Iraq walking a tightrope between Iran and US

Ibrahim al-Marashi

Iraq seeks to forge an independent foreign policy between the American-Iranian rivalry amidst a backdrop of frantic diplomatic visits to Baghdad in recent weeks. Jordan’s King Abdullah II visited Baghdad on Monday, his first trip to Iraq in more than a decade, the latest in a string of top-level diplomatic meetings in rapid succession since a surprise Christmas trip by US President Donald Trump.

As of mid-January 2019, Iraq has witnessed significant diplomatic movement, from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s surprise stop in Baghdad, followed by Iran’s oil minister and then foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who announced Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is scheduled to visit Iraq on March 11. Following Zarif, his French counterpart came to Iraq this week.

This intense round of visits demonstrates the delicate balancing act maintained by the Iraqi government, by a Trump administration seeking to isolate Iran, and the Islamic Republic, leveraging Iraq as a neighbour and a market that can help it withstand the American-imposed sanctions. Both France and Jordan are affected by this rivalry in the region.

The fact both the US and Iran are currying support with the government of Baghdad with back-to-back visits, rather than dictating its international and domestic affairs from Washington and Tehran, indicates that Iraq has achieved a sovereign, independent foreign policy that has been elusive since 2003.

Iraq’s assertive foreign policy: Iraq’s current foreign policy bears similarities to the “positive neutralism” of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leader of Egypt after a military coup in 1952, who sought to maximise Egypt’s position by playing off both the US and USSR during the Cold War. Iraq is now a position where it can reap benefits by playing off both the US and Iran.

When Trump flew to Iraq in December, visiting troops on Christmas, he insisted that Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi come to an American airbase in the desert west of Baghdad. The prime minister refused, communicating that Trump should follow diplomatic protocol and visit him at the prime minister’s office.

Following US energy secretary Rick Perry’s trip to Iraq in December, on 9 January Mike Pompeo met with Abdul-Mahdi (at the prime minister’s office), emphasising Perry’s message for the need of “Iraq’s energy independence,” a cue that Baghdad should stop importing gas from Iran and contract American companies to develop Iraq’s gas fields.

However, the very next day Iran’s oil minister Bijan Zanganeh met with Oil Minister Thamir Ghadhban and Electricity Minister Louay Al Khateeb. Despite American political pressure, both are Iraqi technocrats and realised Iraq’s need for Iranian natural gas, which provides 40 percent of the nation’s electrical needs.

When Iran cut electricity to Iraq last summer after a payment dispute, sustained protests emerged in Basra, and in the short term, US firms would not be able to replace the supply from Iran.

After Pompeo’s visit, Iran’s diplomatic equivalent, Javid Zarif flew to Baghdad with more than 50 Iranian companies to keep Iraq open for business in the face of American sanctions. In the years following the 2003 invasion, US forces and Iranian-supported proxies in Iraq engaged in open combat against each other. As Baghdad’s sovereignty is restored, both America and Iran are now waging an economic battle against each other in Iraq.

Due to the weakening Iranian rial, Iranian imports ranging from grain, poultry, and construction materials are now cheaper for Iraqis, ensuring an Iranian dominance in the Iraqi market even as the US tries to wean Iraq away from these imports.

The intensity of the visits demonstrate that America’s intention to prise Iraq away from Iran is bound to fail due to its economic and trade relations with its neighbour, and Baghdad can maintain and reap benefits from ties between both states.

The French and (Jordanian) connection: European nations like France and Arab ones like Jordan seek a presence in Iraq amidst the American-Iranian rivalry.

This week, over the span of two days French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian not only visited Baghdad and Erbil, the latter the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, but Najaf as well, the first time the country’s foreign minister visited the sacred shrine town of Iraq’s Shia.

He toured the tomb of Imam Ali and met with Ayatollah Mohammad Said al Hakim, one of Iraq’s highest religious authorities. Since 2003 Iran and the US have vied for the loyalty of Iraq’s clerical authorities, but France’s historic visit also demonstrates that it has a stake in international Shia diplomacy. For France, a country attacked in Paris by Daesh (ISIS) in 2015, its troops in Syria are part of the efforts to prevent the terrorist group from emerging. French forces are deployed in tandem with US special operations forces in northeast Syria. While Trump announced he would withdraw American troops from Syria, French forces will stay.

A secure Iraq is essential in preventing the reemergence of Daesh in the nebulous region between the Syrian-Iraq border. In this regard, France granted a new 1 billion euro ($1.1 billion) loan over the next four years to help Iraq’s reconstruction after its campaign against Daesh. Jordanian-Iraqi relations have come a long way since the King in 2014 called Iraq part of a “Shia crescent” enveloping the region. The Jordanian king’s visit was to renew plans of building a pipeline from Iraq’s oil-rich Basra province to Jordan’s Aqaba port, which came to a halt after Daesh’s 2014 invasion. Iraq also sought to import around 300 megawatts of electricity from Jordan to cope with widespread power shortages, seeking a source of energy security beyond Iran.

During the visit, Iraq’s prime minister stressed, “Jordan is the lung of Iraq, and Iraq is the lung of Jordan.” The metaphor is apt. Instead of blood and oxygen flowing between the two lungs, it is oil and electricity, and both states seek to withstand American and Iranian attempts to restrict their lungs. The American-Iranian rivalry has presented Iraq an opportunity, allowing it to assert some independence via a superpower and regional power, and has used their antagonism to its advantage.

Since 2003 Iraq’s foreign policy has matured, learning how to handle the external forces vying for the loyalty of Iraq’s leadership and populace, and deft skill in maximising benefits during this competition, putting its stamp on the future of the country with regards to outside interference.

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