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The Conflict Over Iraq

The Conflict Over Iraq

Monday, 21 January, 2019 - 08:45
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper
Uncertainty is a permanent occupant in the Iraqi-Iranian relations. It involves mutual suspicions and concerns which prove that what’s between them surpasses border disputes. Iraq has long presented itself as a barrier to the flow of Iranian influence in the direction of Arab land. Iran has long regarded Iraq as an obstacle to expanding its role and movement. Under this climate, each side sought to secure advantages on the other’s land. Iran considered that Iraq’s fragile structure could be penetrated through the Shiite and Kurdish components. Iraq, for its part, did not hesitate to raise the issue of “Arabistan” and sympathize with the Kurds beyond the border, despite the suppression of the same community within its map.

A number of events confirm the thorny nature of relations between Tehran and Baghdad. On March 6, 1975, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Iraqi Vice President Saddam Hussein signed the “Algiers Accord”, under the auspices of President Houari Boumediene. Saddam made border concessions to Iran in return for a pledge to stop supporting the Kurdish revolution that collapsed under the agreement. Those compromises left deep wounds in the soul of Saddam Hussein and were among the reasons that led him to wage war against Iran.

A year before the war, in September 1979, President Saddam participated in the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Havana, where he met with Iranian Foreign Minister Ebrahim Yazdi. Following the meeting, Iraq’s permanent representative to the United Nations and member of the Baath Party’s national leadership, Salah Omar al-Ali, tried to encourage Saddam to deepen dialogue with Iran, which was in turmoil. Saddam’s response was resounding: “This opportunity may not happen once every hundred years. Opportunity is available today. We will break the heads of the Iranians and we will return every inch they occupied. We will regain Shatt al-Arab.” Saddam inaugurated the 1970s by foiling what was known as “Al-Rawi plot”, sponsored by the Iranian apparatuses with the knowledge of the Shah himself.

The opportunity that may not come once every hundred years has been given to Iran on a plate, perhaps unwittingly. The opportunity came when the US uprooted Saddam’s regime, split the Iraqi army and went too far in its de-Baathification policy. Tehran realized that the opportunity might not be repeated. That is why it decided to penetrate the Iraqi structure, not only to prevent the possibility of the emergence of a hostile Iraq, but also to ensure that the country will move in its orbit. The road will be paved for such an opportunity when Barack Obama executes his decision to withdraw the US troops from Iraq, knowing that the American influence in Mesopotamia had diminished long before the troops’ departure.

A new Iraqi tragedy that Iran has transformed into an opportunity: In June 2014, Mosul fell in the hands of ISIS. The government of Nuri al-Maliki did not have a choice but to ask for the Americans’ help. In parallel, the Shiite authority, represented by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called for “Jihad” against ISIS. The pro-Iran Iraqi armed factions took advantage of this environment to engage in the “popular mobilization forces.” In 2016, under the government of Haider al-Abadi and by pressure from Iran, the Popular Mobilization Forces’ authority was legitimized to become part of the state security institutions.

It is no longer possible today to talk about an Iraqi-Iranian conflict. Iran lives inside Iraq, in its entity and decision-making. It is a mandatory crossing in the selection of presidents and officials in sensitive security posts. If it avoids boasting about its right to appoint, it certainly has the right to veto persons who do not follow its directions. It enjoys a crucial presence within the Shiite component, with a certain influence within the Arab Sunni and Kurdish components. The best proof is the intervention of General Qassim Soleimani so that Baghdad does not go far in punishing the Kurds after they voted in favor of self-determination, in a referendum called for by Massoud Barzani in September 2017.

We are witnessing today some features of a chapter of conflict over Iraq between the United States and Iran. Many considerations have imposed a kind of coexistence between the American and Iranian hegemony under the governments of Maliki and Abadi. The circumstances are different today, especially after Donald Trump’s administration abandoned the nuclear agreement with Iran and returned to impose “unprecedented” sanctions on Tehran.

A quick comparison with its connotations: Trump visited US troops in Iraq without prior notice and did not go to Baghdad. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Baghdad without prior announcement. This happened in a country where the US has spent the blood of thousands of soldiers and billions of dollars and imagined that it would create a democratic state or a loyal regime at worst.

After Pompeo’s visit, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif toured Kurdistan, Baghdad and the South. He met officials, leaders from the Popular Mobilization Forces, clan chiefs and businessmen. Zarif said Pompeo had absolutely no right “to intervene in the affairs of Iran and Iraq.”

“We and Iraq have relations older than the presence of the United States and we will maintain those relations,” he went on, noting that his visit to Iraq was “the longest trip I make to a country in the world.”

Zarif’s visit coincided with repeated statements by Iraqi MPs calling for the drafting of a law that provides for the departure of “foreign forces”, hinting at the US troops. A bit of tolerance towards the Turkish military presence has emerged after Ankara approached Moscow and Tehran in the Syrian file. There are those who believe that speeding up the withdrawal of Americans may require harassment by “unknown” organizations, as implicitly said in a report by the International Crisis Group, which quoted a senior Iranian national security official as saying that Iraq was the most probable theater of confrontation with the US.

There are those who believe that Iran insists on resolving the Iraqi situation in its favor, fearing gradual limitation to its role in Syria, with the mounting acknowledgment of the Russian influence there. Moreover, field developments in Yemen are proving to be not in favor of the Houthis. In the conflict over Iraq, Turkey has not been able to attain a prominent role as it is trying to do in Syria. As for the Arabs, the option available to them is to engage with the current Iraqi regime to encourage it to recognize the importance of the Arab embrace, even as a balancing factor.

In the past decades, there have been talks about the conflict over Syria. We are now talking about the conflict over Iraq. Some Iraqi politicians believe that the United States, which is focusing on besieging Iran economically, is no longer ready to invest heavily in the Iraqi fate, and would prefer to transfer this potential and efforts to contain the Chinese rise.

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