Iraq in the balance between Iran and the USA
Iran and the US have been at war since 1979, when the “Islamic Republic” took power. This war will continue as long as the US seeks to defeat Iran, which in turn seeks to force the US out of the Middle East. Occasionally, the war manifests as direct clashes between the two countries, but usually it takes place on the territory of Iran’s allies. These allies are becoming stronger and powerful enough to be reckoned with. This growth is imposing Iran as a regional power with influence in several countries around the Middle East—from Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen to Iraq, where direct US-Iran confrontation has shown the ability of both countries to inflict damage on one another. By accepting the election of the new Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the two countries have reached an unspoken agreement for de-escalation allowing the new Prime Minister to achieve a balance of power. This balance will be difficult to maintain in the face of new domestic challenges Iraq is facing, related not only to the Iran-US struggle but also to the devastating economic recession caused by the response to COVID-19 and the low price of oil.
Iraq agreed to drop its oil production from 4.65 million barrels per day (bpd) to 3.59 bpd in May and June and 3.8 million bpd for the rest of the year in accord with an OPEC agreement to reduce crude oil production and stop the free fall of the price of oil. The 2020 budget assumes an oil price between $56 to $58 in a country where oil accounts for 67 percent of its economy and the income from crude oil sales funds 90 percent of its yearly budget. Iraq has lost $11 billion since the beginning of this year due to the low price of oil, the relatively closed borders, and the absence of religious pilgrimage due to the Coronavirus.
However, the Iraqi “man in the street” doesn’t take into consideration these enormous challenges. He demands job opportunities, the end of the distribution of power among the biggest political parties and corruption that has dominated Iraqi politics since 2003. Therefore, notwithstanding the seriousness and good intentions of the new Prime Minister, the lack of finance, resources and cash will be devastating to the future of Iraq in the next years even if al-Kadhimi manages to keep the balance between Iran and the US.
The Prime Minister has reinstalled Lieutenant General Abdel Wahab al-Saedi at the top of the counterterrorism units, recalling him back to this position from a desk job at the Ministry of Defence. This smart first step has different goals.
Sources close to the Prime Minister said: “Al-Kadhimi is aware of the necessity to avoid challenging the US or Iran in this sensitive moment. Therefore, he is concentrating on domestic challenges and the effort to sideline the country from the Iran-US struggle. Al-Saedi understands much better today that he can’t challenge Iran or al-Hashd al-Shaabi if he wants to fight ISIS (the “Islamic State”) and hunt down terrorists that have gathered significant strength recently and carried out threatening attacks. Also, General al-Saedi enjoys US support which could help him achieve his designated objective.”
The US ceased all intelligence gathering and sharing with the Iraqis following the US assassination of the Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandes and their 9 companions at Baghdad airport. This assassination triggered the binding decision of the parliament to ask for the immediate departure of US troops from Iraq.
“The return of General al-Saedi to the counterterrorism service was a popular cause. Al-Kadhimi accommodated this request to satisfy one of the people’s demands and show that the Prime Minister respects their protest. Hashd al-Shaabi forces, spread around among many locations in Iraq, are fighting alongside the counterterrorism units in perfect harmony. Therefore, the presence of al-Saedi will not affect the performance of the security forces and is not considered a challenge to Iran, as the Prime Minister explained to the general before restoring him to his old position,” said the source.
The US did not succeed to promote the anti-Iran candidate, Adnan al-Zurfi. Moreover, al-Kadhimi did not appoint al-Zurfi to any ministerial position notwithstanding his attempt to give al-Zurfi a place in his cabinet. Shia political groups considered al-Kadhimi’s nominations inappropriate and provocative to Iran, forcing the Prime Minister to change his cabinet selections three times. An anti-Iran Iraqi Prime Minister can’t find a place in Iraq. Former prime minister Haidar Abadi was against Soleimani but not against Iran. Soleimani wanted to remove Abadi after one year in office, triggering a hostile reaction from the Iraqi prime minister. However, when the new elections were due, Soleimani reconciled with Abadi after several private meetings, but failed to convince Iraqi Shia parties to support Abadi’s candidateship.
Mustafa al-Kadhmi managed to reach power only when the Shia brought down al-Zurfi and General Esmail Qaani, Soleimani’s successor, visited Baghdad to meet with Shia political leaders to soften their opposition. Also, the Lebanese Hezbollah played an important role in persuading those rejecting al-Kadhimi, and convinced the prime minister to select his cabinet according to criteria suitable to Shia, Sunni and Kurds. These supports from outside Iraq eased al-Kadhimi’s path to power. The objection of Kataeb Hezbollah Iraq is irrelevant, even if media exaggerates the importance of this organisation. Lebanese Hezbollah mediated between al-Kadhimi and Iraqi Kataeb Hezbollah, considered a small player in the bigger Shia picture in Iraq.
Also, Iraq was given a 120-day waiver to continue importing electricity from Iran. In fact, the US had no choice but to adopt this step and will continue to do if it doesn’t want to see Iraq overtly violating US sanctions. The Iraqi southern provinces will need Iranian gas and electricity for at least the next 3-4 years. The US is looking for a moral victory when it is aware Iraq can’t survive without electricity and that the southern provinces will not abide by any US decision to block its supply. Washington prefers to appear in control rather than to be shown publicly to be no longer dominant.
Al-Kadhimi’s first meetings were with the US and Iranian ambassadors in Iraq. He spoke to Presidents Trump and Rouhani where he confirmed that “Iran is a dear friend and Iraq will never forget the support Tehran has offered to the country”. In 2014, Iran was the first to provide Iraq with weapons, training and advisors, when the US failed to deliver weapons Iraq had already purchased. The US preferred to look on as ISIS occupied a third of Iraq.
Iran transformed the US threat into an opportunity by imposing itself as a regional power. The US can no longer isolate an Iran that enjoys regional influence in so many countries in the Middle East. Russia and China need to consider Iranian influence when dealing with many Middle Eastern countries. Hashd al-Shaabi and other groups loyal to Iran are a force that can’t be dissolved or ignored in Iraq. Over 41 years Iran has painstakingly built a chain of faithful and dedicated allies in the region, whereas the US has maintained business-type relations based on the coercing of frightened Middle Eastern leaders. These US “clients” understandably cannot be relied upon to support US interests in the region.