Iraqi President Visits Neighbors

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

November 27, 2018

The newly elected president of Iraq, Barham Saleh, has just finished a whirlwind tour of the region, meeting with leaders of various Arab countries as well as Iran. Significantly, Mr. Saleh avoided visiting Tehran first, perhaps in an attempt to assuage fears that Iraq is becoming Iran’s pawn in the region. The trip also took place against the backdrop of Iraq’s ongoing political instability, with important government ministers yet to be named and with further unrest and violence in Basra.

The Jordan Times covered the visit in glowing terms, perhaps reflecting Jordan’s desire to see a more stable Iraq, less beholden to Iran: “The state visit of Iraqi President Barham Saleh to Jordan on Thursday was, indeed, a big success, having joined His Majesty King Abdullah in extensive talks about how to restore the old traditional and warm relations between the two countries to their historical level after having been interrupted by the internal conflict in Iraq, including the U.S. invasion and the waves of sectarian conflicts that followed…. The splendors of the past on the bilateral relations between the two Arab countries could be back on track in the wake of the visit of the Iraqi leader. All that is needed is more follow-ups on the part of the two sides. As the saying goes, where [there] is a will there is a way.”

Asharq Alawsat’s Abdulrahman Al-Rashed notes that Mr. Salih’s stop in Riyadh was a much needed one, for both the region and for Iraq itself: “The visit to Riyadh by new Iraqi President Dr. Barham Salih comes at a time when there is a need for relations to be reinvigorated to reflect a shift in the situation regionally, as well as internally within Iraq…. Both literally and figuratively, Iraq finds itself stuck between two competing neighbors: Saudi Arabia and Iran. The tripartite relationship among Riyadh, Baghdad and Tehran is tangled and complex. It remains to be seen how senior officials in Iraq decide they want to define this relationship and deal with the two governments.”

But as Iranian-American journalist Camelia Entekhabifard points out in a recent op-ed for the Saudi daily Arab News, Iraq’s president has been dealt a difficult hand, which some see as an either/or proposition: “Develop relations with the U.S. and count on its financial resources for construction, modernization and military training, or remain friendly with Tehran and be sidelined by Arab nations and abandoned by Washington. Perhaps by choosing to visit Jordan and the UAE before Tehran, Salih was showing Iranians where his priority lies: Pursuing better relations with Arab nations and the U.S…. The Middle East is passing the phase of extremism and heading toward peace and prosperity, as everyone is tired of civil and ethnic wars. Trump does not need to remind us who the source of division and trouble is; the region can see for itself.”

One direct consequence of the fallout between Iran and the United States is the disruption of Iraqi oil trade with Tehran due to U.S. sanctions. According to Rudaw’s Nawzad Mahmoud, “The first shipment of Kirkuk oil arrived in Iran in June 2018 marking the start of a broader agreement between Baghdad and Tehran ensuring Kirkuk oil was no longer shipped abroad via Turkey’s Ceyhan Port. But new US sanctions on Iran have changed everything. One Kirkuk official, who spoke to Rudaw on condition of anonymity, said a decision had been made to halt the export of Kirkuk oil via Iran, but revealed ‘tankers continue to export oil and might continue to do so until the day the sanctions are imposed’.”

Commenting on a recent U.S. Department of Defense report, Jerusalem Post’s Seth Frantzman raises a series of questions about how the United States can blunt what he considers to be Iran’s “destabilizing” role in Iraq: “The Iranian threat is increasing, according to a new report from the US Department of Defense. The Lead Inspector General report on Operation Inherent Resolve was released on Tuesday and reviews the US role fighting Islamic State in Syria and Iraq…. Iran appears to be running a state within a state in Iraq…. The Iranian-backed militias engage in ‘running illegal checkpoints, smuggling, drug and oil trafficking, bribery, and extortion’…. How will the US confront this Iranian threat? Washington is committed to helping the Iraqi government defend itself, but with Iran’s role growing and political parties in Iraq, as well as militias, aligned with Iran, how does the US make sure that support for the government does not end up in Iran’s hands.”

The Iranian government, for its part, is not keen to discuss its role in Iraq, although as this staff article in Tehran Times shows, it can’t resist taking shots at the U.S.-imposed sanctions: “Salih visited Tehran on Saturday. The visit came at a sensitive time when the U.S. is pressuring regional countries to go along with Washington in squeezing Iran under new sanctions unveiled early this month. But Iraqi officials have protested to the dictate and underlined Iran’s importance, including its place as the top trade partner of the Arab country. The newly-elected Iraqi president said on November 11 that it was in his country’s best interests to have good and stable relations with Iran, urging the U.S. to consider Baghdad’s political and economic position in talks about imposed sanctions on Iran. “

As if being pulled in different directions by the US and Iran was not enough, unrest in Basra continues to threaten the stability of the Iraqi government. The National’s editorial page offers a quick reminder of that threat, suggesting that Basra, rather than the creation of a new government, may be Iraq’s toughest challenge: “The killing of cleric Wissam Al Ghrawi in Basra signals a dangerous escalation in tensions in Iraq’s southern province…. Public protests, such as those triggered by the shameful failure of basic services in Basra, are a barometer of social discontent, to which any government must pay heed. Al Ghrawi was a leading voice in the protests…. For months, the greatest challenge facing Iraq’s politicians has been to form a government… The government faces multiple hurdles, any one of which, if mishandled, is capable of degenerating into crisis.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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