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Iraq caught between a rock and a hard place

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 continue 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, Donald Trump said on Monday that he was not seeking regime change in Iran and that he believed the Iranians would eventually seek dialogue. Meanwhile, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif was in Baghdad, where, while still in a defiant mood, he 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 neighbors.

His deputy, Abbas Araghchi, was touring Kuwait, Oman and Qatar hoping to solicit support ahead of this week’s crucial Islamic summit in Makkah. Riyadh has called for emergency Arab and Gulf Cooperation Council summits, along with an Islamic meeting, to discuss the recent attacks against oil tankers in Fujairah 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 buildup was triggered by the disclosure of intelligence reports suggesting that American troops in Iraq could be targeted by pro-Iranian militias. The US imposed additional sanctions on Tehran earlier this month and cancelled waivers for Iranian oil purchases. The new sanctions came 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, while 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 Iranian Militias in Iraq and Syria (IMIS) into the regular army. The IMIS' leaders do not hide their allegiance to Iran and are answerable to the notorious Islamic 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 Abdul-Mahdi, appears divided. On Sunday, at a joint press conference with Zarif, Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Ali Al-Hakim was clear that his country is siding with Iran “against US unilateral actions,” but added 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 punishing 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 conciliatory tones coming from President Hassan Rouhani and his close aides.

The recent crisis has underlined the growing disenchantment of 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 IMIS and find ways to terminate its ties to Tehran. It is unlikely that Abdul-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 IMIS as a proxy 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 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 Makkah 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 realize that it cannot ignore the possibility of talking to the Trump administration — as much as that is anathema to the Iranian leaders.

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