran and the assistance that it can give.

To meet long-term needs to reconstruct cities destroyed in the war against IS and rebuild Iraq’s devastated economy, Iraq should expect help from the United States only if Al-Kadhimi works to curtail Iran’s influence in the country.

Conceivably, the United States expects Al-Kahdimi’s government to work to cut back Iran’s proxies and allies in the country, which are the backbone of Tehran’s influence and the guardians of its interests in Iraq.

While Washington wants to see Baghdad reining in the power of Iran’s proxies, it also hopes that fixing the electoral process in Iraq will prevent pro-Iran groups from gaining ground in Iraq’s parliament as they did in the last elections.

As the US administration was kicking off the talks, the US Congress was preparing its own plans to push back on Iran’s increasing influence in Iraq and throughout the region.

A Congressional group has called on the legislature to designate some of the pro-Iran factions in Iraq as terrorist organisations. The proposed list includes the Badr Organisation and its Secretary General Hadi Al-Ameri, in addition to several factions of the Popular Mobilisation Forces.

The recommendation is part of a broader US strategy to sanction Iran’s allies in the wider region that include the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, the Lebanese Hizbullah group and the Houthis in Yemen.

From the moves of the US administration and Congress, assumptions could be made that Washington plans for a long stay in Iraq and that it wants to have long-term ties binding it to all future governments.

The big question about this American endeavour, however, is how far Washington is likely to go in Iraq and whether there is any appetite to confront Iran’s influence and risk a devastating new conflict.

The layers of uncertainty as to whether Washington can succeed in forcing a “final divorce” between Iraq and Iran are thus abundant.

Iran has gone a long way towards consolidating its influence in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003 due largely to flawed policies in the post-occupation era.

Every US action from day one of the invasion helped to turn Iraq into a client state of Iran, a former enemy which shares a 1,400 km border with Iraq.

Through allied Shia politicians and paramilitary groups in Iraq, Iran emerged as the dominant force in the country, expanding its influence and its role beyond political and security efforts to commercial, business and cultural ties.

Many Iraqi observers believe that the connections between the two countries have become so intertwined that it will be impossible to fully separate Iraq and Iran.

For these observers, decoupling Iraq and Iran would be like carrying out a difficult surgical operation on a conjoined twin, needing surgeons who have better ideas of where the patient’s vital organs are before starting cutting.

Given the Trump administration’s reckless foreign policy that has weakened the overall US position in the Middle East, it is unlikely that Washington has a plan or the time to execute its intentions to curtail Iran’s influence in Iraq.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the economic crisis that is a fallout from US sanctions may have limited Iran’s advance in Iraq, but Tehran has continued to produce a reaction felt by the United States.

At least three rocket attacks targeted bases hosting American soldiers and the US Embassy in Iraq this week. They clearly came in the context of the US-Iraq strategic dialogue and the tensions between the US and Iran.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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