Challenging Dynamics between Iran, Iraq and the US

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Since the US reinstated sanctions on Iran in November, Iraq has been forced to deal with the repercussions: just one more challenge added to a long list. When the US began pressuring Baghdad to cut its energy imports from Iran – and before granting it the first waiver late 2018 –  some wondered whether Washington was punishing Iran or Iraq.  

As Washington presses on with its sanctions against Tehran, Baghdad now finds itself in the middle of a battle that is echoing throughout the region. 

Opec’s second-largest oil producer is currently facing myriad humanitarian, political, security, and socio-economic challenges, especially after years spent fighting ISIS. “The threat of ISIS has not been uprooted up until now,” said Iraqi President Barham Salih at the sixth annual Sulaimani Forum at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani that was held March 6-7, and which ClipperData attended. 


Iraq’s President Barham Salih (middle) and Shiite cleric Ammar al-Hakim, leader of the National Hakima Movement.

The US has assisted Iraq in its battle against ISIS, but in February, President Donald Trump spoke of another purpose for his troops in the country: “To be able to watch Iran.” This was not the first controversial action from the president with respect to Iraq.  This week at the Sulaimani Forum, President Salih reiterated that US forces in his country are there “at the request of the Iraqi government to [help] fight terrorism,” adding that any other purpose will be “unacceptable.”   

Iraq wants to maintain a “balanced” relationship with its neighbors, and avoid “taking sides” in the US-Iran crisis. Iraq would prefer to be like Oman, who has successfully managed to maintain positive relationships across various countries. But Iraq is being pulled in opposite directions: the influence of both the US and Iran is no secret.   

PHOTO-2019-03-08-22-41-59 (1) Iran’s former Ambassador to Syria Mohammad Reza Sheibani. 

“I think we have always acknowledged that Iran and Iraq will have a relationship,” said Andrew Peek, US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iran and Iraq, during a panel at the forum. However, he added that what Washington wants “ is a normal relationship, not where Iraq is a playground for outside powers.” 

Although there was no Iranian representative at that specific panel, Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif commented on Iranian-Iraqi ties in January in a visit to Baghdad, saying: “Relations between Iran and Iraq are not harmful to anybody and for this reason, we do not allow anyone to interfere in them.” Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani is expected to visit Iraq next week for the first time during his tenure. 

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Iraq is laden with challenges, and the US-Iran rivalry will keep it under pressure. Just last summer, we saw how this antagonism was reflected in the unrest that rocked oil-rich Basrah. 

“We do not trust the role of the United States in the Middle East” said Iran’s former Ambassador to Syria, Mohammad Reza Raouf Sheibani, at Sulaimani Forum’s final panel on March 7.  “This is our decision at the current time.” 

This increasing distrust in a region clouded by uncertainty is not the ideal recipe for stability.