Analysis Seeking to Bypass U.S. Sanctions, Iran Tightens Its Grip on Iraqi Politics

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Meanwhile, Washington’s only interest is for the next Iraqi government to follow its sanctions policies – whatever the political price
Zvi Bar’el
Supporters of Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr carry his image as they celebrate in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, Iraq, May 14, 2018.Hadi Mizban,AP

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The important news on the formation of a political bloc to lead Iraq for the next four years was supposed to come out from the Babylon Hotel in Baghdad’s bustling center this week. Twice over the past decade, the hotel fell victim to car-bomb attacks, but this didn’t stop the place from becoming one of the country’s most attractive and expensive tourist destinations.

A night goes for $220, including breakfast and access to both swimming pools. The hotel is near Baghdad’s main shopping areas, and no less important, it’s near one of Iraq’s most famous ice-cream stands. Representatives of the parties that won the May 12 parliamentary elections preferred to meet at a hotel with an appropriate “atmosphere” instead of hiding in the protected Green Zone where most of the ministries are located in former palaces left by Saddam Hussein.

The pleasant atmosphere and good food may be an effective condition for political negotiations, but they’re not enough – as the representatives of the political blocs learned. Three months after the elections, and similar to Lebanon, the process of forming a government is taking its time threading the political minefield in this country of tribes and minorities.

After an exhausting series of discussions, it seemed this time the four main blocs would build a coalition based on about 200 of the 329 legislators, a coalition that could then agree on a cabinet and principles. But the meeting blew up, the decisions were postponed and the next session is expected to be held only in mid-September – if everything goes well.

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Forming a government in Iraq is a work of careful and complex deliberation; politicians must take into account the Shi’ite majority and minorities including the Sunnis, Kurds, Turkmens and Christians. But the ethnic and religious blocs aren’t all made up of the same material and internally aren’t necessarily harmonious either. The Shi’ites are divided into four rival sub-blocs, each headed by a powerful politician. Each also has its own militia in the guise of security forces, whose budgets come from the government.

The disagreements between the Shi’ite parties fall along two parallel axes. Some, such as the Victory Alliance headed by former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, oppose Iranian influence and have even declared that an Iraq they headed would implement the new U.S. sanctions against Iran.

The same goes for the isolationist leader Muqtada al-Sadr, whose party won 54 seats. He feels that Iraq must keep itself equidistant from both Iran and the United States. In comparison, Ammar al-Hakim’s National Wisdom Movement, which fiercely opposes the sanctions on Iran, says Iraq must aid Iran even at the expense of its relations with the U.S. administration.

Sunnis and Kurds

The Sunnis, who will have about 35 seats in the new parliament, became a persecuted and oppressed minority after the fall of Saddam, so much so that some even joined the Islamic State. They did this not because they were so religious or radical, but mostly to take revenge against the Shi’ite regime that excluded them form budgets and political power, and because the Iraqi army treated them as if they were being occupied in their own country.

Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani, center, at a ceremony in Tehran, June 30, 2018.

But the Sunnis too are divided, based in part on their tribal and regional affiliations. Some even cooperate with Iran even though it’s a Shi’ite country.

The Kurds, who will have some 40 seats in parliament, also have a long history of internecine problems. On one side of this rivalry is the western part of the Kurdish region, where Masoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the president of the entire Kurdistan region since 2005, ruled until last year. In the eastern part, Jalal Talabani, who died last year, and his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan were in control. The Change List party, in turn, has become a major force that competes with the two large Kurdish parties.

But beyond the agreement needed to divide up the government portfolios and budgets, Iraq has a regional influence in competition with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the United States. Each has opposing interests and, as in Lebanon and Syria, the government’s makeup has great importance for the each of these regional actors.

After the 2003 Iraq War, Saudi Arabia treated Iraq as a hostile nation, first because of the 1990 occupation of Kuwait by Saddam and later because of the Shi’ite-led government and its cooperation with Iran. But the Saudis have changed their attitude and two years ago reopened their embassy in Baghdad. Recently the border crossing between the two countries was reopened too, in an attempt to divert Iraqi trade with Iran to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hopes to see Abadi, who has said he will follow the U.S. sanctions on Iran, back leading Iraq.

Iranian cars and trucks

The Iranian interests concern more than just its battle for regional hegemony against the United States and Saudi Arabia in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq. The Iranian partnership with Iraq is now more important than ever. Iraq is the most important destination for Iranian fuel, cars and consumer goods, and it could very well serve as a channel for bypassing U.S. sanctions and a source of dollars and banking operations limited by the sanctions.

Iran is trying to put former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki back into the post. Maliki is the enemy of the Kurds and Sunnis, and would ensure Iran’s continued influence on the country. According to reports form Iraq, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, visited the city of Najaf, which is holy for the Shi’ites, last week. He also visited Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region; both trips were meant to convince the political leaders to remove Abadi’s supporters and establish an alternative bloc that would support Maliki.

Iran, one of the first countries to open a consulate in the Kurdish region, is well connected to the Kurdish leadership – not just because 5 million Kurds live in Iran, who suffer persecution and repression. Iran also exports millions of dollars of goods to the Kurds. Tehran’s main tool for pressuring the Kurds is the series of border crossings it can open or close as it sees fit; in doing so it can batter the Kurdish region, which already suffers from a chronic lack of funds.

As for Qatar, it’s very active among the Sunnis and encourages the Sunni leaders to present ambitious demands in return for participating in the political bloc that would forge a government. The United States is terrified by the possibility that Maliki will return as prime minister and strongly supports Abadi’s candidacy.

This may be where the interests of the anti-American Sadr meet those of Washington, but it’s also clear to the United States that any Iraqi prime minister who wins Sadr’s support can’t deny his anti-American positions. And what interests Washington at the moment is for the next Iraqi government to follow its sanctions policies – whatever the political price.

We can assume that U.S. President Donald Trump would be happy if Saddam could be resurrected and returned to power in Iraq. He was certainly the type of leader Trump admires and one who would adopt the sanctions policy. It’s ironic that it was actually George Bush Sr. and Jr., Republicans, who created the processes that are now affecting Iraq and threatening their successor’s policies.