Thursday, May 30, 2019

Caught in a Vise: Iraq between the United States and Iran in Their Struggle for the Middle East

As the tension between the United States and Iran escalates, Iraq has been drawn into the conflict, despite the fact that the government of Prime Minister cAdil cAbd al-Mahdi and the Iraqi people have no appetite to become part of it.  How has the conflict’s dynamics affected Iraq?  What can Iraq do to avoid damaging its economy and political stability by becoming part of a struggle over which it has no control?

The Iranian regime has little support, either domestically or in the MENA region.  It is repressive, corrupt, and offers the Iranian populace little in the way of economic development, education or social services.  Its military involvement in Syria and Lebanon and financial support for irregular militias in Iraq, the Popular Mobilization Units (al-Hashad al-Shacbi) has only increased political instability in the Arab Mashriq, while draining economic resources at home.

Nevertheless, the Trump administration’s efforts to recruit Iraq in its struggle with Iran is counterproductive.  By pressuring Iraq to conform to the sanctions it has imposed on Iran, the Trump administration has made unreasonable demands on Iraq.  This is especially true in terms of Iraq’s extensive purchases of natural gas from Iran.  

Pressure is also being exerted to have Iraq reduce its financial and commercial exposure to Iran which provides 20% of Iraq’s electricity and whose construction companies are key in helping Iraq rebuild its infrastructure after decades of war and neglect by the state.

Why does Iran want to maintain political influence in Iraq?  First, Iraq provides an important land bridge which is critical to Iran’s efforts to create “strategic depth” by maintaining a corridor to the Mediterranean. To institutionalize this strategic depth, Iran supports the Bacthist regime of Bashar al-Asad in Syria and Hizballah in Lebanon, in addition to 3 of the most powerful Shica militias in Iraq.

Second, Iraq provides an important vehicle to allow Iran to sidestep the increasingly onerous sanctions which the US has imposed on it.  Goods which Iran is unable to obtain in the world market can, in certain instances, be acquired through the Iraqi market. Finally, Iraq continues to offer Iran a critical market in which it can sell its manufactured, agricultural and energy products, especially natural gas which Iraq requires to power its national grid.

Third, Iran seeks to use its political influence in Iran to prevent a hostile regime, like that of former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Husayn, from come to power in Baghdad.  Likewise, Iran seeks to maintain a powerful position in the Shica shrine cities, especially in al-Najaf, the center of global Shiism, and Karbala’, both in south central Iraq.  If Iran can play a role in selecting the key religious clerics in al-Najaf, then it can mobilize this influence to promote itself among the world’s Shica population.

It is less clear what US national interests are in Iraq, aside from its current interest in using it as part of its policy to bring the Iranian regime to its knees.  Any concern with promoting democracy in Iraq died long ago, if in fact that ever was a goal of the Bush administration’s 2003 invasion.  

The Obama administration wanted nothing to do with Iraq. Its foolish decision to enable Nuri al-Maliki to secure a second term as prime minister in 2010, even though he lost national elections, came back to haunt Iraq and the US in 2014 when his arch-sectarian policies led to the fall of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, to the Dacish.

Certainly, the Trump administration has shown no interest whatsoever in Iraq’s form of governance, whether democratic, sectarian or authoritarian.  Indeed, the Trump administration lacks a coherent foreign policy in the MENA region, including Iraq.  All decisions are largely ad hoc and transactional, constantly in flux, and without historical grounding or cultural understanding.

Examining the Trump administration’s position on Iran, we can ask whether it seeks regime change, as National Security Advisor John Bolton advocates, or does it support a exclusively sanctions-based policy as advocated by Trump (although his views on foreign policy change with great frequency, often day by day). 

Because the Trump administration is unclear on its objectives in Iran, that fact is all the more reason why Iraq seeks to avoid tying its fortunes to the US in this struggle.  Iraq will always need to live with and accommodate its powerful neighbor to the east, while the Trump administration may be gone after the 2020 presidential elections.

Increasingly, Iraq has become a pawn in a Trump administration game designed to bring Iran to its knees. This effort seems less a developed and well-thought through policy or strategy, with clearly defined goals and implementation process, than a set of tactics designed to bolster Trump’s political support with certain constituencies in the United States as part of his 2020 re-election campaign.  

Trump’s almost exclusive focus is on the trifecta of Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates bears out this argument. 
Strong support for these 3 countries, all of which are extremely hostile to Iran, bolsters Trump’s position among evangelical Christians, one of his core constituencies, and, he hopes, among large segments of the American Jewish community.  

By pushing arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states, even without Congressional approval, Trump can argue that his administration has created jobs.  Never mind that these arms are bringing death, devastation and the largest humanitarian crisis in the world to Yemen, and that the war is creating fertile ground for a new generation of terrorists who will plague Yemen, the region and future US administrations.

Current US behavior towards Iraq indicates a lack of sensitivity to diplomatic protocols. It likewise demonstrates a lack of cultural sensitivities to a country which was placed under American occupation from 2003 to 2011, and which suffered greatly from US bombing during the Gulf War of 1991.  

Diplomatic consultations have languished as Trump administration behavior towards the current government of Prime Minister cAdil cAbd al-Mahdi have taken on the character of “informing” the Iraqi government of the steps it needs to take to help the Trump administration isolate Iran politically and economically.

Trump’s recent decision to end sanctions waivers will cause Iranian oil exports to decline between 26-31%. Key industries - like the petrochemical, car and construction industries, which are highly dependent on imported equipment, spare parts and raw materials - are also suffering from the depreciation of the Iranian currency, which last year lost more than 100 percent of its value, significantly decreasing the purchasing power of Iranian companies on the international market.

Iraq has an unemployment rate of 25% in January 2019.  Iraq cannot afford more economic pressure if the US tries to disengage the Iraqi from the Iranian economy. Because the sanctions the Trump administration has imposed on Iran are achieving the goal of increasing its economic pain, there is no need to force Iraq to sanction Iran as well.

Trump’s populist project, inspired by former advisor Steven Bannon and current advisor Stephen Miller, eschew international agreements. This hostility to international cooperation is part of the ethic nationalism which is surging in many countries around the world, e.g., as seen in the recent re-election of Narendra Modi in India.  Such nationalism may help mobilize voting constituencies domestically, but are proving to be disastrous when they become a framing device for international politics.

As an example of the problems of conducting foreign policy on a country-by-country basis and transactional basis, devoid of international cooperation, and with little or no reference to prior efforts to solve a specific global problem, we can cite the Trump administration policy towards North Korea.  

Having invested his political capital and personal ego in coming to an agreement whereby the North Korean regime will agree to give up its nuclear weapons and create a nuclear weapons free Korean Peninsula, Trump now finds himself defending Kim Jong-on’s missile tests while castigating Iran which has yet to develop nuclear weapons.

This type of chaotic foreign policy is harming US national interests, not only in the MENA region but, as many analysts have noted, is also impeding the struggle against China’s global ambitions.  The idea that the United States can promote its national interests in isolation, without its traditional allies and the United Nations is deeply flawed.  If the US has remained in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), rather than withdraw, it would have had 11 partner nations to help in the struggle against China.

If the Trump administration would work with the EU and NATO, it could produce a truly meaningful strategy to prevent Iran from destabilizing the eastern Mediterranean region.  Likewise, it would reduce the possibility of other regional powers, especially Saudi Arabia and Turkey, from developing nuclear weapons should Iran decide to no longer abide by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), agreed to by the Obama administration, the EU, Russia and China.

If, through the refusal to develop a policy towards Iran, which will curb its adventurism and prevent it from developing nuclear weapons, the Trump administration needs to return to the international community and work with partners – partners which have been faithful allies since the end of WWII. 

Trump should be educated on the complexities of Iraqi politics and society. The Federal Government in Baghdad is still fighting the Islamic State (which is burning crops in north central Iraq), trying to conclude an agreement with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) on the federal budget, the sale of oil, and the contours of federalism, and confronting the problem of raising between $88 and $100 billion to rebuild the devastated city of Mosul and much of al-Anbar, Salahidin and al-Niniwa provinces, not to speak of pressing infrastructure needs elsewhere in the country.

Strategy needs to replace tactics. Unannounced or sudden visits to Iraq, such as Trump’s visit to US troops after Christmas in December 2018 when he didn’t exercise the courtesy of visiting the Iraqi leadership in Bagdad, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s peripatetic visits, need to end because all they do is provide political ammunition for Iran’s allies in Iraq who would like to see US troops leave Iraq and curtail its influence in the country.

Iraq and the United States must be equal partners if the Trump administration is able to achieve any of its objectives in the eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf region