Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi traveled this week to Tehran to confer with Iranian officials. Mr. Al-Kadhimi’s first official trip abroad was meant to come on the heels of a visit to Saudi Arabia. However, that had to be postponed, following King Salman’s hospitalization for gallbladder surgery. With a visit to the United States also on his schedule, it is clear that the recently appointed Iraqi prime minister understands his country’s geo-political situation as well as the need to find a new path forward. Recent developments at home, including the assassination of a high-profile journalist and Turkey’s ongoing breaches of Iraq’s sovereignty, are reminders that Mr. Al-Kadhimi’s aspirations for an independent Iraq may not be universally welcomed at home and abroad.
During his visit to Iran, the Iraqi PM was careful to underscore the importance of that country to Iraq’s stability, while reiterating one of the core tenets of his administration: non-interference in the internal affairs of their respective countries. According to an Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) report, PM Al-Kadhimi pointed out during a visit with Iran’s Vice President that both countries “suffer from economic problems, adding the two countries need comprehensive and inclusive cooperation to overcome them. Kadhimi said Iran-Iraq relations are not merely due to the geographical location of the two countries and their 1,450 km border, adding the ties are based in religion and culture and rooted in history. ‘I am reiterating to my brothers in the Islamic Republic of Iran that the Iraqi nation is eager to have excellent relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran based on the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of the two countries’.”
As this Syria Times report shows, that same message was transmitted to his Iranian counterpart by Iraq’s foreign minister only days prior, and appears to have been, at least rhetorically, embraced by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who nevertheless “stressed the necessity of remaining ready to face the threat of terrorism and the security threats posed by terrorist organizations, including ISIS, to the countries of the region. Zarif said during a joint press conference today with his Iraqi counterpart Fuad Hussein in Baghdad… that the relations between the two countries are based on the principle of mutual respect and are stable and will not be shaken, stressing the need to strengthen these relations in economic fields to serve the interests of both sides.... The Iraqi minister [Fuad Hussein] stressed the importance of nurturing common regional interests, non-interference in internal affairs, and keeping the region away from international tensions, stressing that his country wants balanced relations with all neighboring countries.
The Iranians, as Mr. Zarif’s statement reveals, have been careful not to appear to be pushing back against Iraq’s stated objectives. However, as this Tehran Times commentary makes clear, Iran has no intention of loosening its grip on Iraq, even if that means reminding the Iraqis of what they consider to be Iran’s pivotal role in guaranteeing Iraq’s stability: “The prime minister is trying to present Iraq as an influential country due to its relations with the Sunni Arab countries as well as its religious affinities with Iran, which can pave the way to reduce regional tensions.... Some Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, are trying to use [Iraq's Arab identity] ... as a trump card to strengthen Iraq’s influence and diminish Iran’s presence in the region.... However, Iraqi people never forget how Iran rushed to help its neighboring country in the most difficult security, economic, and political situations, regardless of their religious background. In fact, Iran has contributed to Iraq’s stability and paid a heavy price for establishing security in Iraq during the last six years. Whenever insecurity in the region spread due to the emergence of ISIS, Iran did its best to support Iraq by arming Kurdish forces and strengthening Hashd Al-Shaabi.”
Asharq Alawsat’s Ghassan Charbel astutely points out that it is precisely because the Iraqi prime minister understands his country’s reliance on Iran for its security that he is seeking to redress Iraq’s relationship with its Arab neighbors: “Since taking office on May 7, Al-Kadhimi has awakened the talk over a normal state and the battle to search for it. Terms of non-interference in internal affairs returned to the forefront…. It is obvious that Kadhimi is dreaming of getting Iraq out of the storm. Residing on the Iran-US line of confrontation has been so tough. Kadhimi does not carry a project hostile to Iran as a neighbor. Such a project does not solve the problem. It is neither required nor possible. He is proposing a plan that could strengthen Iraq’s position in dealing with Iran, Turkey, and other surrounding countries. Restoring Iraq’s relations with its Gulf and Arab environment is essential to reinstate the country’s ability to regain its natural position in the Iraqi-Iranian-Turkish balance.”
The urgency for, as well as the difficulty of, Iraq’s foreign-policy recalibration under PM Al-Kadhimi was demonstrated by the events of the last two weeks in Iraq. The National’s Dana Taib Menmy writes that, just as Iraqi officials met with their Iranian counterparts, “Turkey’s ground and air offensive against Kurdish militants in northern Iraq has forced hundreds of Christians and other minorities to flee their villages in recent weeks…. There were almost 320,000 Christians living in Iraqi Kurdistan, according to an estimate in 2015, but many have since fled abroad to escape increasing threats from ISIS and Turkish bombardments.... Christian civilians said they rejected the incursions by Turkey and Iran. Christians say Iranian forces shell border areas in Iraqi Kurdistan claiming it is targeting bases of the Iranian Kurdish opposition parties, but often strike villages. They say the Iraqi prime minister and president have a constitutional duty to protect the country’s borders and sovereignty.”
Meanwhile, last week’s assassination of Hisham Al-Hashimi, an Iraqi journalist and terrorism expert with close ties to the prime minister, has sent an unmistakable signal to both other journalists and academics, as well as to the Iraqi government. Rudaw’s Lawk Ghafuri explains that accusations for his killing have “mostly been [directed] at the Iran-backed armed militias – particularly Kataib Hezbollah, a Tehran-backed Iraqi militia falling under the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF, known in Arabic as Hashd al-Shaabi) umbrella.... For Salih al-Hamdani, a famous Iraqi writer and activist with a focus on Shiite politics, Hashimi’s assassination was meant to strike fear not just in activists and journalists, but the political elite too. [He described] Hashimi’s assassination as a ‘real and early test’ for Kadhimi and his cabinet.”
In an op-ed for The Baghdad Post, Baria Alamuddin challenges the Iraqi PM to take the fight to the Iranian-backed militias, reminding the prime minister that his “primary strength derives from the Iraqi street.... When militias beholden to a hostile foreign power threaten to outgun the state, it is only with active international support (the West and Arab nations) and engagement by nationalist citizens that the balance can be swung back in favor of the forces of justice, order and accountable governance. Backing down would represent a catastrophic loss of face, and proof that all-powerful Iran-backed paramilitaries can murder and pillage with impunity.... Ultimately, we are faced with the existential question of who runs Iraq and Lebanon. With the Iran Militia in Iraq and Syria (IMIS) and Hezbollah emerging supreme, if citizens and their friends overseas hope to prevent an eruption of killings, terrorism and paramilitary oppression, Hashimi’s murder must be a wake-up call.”