The resurrection of Abadi
If there is one country where the Iran’s nuclear deal will be the most felt, it should be Iraq. This was the mantra in Washington for the weeks leading to the conclusion of the P5+1 talks in Vienna. Predictions revolved around the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), the stability of the Iraqi government and the role of the Iranian-backed Shia militias.
The rapid advance of ISIS since the summer of 2014 led to the establishment of a virtual state from Diyala in Iraq to Aleppo in Syria, comprising one-third of Iraq’s territory. More than 2,600 US air strikes on ISIS targets in Iraq since August 2014 have helped Iraqi troops, Iranian-backed militias and Kurdish fighters but a massive air campaign was not enough to challenge ISIS’s control on the ground.
With Tehran’s focus on Syria and Washington’s reluctant diplomacy, ISIS gradually emerged in Iraq. US officials opted to put pressure on former Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki to be more inclusive instead of reacting instantly to the ISIS advance. In return, Maliki insisted on not arming Sunni tribes instead of preventing the loss of one-third of his country.
Iran explored this gap starting in June 2014 and Iraqis were ready to welcome any help. Shia militias, which had existed with Iran’s support since 2003, became a parallel force to the Iraqi Army.
Critics of the nuclear deal argue that once the sanctions are lifted, Tehran will match the $1.6 billion allocated by the Obama administration for Iraq. They also predict that the nuclear deal will weaken the Iraqi government and embolden Iranian proxies, who will be ready to take over Iraq after the parliamentarian elections in 2018.
Judith Yaphe, senior research fellow and Middle East Project director at the US National Defense University, tells The Arab Weekly that she is “doubtful how much more Iran will be able to spare” in providing resources for Iraq.
“Iran is deeply committed to the defence of Syria until and unless it decides to abandon [Syrian President Bashar] Assad. Iraq is Iran’s strategic depth, its first line of defence against [an ISIS] onslaught”, she added. Yaphe also said that if Shia areas in Iraq fall under ISIS control, it is “not a good thing for an Islamic government dedicated to the Islamic Revolution and the [Shia] Awakening”.
In the case of Iraq, the convergence of interests between Washington and Tehran was more about ISIS and less about the nuclear deal. Both sides work in indirect tandem to fight ISIS and both are supportive of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
One can even argue that the unreliable electricity service during a major heatwave seemed to have a greater impact on Iraq than Iran’s nuclear deal.
As his government is struggling to maintain security in large parts of the country, Abadi chose to open another domestic front, riding the wave of anti-government protests to unveil major structural reforms.
Abadi was emboldened by the public support of Ayatollah Ali al- Sistani, Iraq’s most influential cleric, who urged the prime minister to “strike with an iron fist” against corruption and sectarian-driven political appointments.
According to Yaphe, Abadi “took the unheard-of step of sacking the deputy prime ministers and vice-premiers, stripping them of their militias, reviewing corruption charges and declaring a sectarian-free government”.
While the president of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, Masoud Barzani, is under fire for demanding a third term and “Kurdish talk of independence has gone mute” since the rise of ISIS, Yaphe adds that Iran “abandoned Maliki last year and is closer to Jalal Talabani [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan] than to Barzani and the [Kurdistan Democratic Party]”.
Yet, these driving forces and shifting dynamics in Iraqi politics predate the nuclear deal. The fact is that Iran is the kingmaker in Iraq. This has been true since 2003 and will continue for the foreseeable future.
Yaphe pointed out that “many prominent Iraqi Sunni Arabs and Kurds may talk against Iran but they are also friends of or close to” Iranian officials.
Beyond the sweeping reforms, Abadi needs to bring the country together and keep focused on liberating Iraqi territories as efforts to drive ISIS out of Anbar seem to falter. Containing Shia militias is crucial as they are growing in influence and might at some point ask for a seat on the table. This might be Abadi’s transformational moment.