Iraq seeks better ties with neighbours amid US-Iran crossfire

Baghdad is caught between US pressures to abide by sanctions against Iran and relentless attempts by Tehran to influence Iraqi politics.
Sunday 25/11/2018
Iraqi President Barham Saleh (L) meets with Saudi Arabia's King Salman in Jeddah, on November 18. (Iraqi Presidency Media Office via AFP)
Iraqi President Barham Saleh (L) meets with Saudi Arabia's King Salman in Jeddah, on November 18. (Iraqi Presidency Media Office via AFP)

LONDON - Iraq is seeking to improve relations with regional states that are at odds with each other, in a balancing act complicated by conflicting pressures from Washington and Tehran.

Baghdad is caught in the crossfire of US pressures to abide by sanctions against Iran at the same time it faces relentless attempts by Tehran to influence Iraqi politics.

Iraqi President Barham Salih stressed that his recent tour to Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Iran and Saudi Arabia was aimed at improving ties with Iraq’s neighbours and avoiding being drawn into regional conflicts.

“I made the point that Iraq’s prospect for success is real, but remains precarious, so it should not be burdened with further tensions and escalations in the neighbourhood… Iraq has been the domain for regional power struggles — the rivalry over Iraq and within Iraq among regional and global actors have sustained and deepened (the) Iraqi crisis,” said Salih on November 22.

“We are emphatic about fully developing our relations with our Arab and Gulf neighbours. Our relation with Iran is also important… It is in our national interest to promote good relations with Iran and alike with our northern neighbour, Turkey, which is undeniably an important economic geopolitical actor.”

Salih’s remarks echoed recent comments by Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who said “Iraq does not wish to become part of a struggle to which it is not party,” in a reference to tensions between the United States and Iran.

US President Donald Trump has vowed to impose the “toughest ever” sanctions against Iran and he is pushing for Iraqi compliance.

Although the US has granted Iraq a 45-day exemption from the sanctions on Iran, on which Baghdad relies heavily for natural gas imports, Washington is pressuring Baghdad to find alternatives to Iranian supplies.

“US energy companies are pitching Iraq on ways to meet its own energy needs. In recent months, several have signed deals or made proposals to help Iraq, including by capturing gas from the country’s oil fields and upgrading its shoddy power network,” reported the Wall Street Journal.

“The US also has asked Iran’s rival Saudi Arabia to invest in power and other infrastructure in southern Iraq,” said the paper, citing an unnamed US official.

The Iranians, meanwhile, are talking about boosting trade with Iraq. “Through bilateral efforts, we can raise this figure [of $12 billion for bilateral trade] to $20 billion in the near future,” President Hassan Rohani said on November 17 after meeting with the Iraqi president.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on Iraq to “strongly resist” governments that “have a strong grudge” towards Iran.

Nevertheless, it appears that Baghdad does not always find its interest in “resisting” US pressures despite the influence that Iran wields on Iraqi politicians. Iraq announced that it would stop exporting oil from Kirkuk to Iran and instead resume the flow of crude through a pipeline to Turkey.

Iraq has also sought to pay Iran for its gas imports in Iraqi dinars, as Washington opposed the use by Iraq of US dollars in such transactions. Baghdad’s offer was rejected by Tehran, which suggested dealing in euros instead.

Iraq has sought to improve ties with Qatar as high-level officials exchanged visits in November.

According to Iraqi media reports, Qatar — which is currently embroiled in a dispute with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt over alleged ties to Islamic extremists — has asked Iraq to adhere to a new alliance that would include, besides Qatar and Iraq, three other neighbouring countries: Iran, Syria and Turkey.

Officials in Doha and Baghdad have denied the reports and said the Iraqi and Qatari sides have instead discussed the reconstruction efforts in areas of Iraq that were destroyed during the war against the Islamic State (ISIS).

Despite the ongoing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Iran-backed politicians in Iraq view Riyadh and Doha — as well as Ankara — with suspicion, accusing the three Sunni states of harbouring a common anti-Iran/Shia agenda.

These same politicians are however increasingly challenged at home as pro-Iran stances are clearly losing appeal in the country, even in Shia constituencies.

A recent survey found that the percentage of Iraqi Shias who have favourable attitudes towards Iran decreased from 88% in 2015 to 47% in 2018. Respondents having unfavorable attitudes toward Iran increased from 6% to 51% during the same period.