(Middle Eastern Review)
By Mahan Abedin
As the United States sets about pressuring the international community to comply with the American sanctions against Iran, one country, in particular, is proving hard to convince. As a friend to both Iran and the US, Iraq is caught between a rock and a hard place in trying to balance its relations with the long-time foes.
This conflicted Iraqi position was underscored by Iraqi Prime Minister, Haidar Al-Abadi’s, assertion earlier this month that despite “regretting” the re-imposition of US sanctions, Iraq will nevertheless abide by them.
Al-Abadi’s pro-American position touched off a strong reaction from the pro-Iranian sections of the Iraqi establishment who have decried the prime minister’s stance as inimical to Iraq’s economic and national security interests.
This internal Iraqi row has brought the country’s centrality to the Iran-US animosity into sharp relief. Indeed, Iraq is critical to US plans to isolate Iran regionally with a view to forcing the Islamic Republic’s capitulation on the nuclear, ballistic missiles and regional policy files.
For its part, Iran is likely to step up its efforts to weaken the US position in Iraq. This will entail greater involvement in Iraqi politics generally and more specifically it will require the organisation of a focussed campaign to oust Al-Abadi as prime minister.
The Iranian media was in uproar over Al-Abadi’s statement, which the Iranians have interpreted as a sign of duplicity and double-dealing. Leading Iranian reformist politician and member of parliament, Mahmoud Sadeghi, was quick to remind Iraq that it owed Iran “$1.1 trillion” in reparations for starting the long-running Iran-Iraq War.
The Iranian reaction is one of hurt as well as indignation. In the past couple of weeks, the Iranian media and some politicians have been at pains to remind Iraqis that Iran has forsaken reparations even though another victim of Iraqi aggression, Kuwait, is in regular receipt of financial compensation from Iraq.
This reaction is also a not-so-gentle reminder to Iraq that Iran can always start demanding reparations should bilateral relations take a turn for the worse. More broadly, Iranians both at an official level and on social media have taken digs at Iraq by detailing the Islamic Republic’s “assistance” to Iraq during the tortuous years of Anglo-American occupation and associated problems, notably terrorism.
To that end, Iranians have expressed indignation at Al-Abadi’s remarks by reminding Iraqis of the Islamic Republic’s decisive role in defeating Daesh and allied groups. At an emotional level, there are multiple reasons for feeling hurt and betrayed, including Iran’s role in containing Kurdish irredentism by helping Iraq to retake the contested oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
At a deeper level, the Iranian reaction underscores the potential fragility of bilateral relations and the barely concealed fear that one day it could all come crashing down. Whilst Iran and Iraq have strong ties at a people-to-people level, manifested by a common Shia creed as embodied by the institutional bonds fostered by the Shia clerical establishment, inter-governmental relations however are far more complicated.
Nothing underscores this complexity than Iraq’s strong ties to the US and constant attempts by the latter to undermine Iran’s position inside Iraq.
As part of the initial reaction to Al-Abadi’s statement, Iran has been mobilising Iraqi politicians to stake out a contradictory position to that of their prime minister. These politicians decry US sanctions against Iran on the credible grounds that they pose a direct economic threat to Iraq by impeding the flow of Iranian pilgrims, businessmen and even tourists to Iraq.
Even though Al-Abadi appears to have backtracked from his earlier position, by for instance seeking exemptions from some of the sanctions, the fact remains that the prime minister represents the pro-American faction in Iraq’s fragmented political establishment.
Iran only reluctantly agreed to Al-Abadi’s appointment as prime minister in September 2014 following Daesh’s lightening offensive in north-western Iraq. Al-Abadi’s predecessor, Nouri Al-Maliki, whilst not Iran’s top favourite, was nevertheless far more preferable than the incumbent.
In view of the stakes involved, the Iranians are likely to push for Al-Abadi’s ouster. Both the timing and the context is favourable for a renewed push to fatally undermine Al-Abadi’s political position. Al-Abadi performed poorly in the Iraqi parliamentary elections in May and the only reason he remains in place is because Iraq’s fractious politicians cannot agree on a suitable replacement.
But, as expected, the latest Iraqi election was a messy affair, with international media describing it as a setback for Iran on account of the winner Muqtada Al-Sadr’s apparent falling out with the Islamic Republic. Whilst Al-Sadr campaigned on a ticket of Iraqi “independence” and entered into an alliance with a chaotic mix of communists and liberals, nevertheless, the movement that he leads has deep connections to Iran at every level.
But as Iran prepares for the latest round of the political and strategic contest with the US in Iraq, two issues will be of particular concern to Iranian policy makers and strategists. First, the street protest movement in Iraq is a threat to the entire Iraqi political establishment, including the pro-Iranian elements. Whoever succeeds Al-Abadi will need to demonstrate a genuine commitment to address the issues raised by the protesters, notably corruption and economic stagnation.
Second, there is a renewed drive – in part encouraged by Washington – to sabotage Iranian-Iraqi relations at a people-to-people level. For example, salacious rumours of Iraqi male pilgrims in the holy city of Mashhad visiting up to “6,000” brothels, have been swirling on Iranian social media in recent weeks. The aim of these fake stories is to undermine bilateral relations by driving a wedge between Iraqis and Iranians.
In the final analysis, as Iran takes concerted measures to counter American plans in Iraq, it must tread more carefully than ever to both preserve its hard-won influence and to develop an effective strategy against the US drive to undercut Iran’s regional position.