The call by the US Secretary of State Mark Pompeo in April 2020 to hold a constructive strategic dialogue with Iraq in June 2020 with the aim of discussing the future of the US presence in Iraq has revived talk about the future of Iran in that country, especially that the Iranian file will be one of the main files of the strategic dialogue between Washington and Baghdad. Despite the positive messages sent by Iran to the US in the past period in Iraq, Iran views the strategic dialogue between Iraq and the US with great caution since the dialogue coincides with unfavourable conditions in terms of both timing and location for Iran in Iraq and the Middle East in general. Iran presently suffers from the implications of the coronavirus pandemic which has worsened Iran’s escalating economic crisis, in addition to the significant political and security confusion experienced by Iran’s allies in Iraq and the return of protests in several Iraqi cities. This raises a number of questions regarding the nature of the outcomes that will come out of the strategic dialogue and the extent of their impact on the future of Iran’s interests and influence in Iraq.

Iraq in the Iranian geopolitical vision

Iraq has occupied a central position in Iran’s regional geopolitical vision. The rising Iranian influence in the post-2003 Iraqi arena has constituted a significant opportunity for Iran’s expansion towards most countries in the Middle East. That is why Iran views Iraq both as a central base and as a regional bridge that cannot be given up through the strategic dialogue or other arrangements. Iran has sent many messages in this respect, mainly the clear Iranian fears conveyed by the recent visit by the Quds Force commander Esmail Qaani to Baghdad on 3 June 2020, mainly the interdiction of any US approach that could affect Iran’s strategy in Iraq.

As has come to be known, many pro-Iran Iraqi parties and armed factions have played a significant role in adapting the Iraqi arena to serve Iran’s regional objectives, whether in the Syrian and Lebanese arenas through Iran’s ambition to access the Mediterranean Sea, or in its roles in Yemen and Bahrain to affect the security of Gulf countries. Iran has also found in Iraq an economic artery that would feed its regional campaigns since the US sanctions on Iran came into effect in May 2018, whether by smuggling hard currency into Iran, activating drug trafficking, or smuggling Iranian oil via Iraqi ports.

For all those geopolitical and economic reasons, Iran considers that it has to preserve its strategic interests in Iraq, especially that the strategic dialogue to be held between Baghdad and Washington will seek to reduce those regional advantages that Iran has obtained from Iraq in the past period. This raises an important question about the nature of the Iranian activity to preserve its own interests and those of its allies in Iraq through the paths of the Iraq-US strategic dialogue.

Iran’s position towards the Iraq-US strategic dialogue 

Iran has welcomed the call by US Secretary of State Mark Pompeo in April 2020 to hold a strategic dialogue with the Iraqi government to discuss the future of the US presence in Iraq. This welcome has constituted an important development in the path of the competitive relationship with the US in Iraq. Yet despite this apparent welcome, there have been increasing indications of Iranian concern over the future implications that could be established by this dialogue. Iran fears that the outcomes of the strategic dialogue could reflect negatively on its presence and influence in Iraq. That is why Iran views the US proposals regarding the reform of the Iraqi security sector, particularly those related to the reform of the Popular Mobilization Committee (PMC, al-Hashed al-Shaabi), such as freezing the current condition of the PMC, strengthening the Iraqi official military capabilities, appointing a non-controversial military commander to head the PMC, and enabling the military factions loyal to the Najaf authority to lead the PMC, as an effective strategy to transform the PMC from a doctrinal military establishment into an administrative establishment under the Iraqi military establishment, thus remaining outside the calculations of the future Iranian military strategy.

Iran also fears that the outcomes of the strategic dialogue would reflect negatively on its economic, trade and financial interests in Iraq, considering that Iran’s influence in this respect has played a significant role in easing the US sanctions imposed on it in the past period. Therefore, the offer by Iraq of commitments or pledges through the paths of this dialogue would result in reducing those benefits, closing the window of smuggling hard currency into Iran, interdicting drug trafficking and oil smuggling operations via Iraqi and other ports, disrupting energy imports from Iran and, more importantly, downsizing the role of the economic offices of the pro-Iran armed factions (specifically the Badr Organization, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous), and the Hezbollah Brigades) that collect large revenues via informal paths, including royalties and illicit trade taking place inside Iraq worth between 100 and 135 million dollars per month.

Accordingly, the visit by the Quds Force commander Esmail Qaani to Baghdad on 3 June 2020 came to confirm the state of Iranian escape forward in an attempt to anticipate any measure or outcome that may come out of the strategic dialogue with regard to the Iranian influence in Iraq by preparing alternative action paths in case the US pressures via the dialogue paths led to outcomes that would affect Tehran’s strategy in Iraq. While Iran has recently managed to sign a contract for the import of electricity for two years, that contract as well is subject to annulment under the sanctions package that the US administration intends to impose on Iran in the days to come.

Iran’s options and chances to influence the dialogue’s outcomes

Within the framework of the influence policy that Iran seeks to exercise across the paths of the strategic dialogue, it has sought to play several roles in this respect: first, through the insistence by its allies in Iraq that a PMC representative take part within the Iraqi delegation; second, through the announcement by leaders of armed factions that they would not be bound by any outcomes of this dialogue if there is no clear indication of the evacuation of US forces from Iraq according to a specific timetable; third, by sending implicit messages through intermittent missile attacks (Katyusha messages) on Iraqi and US military and civil interests; and fourth, through the tendency by Iranian media to raise the issue of nationalism or the sectarian loyalty of members of the Iraqi negotiating delegation considering that they are bi-nationals or are all Shiites to influence the climate of the negotiations and dialogue, thus affecting the dialogue’s paths and outcomes and sending a clear message to all that Iran will not continue with the current de-escalation policy in Iraq if the outcomes of this dialogue were not to the liking of Iranian decision makers.

It is clear that Iran, despite the calm tone with which it speaks today, does not hide that it has taken into account uncalculated implications resulting from the Iraq-US strategic dialogue, mainly the future of its presence in Iraq. That is why both Iran and its allies are keeping a watchful eye on the possible outcomes of this dialogue. In case the outcomes of the strategic dialogue are not to its liking, the Iranian leadership is likely to drive the ministries of intelligence and national security and foreign affairs to get involved directly in the running of the Iraqi file along with the Quds Force to revive many of the old links with the Iraqi parties that had been marginalized by the former commander of the Quds Force Qasem Soleimani by linking all aspects of the Iraqi file to the Force he heads.

Conclusion

According to the Iranian viewpoint, the current strategic necessity requires that Iran preserve its interests and goals in Iraq regardless of the real reasons that stand behind holding the strategic dialogue between Baghdad and Washington, considering that Iran’s presence in Iraq is not just intended to control this neighbouring country but also to use it as a springboard towards all countries of the region. That is why Iran has been exercising pressure roles on the Iraqi side during the past short period in order to influence the paths of the strategic dialogue with the US. Despite its declared welcome of this dialogue, Iran has not hidden its real fears of the dialogue’s outcomes. This explains the continuous visits by Iranian officials to Iraq, particularly after the assassination of the commander of the Quds Force Qasem Soleimani, in addition to the continuous statements by the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei demanding the accelerated evacuation of the US forces from Iraq. This is an approach that is agreed upon by many of the pro-Iran armed factions.

Iran seems to have chances of influencing the paths of the Iraq-US strategic dialogue. Those chances are likely to increase with time considering that the dialogue may last for months to come. The more the decision maker in Iran becomes convinced that the outcomes of the dialogue may negatively affect his country’s influence in Iraq, he will increase his influential roles in that country, both directly by delivering relevant media statements or paying official visits with the aim of putting pressure on the Iraqi side, or indirectly by threatening with armed attacks through his proxies/allies or threatening to launch sporadic missile attacks to be carried out by pro-Iran armed factions. Thus, it can be said that one of the main challenges that will be experienced by both the Iraqi and US sides is the manner of dealing with the Iranian factor and tools in Iraq.

To sum up, Iran’s main fear of the strategic dialogue could be said to be associated with the failure of its direct and indirect endeavours to evacuate the US forces from Iraq and the success by the US to generate a new agreement or expand the strategic framework agreement signed with Iraq in 2008 in a manner that would legitimize and keep the US forces in Iraq for a long period, especially if the US negotiator manages to link the economic, political, security and health support packages to the stay (or departure) of his forces in Iraq in light of a clear Iranian failure to offer an alternative thereto for the reasons currently experienced by Iran. This fear is aggravated by the likelihood that this dialogue and its outcomes and subsequent arrangements could lead to the release of Iraq from Iranian control in the long run in a manner that may endanger the Iranian project in the region as a whole. 

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