Macron pushes French interests in Iraq, avoids angering Iran

Observers believe that Paris is moving according to a strategy that contradicts Washington’s positions against Iran and its proxies in the region, and that it places French interests above any other international understanding.

Thursday 03/09/2020
Iraqi President Barham Salih welcomes French President Emmanuel Macron as he arrives in Baghdad, September 2. (Reuters)
Iraqi President Barham Salih welcomes French President Emmanuel Macron as he arrives in Baghdad, September 2. (Reuters)

BAGHDAD – During his visit to Iraq, French President Emmanuel Macron steered clear of the subject of Iran and its proxy militias, while Iraqi officials seemed to think of the visit as a show rather than an opportunity to obtain French financial or military aid in accordance with the expectations that accompanied the “sovereignty” initiative launched by Paris.

Macron's statements in Baghdad were full of expressions of support for Iraq and its full sovereignty over its territory, which Iraqis interpreted as a rejection of any repeat of Turkish incursions inside Iraq and a condemnation of the attacks by pro-Iranian Shia groups on airports, diplomatic missions and military camps. The French president, however, tended to be vague on these subjects just as he was during his visit to Lebanon, where he avoided criticising Iran or its proxy, Hezbollah.

An Iraqi official said that Macron’s references to “Iraqi sovereignty” also constituted an indirect message to Turkey.

Observers believe that Paris is moving according to a strategy that contradicts Washington's positions against Iran and its proxies in the region, and that it places French interests above any other international understandings.

Macron was warmly welcomed in Baghdad. He said that he was keen on “visiting Baghdad considering that such a visit is a French commitment that confirms the depth of the friendship between the two countries.” He also stressed his country's desire to keep pace with “the important projects in Iraq, especially Baghdad’s metro project and energy projects.”

The French president stated that he had discussed with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustapha al-Kadhimi the subject of “strengthening military cooperation," also stressing his country's readiness “to commit to securing Iraq’s energy sources.”

By focusing on potential aspects of cooperation in transport and energy, Macron’s visit could be the starting point for promising French-Iraqi understandings. But the French President did not announce any special forms of support for Iraq in implementation of his pledge to launch an “initiative to support the march of sovereignty” in Iraq, made the day before his visit to Baghdad.

There were no details given on this “sovereignty” initiative, which was widely debated by the Iraqi people. Some Iraqi officials even expected the announcement of new financial or military aid from France.

In recent months, France has multiplied its signals of support for Iraq through a visit by Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in July, in which he stressed “the importance of Iraq distancing itself from the tensions in the region.” Le Drian’s visit was followed by that of French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly on August 27, during which she went to Erbil and stressed the need to continue fighting ISIS.

France is seeking to expand its economic relations with Iraq, which, according to Transparency International, is among the twenty most corrupt countries in the world.

“Macron is definitely trying to push for a Middle East that looks towards France,” said Karim Bitar, a professor of political science based in Paris and Beirut.

He added that the French president was focusing on Lebanon and Iraq, both of which have relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia, because he believed that Paris could play the role of mediator if regional tensions escalated.

At Baghdad airport, Macron was welcomed by his Iraqi counterpart, Barham Salih, before moving to meet with Kadhimi and then Parliament Speaker Muhammad al-Halbousi.

Salih described his French counterpart as a “dear friend,” stressing his country's keenness “to establish the best relations with France based on understanding and coordination and rooted in the depth of the history of their mutual relations.” Saleh further stressed “Iraq's commitment to its steadfast approach to building balanced relations with its neighbors, friends and allies, and to using cooperation and partnership in the economic and investment fields as a way to build bridges between the peoples of the region, away from the politics of axes and of imposing wills.”

Salih added that “Iraq looks forward with interest to the support of the international community for its efforts to consolidate its full sovereignty, preserve its security and prevent military violations of its territory,” noting that “our collective efforts must focus on respecting each country’s sovereignty and not interfering in their affairs as a common interest for all, leading to the consolidation of regional security.”

Upon receiving Macron, Kadhimi said that “France is an important partner for Iraq and we want to expand this partnership,” stressing that “there are many aspects of cooperation between Iraq and France.”

“We seek to activate the document of the strategic understanding between the two countries,” Kadhimi added while praising France’s support for Iraq in its war against ISIS.

“We will work to overcome all the challenges facing French companies,” he said and thanked the French president “for his interest in protecting Iraq’s sovereignty.”

Kadhimi further stressed that “investment in the field of electricity production is open to French companies, as Iraq suffers from a problem in the production of electricity, and so is the possibility of taking advantage of nuclear power reactors to produce electricity, at a time when Iraq is looking forward to more joint cooperation between the two countries, especially with regards to the reconstruction of liberated areas and the program for the return of displaced persons.”