Iraq between domestic quandaries and regional concerns

Trade and border agreements that include the removal of restrictions of Iranian goods entering Iraq will continue to cost Iraq its independence.
Sunday 14/04/2019
Checkmate? An Iraqi street currency exchanger and a customer count Iranian banknotes in Baghdad, March 16.  (AP)
Checkmate? An Iraqi street currency exchanger and a customer count Iranian banknotes in Baghdad, March 16. (AP)

The question of Iranian dominance in Iraq’s domestic political landscape and, in turn, Iraq’s dependence on Iran is back in the media spotlight while domestic concerns from Iraq’s crumbling infrastructure to endemic corruption take a back seat.

Caught between Iranian encroachment and a bottomless pit of domestic quandaries, the likelihood of Iraq standing on its own appears slimmer than ever. Iran, as one of two leading hegemons in Iraq alongside the United States, has demonstrated tenacity and persistence in exercising unprecedented power over Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s government. Those intentions were unveiled following Iranian President Hassan Rohani’s recent visit to Iraq.

The decision to scrap visa fees between both countries offers a glimmering example. The loss of potential visa-generated income cannot be viewed as anything but colossal for Iraq whose holy shrine cities draw millions of visitors annually.

By agreeing to this move, Baghdad backpedalled on promises of stimulating favourable growth in its religious tourism sector. “The Iraqi side,” as Rohani stated during a news conference in Baghdad, “prefers for visas to remain… but it accepts that no fees will be charged.”

Despite the reassurances, the greatest loss will be incurred by Iraq, in yet another display of the flagrant imbalance of power between the two allies.

The visa move drew criticism from Ahmad Hama Rashid, a member of the parliamentary Finance Committee. “Ultimately, changes to existing procedures favour the Iranian side only,” Rashid told the Anadolu Agency. He argued that far more visitors are welcomed by Iraq than Iran. “A quarter of the numbers we greet visit Iran annually,” he said.

Even if Iraqi politicians are swayed or find Iran’s policies appealing, public cynicism at home cannot be washed over with diplomatic handshakes, smiles and flowery promises. Even citizens with the greatest admiration for Iran recognise the move as economically deft and counter-intuitive in a country that welcomes millions of tourists from neighbouring Islamic states.

There was an even more brazen request by Rohani, who called on his Iraqi allies to expedite the dredging of a border river to regulate flood levels along the Shatt Al-Arab River, which forms the boundary between Iran and Iraq, following deadly floods that left entire Iranian provinces submerged.

An important detail was omitted, however. Iran’s dam construction which, like Turkey’s, significantly reduced river flows to Iraq. This strategy has backfired in the context of the recent floods but, once more, Iran turns to Iraq in ways reminiscent of the relationship between countries and their former colonies.

These are decade-old issues that have grown progressively worse but remain unremedied.

Although an agreement to revive the 1975 Algiers Accord, which regulates use of shared waterways, was reached, it lacks legislation without which nothing is implementable. Then, like now, the agreement has been driven by personal efforts but rarely translated into applicable laws. Without accompanying legislation, the demarcation of the invisible boundary that splits the shared water canal fairly is not possible.

Other trade and border agreements that include the removal of restrictions of Iranian goods entering Iraq will continue to cost Iraq its independence. In the face of an emboldened Iran, Iraqi politicians have displayed a greater tendency to acquiesce to its demands, instead of defending Iraqi sovereignty.

On the one hand, Iran professes friendship and a “deep connection that no third party can sever” but, on the other, it pursues an aggressive foreign policy towards its neighbour. If the Baghdad government fails to act, Iraq will forever find itself locked into a subordinate position from which it will be difficult to break free.

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