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How Iraq finds itself caught between a rock and hard place

May 28,2019 - Last updated at May 28,2019

Iraq is trying to fend off the specter of being dragged into a war between the US and Iran as tensions between the two countries continues to spike. Following days of verbal and military escalation, both Washington and Tehran are trying to retrace their steps. In Tokyo, where the US president is on a state visit, US President Donald Trump said on Monday that he was not seeking regime change in Iran and that he believed the Iranians will eventually seek dialogue. Meanwhile, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was in Baghdad where, while still in a defiant mood, said his country was not seeking war and that he had put forward a proposal to sign a non-aggression agreement with his country’s Gulf neighbours.

His deputy, Abbas Araghchi, was touring Kuwait, Oman and Qatar hoping to solicit support ahead of a crucial Islamic summit to be held in Mecca at the end of the month. Riyadh has called for an emergency Arab and Gulf Cooperation Council summits along with an Islamic meeting to discuss recent attacks against oil tankers in Fujaira and oil pumping stations in Saudi Arabia. The US army has pointed the finger at Iran and its proxies.

It is against such a backdrop that Baghdad finds itself embroiled in a crisis that could easily turn into a full-fledged war. The recent US military build-up was triggered following the disclosure of intelligence reports suggesting that US troops in Iraq could be targeted by pro-Iranian militias. The US had imposed additional sanctions against Tehran earlier this month and cancelled waivers for Iranian oil purchases. The new sanctions come one year after Trump withdrew the US from the international nuclear deal with Iran.

Iraq finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, it depends on US military and economic support, and on the other its political system has been manipulated by Tehran for years. Pro-Iranian political parties have isolated Iraq from its Arab surroundings and deepened the sectarian divide that has disenfranchised its Sunni minority. Moreover, the central government has been unable to incorporate the mainly Shiite Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) into the regular army. The PMU’s leaders do not hide their allegiance to Iran and are answerable to the notorious Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

And while the powerful movement led by Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr has called on the Iraqi government to distance itself from a possible US-Iran showdown, the government, headed by Adel Abdel Mahdi, appears divided. On Sunday, and at a joint press conference with Zarif, Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammad Ali Al Hakim was clear that his country is siding with Iran “against US unilateral actions”, but adding that Baghdad was ready to mediate between Tehran and Washington.

So far, Iran has denied that it was seeking mediation with the US. But its latest diplomatic activity points to a growing concern that punching economic sanctions and the US military build-up in the Gulf are deepening schisms between moderates and hardliners. Thus the contradictory statements coming out of Tehran, threats made by the IRGC and reconciliatory tones coming from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his close aides.

The recent crisis has underlined a growing disenchantment by ordinary Iraqis with Iranian meddling in their country’s affairs. The US, which has not commented on Iraq’s offer to mediate, may decide to use this to put additional pressure on the Baghdad government. A main demand will be to deal with the threat of the PMUs and find ways to terminate their ties to Tehran. It is unlikely that Abdel Mahdi can summon the will to do that.

For Tehran, access to Iraq is vital both economically and politically. Iran is seeking to export its oil through Iraq while maintaining its influence over its ailing political system. And if a military confrontation does break out between Iran and the US, the Iranians hope to use the PMUs as proxies to hit American bases in Iraq.

Both the US and Iran hold strong cards in Iraq, and while the Baghdad government is seeking ways to avoid getting embroiled in the current crisis, internal divisions within the government and the legislature are likely to spill over if a military confrontation breaks out. Coming out of years of sectarian and ethnic conflicts and a bloody war against Daesh, the country can ill afford to be dragged into a new conflagration.

All the Iraqis can do in reality is to wait for the latest flurry of diplomatic activity to bear fruit ahead of the Mecca summits. But Iraq can also present itself as a possible conduit, one of many, to deliver messages between the US and Iran. But for that to happen Tehran must abandon its regional agenda and realise that it cannot ignore the possibility of talking to US President Donald Trump’s administration as much as that is anathema to Iranian leaders.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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