Iranian influence in Iraq under threat due to economic crisis, political shifts

Tehran’s concerns are father exacerbated by Kadhimi’s history of cooperation with the US and Gulf allies.
Saturday 09/05/2020
Former Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi hands over prerogatives to new Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in Baghdad, May 7. (REUTERS)
New phase. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi hands over prerogatives to new Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in Baghdad, May 7. (REUTERS)

LONDON --The United States believes Iraq is well positioned to strengthen its political power in light of Iran’s internal recession due to the coronavirus pandemic and crippling US economic sanctions.

 According to Iraqi foreign affairs officials in contact with the US State Department, Washington’s assessment indicates that Iran has received a tremendous shock over the past two months as militias it backs in Iraq have been economically hamstrung by the COVID-19 crisis, unable to use Iraq’s expected budget surplus to fund Tehran’s aims.

 Iran’s previous economic estimates were based on faulty assumptions that oil prices would increase at a higher rate, allowing militias to be funded by budget surpluses. 

But the dramatic collapse in oil prices and the coroanvirus pandemic painted a different picture. 

After the appointment of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, a former intelligence chief who firmly opposes armed militias, Iran’s project in Iraq is in jeopardy.

 US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testifies before the US House Foreign Affairs Committee on "Evaluating the Trump Administration's Policies on Iran, Iraq and the Use of Force" in Washington, last February. (AFP)
Pushing back. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testifies before the US House Foreign Affairs Committee on "Evaluating the Trump Administration's Policies on Iran, Iraq and the Use of Force" in Washington, last February. (AFP)

 Iranian concerns are father exacerbated by Kadhimi’s history of cooperation with the US and Gulf allies.

Iraqi Parliament Speaker Mohamed Al-Halbousi earlier pointed to the need for cooperation with the international community so that Iraq can weather the economic storm caused by the collapse of oil prices.

Halbousi also said that if Iraq wants urgent financial aid to secure the salaries of its employees, it will not get it from Iran, but rather from Arab Gulf countries, the West and the United States.

 Saudi Arabia said it was ready to work with Baghdad’s new government and strengthen their “historic ties” to ensure the region’s security and prevent external interference.

 “We express our support and willingness to work with the new Iraqi government on the basis of cooperation, mutual respect, historical ties and common interests on the basis of strengthening our relations,” said a statement by the kingdom’s foreign ministry.

The statement wished Kadhimi success in leading the government and “achieving the aspirations of the Iraqi people regarding their sovereignty, security, and stability.”

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz also personally congratulated Kadhimi in a call May 7.

During the call, Crown Prince Mohammed confirmed Riyadh’s support for “Iraq’s development and security” and the “Kingdom’s keenness to strengthen relations between the two countries,” the Saudi news agency SPA reported.

Kadhimi and the Saudi crown prince have a close relationship that dates back to 2019, when Kadhimi managed Iraq’s intelligence services.

Kadhimi is also credited with helping revive Iraqi-Saudi relations between 2014 and 2018 under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, when the two countries had historically strong ties.  

Ties between Saudi Arabia and Iraq were restored in 2015 after the kingdom reopened its embassy in Baghdad following a 25-year break. The countries had been at loggerheads since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

 In recent years, Riyadh has been wooing Baghdad as part of an effort to stem the growing regional influence of Iran, while Iraq seeks economic benefits from closer ties with the kingdom.

In October 2017, two months before Iraq declared victory over ISIS, the countries established the Iraqi-Saudi Joint Coordination Council, to help rebuild devastated areas retaken from the militants in Iraq.

For years Baghdad has seen itself caught in the crossfire between Washington and Tehran — a position that was worsened by US sanctions on Iran.

Tehran’s sway over Baghdad dates back more than a decade, to the aftermath of the US-led invasion, when dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.

(With news agencies.)