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Why Iraq is likely to favor Arab world over Iran

Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi visited Tehran along with a political and economic delegation at the weekend. He had been invited by Hassan Rouhani when he visited Iraq last month for the first time since becoming the Iranian president.

There are no doubts regarding the Islamic Republic’s desperate need for economic ties and good relations with its allies and neighbors, particularly those, such as Iraq, where it has been investing in the political climate for many years. These investments, which have been mainly concentrated on supporting a religious group or party due to their political and ideological agendas, turned out to be useless when President Donald Trump reimposed sanctions and changed the US’ regional policy toward Iran.

For Iraqis, while good relations with Iran are important, they also understand the importance of having Arab nations on their side and of gaining US support in order to rebuild their country and improve the economy.

Without a doubt, Iraqis don’t want to cut ties with Iran, as there is so much history and so many similarities between them. But, at the same time, their Arab identity -- and the need for investors -- makes them want to shop around. With the presence of American troops in Iraq and Baghdad’s need for the US to participate in reconstruction and offer military support, the atmosphere is more in favor of the Arab nations than Iran.

Abdul-Mahdi heads to Turkey from Iran and then to Saudi Arabia. He was also in Cairo ahead of the Arab leaders’ summit in Tunisia and attended the tripartite talks between Jordan, Egypt and Iraq. All this extensive traveling tells us of Iraq’s aim to improve its relations with the Arab world.

Iraqis understand leverage and the advantages they have to attract foreign investors. Abdul-Mahdi’s intense travels from Tehran to Ankara and then Riyadh come from this strategy to get the best available bidder in order to reconstruct the nation. Iraqis also understand that, at this time, Iran doesn’t have much money to offer.

As it is still in need of electricity imports from Iran, the US exempted Iraq from its Iran sanctions for another three months. Rouhani claimed that trade between the two countries is about $12 billion, with an ambition to increase it to $20 billion in the coming years.

With the current heavy sanctions on Iran’s economy and with promising forecasts for Trump’s re-election in 2020, it is hard to say if the Islamic Republic can reach its goals if it continues to refuse to talk to the US and carry on with its confrontational style.

Saudi Arabia has offered to supply Iraq’s electricity, but cutting off economic ties with Tehran would be neither easy nor practical in terms of security matters for the Iraqis.

In spite of all the investments made by the Iranians in politics and influence in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, the country now seems to be waking up and trying to move on from this hegemony and from civil war, ethnic clashes and religious competition, with the aim of rebuilding the nation and developing relations with neighbors and the international community based on mutual interests and respect.
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