MS Risk Blog

Iraq: Is The Country Getting Closer To Or Repelling Iran?

Posted on in Uncategorized title_rule

Iraq and Iran have had a dynamic relationship over the past few decades. The Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s was a period of conflict, but in recent times since the fall of the Saddam regime in 2000, the regional neighbours have shared closer ties. 2020 onwards however has been an interesting time in the history of their relations – “interesting” meaning their relations have been somewhat of a ‘mixed bag.’ This article explores whether at present Iraq is veering closer to its neighbour, or pulling apart from it.

On the one hand it seems to be courting Iran (or perhaps Iran is courting it). This can be seen in its actions in strengthening bilateral coordination with Iran – namely in the areas of defence, diplomacy, economics and politics. Notably in November 2020, the defence apparatus of the two countries explored the prospect of strengthening defence and military cooperation – also in the area of counter-terrorism. The latter issue is especially poignant in Iraq – which faces threats from a resurgent Islamic State. On the issue of diplomacy, their leaders and senior officials meet regularly. Further, they also attend each other’s state events. Notably last month, Iraq’s President Barham Saleh attended the inauguration of Iran’s new president. Iran reciprocated through its Foreign Minister being in attendance at Iraq’s special Baghdad Conference in the same month. Iraq has also been a mediatory bridge between Iran and its major regional rival, Saudi Arabia.

The latter could be a seen as Iraq taking interest in its neighbour’s diplomatic relations. However, it seems much more likely Iraq would seek to involve itself as a mediator to bolster its own international or regional reputation. In other words, using such high-profile talks to make itself look good. This is certainly not an action that would endear Iraq to Iran. Further, being that Iraq has relations with both countries, its mediator role more than likely looks to be a cover for trying to get the most out of its relations with both countries. This seems plausible, considering in November 2020 Iraq reopened its border crossing with Saudi Arabia – which had been closed since 1990. As mentioned previously, in the same month Iraq sought to strengthen its ties with Iran militarily. Further, on 4 September 2021 Iraq and Saudi Arabia met to discuss security cooperation. Together, such moves suggest Iraq is playing a game – seeking to keep both sides close, so that it can benefit from both. Being mediator is of course another step towards securing closeness and extensive diplomatic dialogue with both.

Further, diplomatically and culturally-speaking, the peoples of both Iraq and Iran share extensive ties. This is evident in the fact thousands of Iranian Arbaeen pilgrims flock each year to Iraq’s holy Shi’a sites. The latter is something the two governments have this month capitalised on, when they reached a no-visa deal for their peoples entering the other’s country. In the same religious and cultural remit, Iraqi society is very much influenced by Iran. This is evident in the Iraqi state-sanctioned Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). The latter group is home to a number of Iraqi militias who either possess sectarian ties to, or are backed by Iran. Examples of such militias are the Khataib Hezbollah; Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and the Badr Organisation. Such groups have vast sway in the Iraqi state, whilst also acting as proxies in the region. This suggests that agents of the Iraqi state are moving towards Iran.

However, as much as the two countries have ties, there also exist times when they do not see eye-to-eye. This is evident in the way many in Iraqi civil society have blamed Iran for the ills of their country – namely its role in the violent targeting of anti-corruption activists and journalists in Iraqi society. For example, last month an Iraqi Shi’a cleric publically called out PMF militias with links to Iran for being ‘disloyal’ to Iraq. One has to wonder whether such a voice is in the minority or in the majority. I suspect such a voice is in the minority in the PMF, but in the majority amongst Average Joe Iraqi citizen. Further, in May 2021 in the city of Karbala, demonstrators who blamed Iran for its role in the death of a prominent anti-corruption and anti-sectarian journalist, set fire to the gates, entrances and trailers of the Iranian consulate in the city. Iran of course voiced strong condemnation of the attack on its consulate, and also urged neighbouring Arab countries to pursue the case under international conventions. Iran not choosing to overlook the actions of Iraqi citizens suggests the relationship between Iran is not as special as one might think. Further, the strong-willed actions of the Iraqis who attacked the consulate suggests Iraqis at least are not as mesmerised with Iran as the Iraqi state might be.

But aside from the people, at the previously mentioned Baghdad Conference, Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi made cryptic remarks whereby he said Iraq refuses to be used as a middle ground for conflicts – both regional and international. Further, he said his country “reject[s] Iraq being used as a springboard for any threat to any party.” It is unclear which party or parties he was referring to, but in context he could very well have been referring to Iran’s role in the country. This can be deduced from the fact Iran has a number of ongoing conflicts both regionally and internationally – with Israel, the US, and the Arab Gulf states. Additionally, it can be deduced from Iran’s Foreign Policy being predicated on influencing foreign affairs via its proxies and enablers in the region. Again, Iran already has proxies in Iraq. Assuming Iran is the subject being referred to, this would suggest Iraq by the very least is trying to distance itself somewhat from Iran.

But with no specifics given to identify who the Prime Minister was speaking of, his speech cannot definitively be used for comment on the nature of Iraq-Iran relations. Moreover, with the presence of Iran’s Foreign Minister at the Conference, it makes it unlikely Iraq would speak of its close neighbour like that. Nevertheless, it is not impossible, and could account for the reason why Iraq’s leader chose to speak cryptically. This is because it seems plausible that Iraq would only be able to speak freely and more explicitly about its concerns at such a conference if the party was not present at the time of delivery. This therefore suggests the subject of the speech was indeed present at the time: Iran’s Foreign Ministry. Again, this suggests Iraq is seeking to move away from Iran – or by the very least away from Iran’s foreign policy.

Whilst unproven, one area that seems to indicate Iraq is repelling Iran is with Iraq’s working relationship with the United States. The US has had large numbers of troops deployed in Iraq. They do so to help Iraqi security forces maintain peace and stability in the country – having spent much of the time liberating the country from Islamic State militants since 2014. Iran is not a fan of the United States, nor of its presence in Iraq and in the wider region. In fact, the United States is an arch rival of Iran, and both are currently in conflict. The United States however contributes much to Iraq’s internal security and stability – with American troops having trained and fought alongside Iraqi security forces in the fight against terrorism.

Over the past few months, Iraq has seen many attacks on its capital Baghdad as well as other areas from militants. The latter have mainly been seeking to attack the United States and its installations in the country. The US has claimed Iran and Iran backed militias are responsible for carrying out such attacks. Assuming Iran is responsible for such attacks, Iraq is clearly being destabilised by Iran’s actions. This would suggest Iraq would seek to do what it can to distance itself from Iran and its perceived actions. This could therefore explain why Iran would make a speech at the Baghdad Conference, warning against being used as a “middle ground” or “springboard” for conflict [with the United States].

One interesting areas of Iraq-Iran relations is in the energy sector. Iraq is a beneficiary of much of Iran’s petroleum and gas. In fact in October 2020, Iran’s secretary of the Iranian Union of Petrochemical, Gas and Oil Exporters revealed that 60 percent of the country’s petrol went to neighbouring Iraq. Further, Iran also sends Iraq mammoth amounts of gas. On the latter issue, Iraq has accrued $5 million in arrears. Iran has been seeking the money back from Iraq. Therefore, it was no coincidence that early this month Iran began turning off the gas. In fact, Iran reduced the amount of gas it supplies its neighbour to 8 million cubic meters per day – down from 49 million. No reason was given as to why it acted to do so, but Iraq’s debts are suspected. This suggests Iraq has somehow fallen out of favour with the Islamic Republic. However, Iran’s actions this month suggest Iraq does indeed share a special relationship with it – or rather that their relationship is still somewhat close. This is evident in Iran’s Oil Ministry’s decision to appoint a special envoy for Iraqi affairs. The latter decision suggests a special interest in Iraq on the Iranian side. It also shows a willingness to resolve the issue by diplomatic means – as opposed to more hostile or impersonal means. This in itself indicates Iraq and Iran, at least on this issue, are not repelling each other. However, one will have to see in the coming months or year if the outcome of this issue will have bearing on Iraq’s perception of and relations with its close neighbour.