Over the past two decades, Iraq has been a battleground for the intensifying rivalry between the US and Iran.
The latter has the allegiance of many Iraqi Shiite political and armed groups, while the US presence has mostly been reduced to a small contingent of military personnel, mainly tasked with training, equipping and advising the Iraqi Armed Forces in its efforts to counter the threat of a resurgent Daesh.
At one point, Iran-backed forces worked alongside the US-led international coalition in the country to defeat the notorious terrorist proto-state, which had seized vast swaths of territory and plunged a fragile, post-invasion Iraq into chaos.
With the threat of Daesh mostly eradicated, however, the thinking among some of the political elites in Baghdad has shifted toward a termination of the American military mission and limiting Washington’s engagement in Iraq. It is a goal they came close to achieving late last year, when Iran’s outsize influence in Baghdad’s corridors of power peaked.
In the estimation of Iraqi political elites with ties to Iran, a sustained US presence not only provides Washington with military leverage, it can also be used to threaten Tehran’s designs on its neighbor, and the wider “Shiite Crescent,” in non-kinetic ways.
Last year, Iraq’s political stalemate managed to produce a government composed largely of pro-Iranian factions and political figures, including groups designated by the US as terrorist organizations, rebuffing Muqtada Al-Sadr’s rhetoric and repeated escalations that attempted to derail its formation.
For a country faced with worsening socioeconomic crises, security challenges and a political leadership beholden to rival interests, the formation of a government was a welcome relief in the eyes of many Iraqis. But most outside observers decried the ascendancy of Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani to the premiership. To them, the new prime minister’s links to pro-Tehran figures in Baghdad meant that after he was sworn in, the next item on the agenda would be the expulsion of all US personnel, completing Iran’s “quiet” usurpation of its neighbor.
Yet that has not happened, largely as a result of Al-Sudani’s careful maneuvering both at home, in the wider region and beyond. His government has completed its first 100 days and the most remarkable observation so far is how the balance of influence in Iraq has markedly shifted from pro-Iran to an uneasy mix.
Iraqi voices are gaining prominence and the US is looking to leverage a less hostile reception in Baghdad, to the chagrin of a pro-Iran camp that is struggling to recalibrate itself and its objectives in a shifting landscape.
In the early days of Al-Sudani’s government, hard-liners within the Coordination Framework moved to seize control of Iraq’s security agencies, including the Interior Ministry, the National Security Council and the Iraqi National Intelligence Service.
The Coordination Framework is a loose coalition of Shiite political parties dominated by former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and the Popular Mobilization Forces, a collection of heavily armed militias with links to Iran. Control of Iraq’s security agencies would have given them some highly sought-after “benefits,” such as immunity and security for select militia groups, while unleashing the power of the state on rivals, perceived enemies or even the general public.
However, Al-Sudani defied the expectations that he would capitulate to the pro-Iran factions that nominated him for the premiership. He resisted most of the Shiite coalition’s demands that focused on reshaping the country’s security apparatus, retained control of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, allowed an incumbent to remain in charge of the Counter Terrorism Service, and appointed his own interior minister.
Beyond reining in the Coordination Framework and the PMF, Al-Sudani has also managed to keep the Sadrists at bay by retaining the services of one of them, Hamid Al-Ghazi, as secretary-general of his Cabinet. It remains to be seen how well his political cunning will fare in the long term, given the mounting criticism within Shiite political circles that have now set their sights on gaining control of the provinces, securing lucrative contracts and influencing provincial elections expected this year.
On the diplomatic front, Al-Sudani is cognizant of Iran’s declining influence in Baghdad and its weakening position abroad, hence Iraq’s continuing reliance on the US despite the risk of a backlash from his core political base.
Meanwhile, Tehran is distracted by the ongoing protests at home and new international sanctions that seek to cripple its ability to provide Russia with lethal support for the war against Ukraine. For Baghdad, there is no better time to pursue the same depth of relations with Washington as Saudi Arabia and the other oil and gas countries in the Arabian Gulf.
Of course, while the official explanation for such diplomacy is that Iraq is merely seeking to maintain positive ties with both Tehran and Washington, the prevailing suspicion is that it is leaning toward the latter to help loosen the vice-like grip of the former on Iraqi internal affairs.
For instance, the implementation of energy and trade deals with other Gulf nations that were initiated by the previous government will help reduce Iraq’s dependence on Iran, ultimately weakening the pro-Tehran factions that benefit from such economic and political ties.
The reality of this precarious balancing act, however, is that it leaves little room for Al-Sudani’s government to maneuver. Frequent meetings with the US ambassador in Baghdad have yet to deliver tangible benefits from what his raucous critics condemn as a wholesale embrace of the “enemy.”
Their criticism not only stems from the refusal to expel about 2,000 US military advisers. Their latest complaints are about the recent deployment of counterterrorism forces to crack down on the smuggling of dollars into Iraq, after the US Federal Reserve last year reduced dollar-denominated transactions in the country by 70 percent.
The move has weakened the Iraqi dinar, sent consumer prices soaring and fueled anti-American sentiment in Baghdad at a time when the prime minister is seeking to demonstrate that Iraq is the best conduit for dialogue to reduce the tensions between the US and Iran that indirectly harm the Iraqi people.
Looking ahead, though, there is some cause for optimism even though the political climate in Baghdad is getting heated. Al-Sudani has proved that he is a skilled politician during his first 100 days in power, adept at deciphering and exploiting rivalries within the Shiite camp. This means that even his most ardent critics have acceded to his leadership, so as to safeguard at least some of their interests, and in the process abandon their fruitless zero-sum politicking.
Washington must play its hand smarter and recognize that Al-Sudani’s pragmatism will accomplish a lot more than any of the alternatives, in terms of ensuring Iraq’s stability and resisting Iran’s encroachment, the effects of which can be further enhanced by diversifying the engagement between the US and Iraq beyond counterterrorism.