On 21 July 2020, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi paid a visit to Iran. This was his first external visit after he took office. It also came after he delayed a scheduled visit to Saudi Arabia due to the hospitalization of the Saudi King Salman Bin Abdulaziz. Kadhimi’s visit to Tehran comes in the context of an Iraqi political dynamism that is different from before. This dynamism focuses on establishing Iraqi sovereignty and demanding that Iran control its loyal factions in Iraq. In return, Iraq would continue to play the role of Iran’s economic lungs.
Iranian apprehension about Kadhimi
For the first time after 2003, Iran finds itself facing a major challenge in the face of an Iraqi government that was brought about by internal political and social developments based on widespread popular protests that have transformed the political process, one of the manifestations of which has been the wide popular rejection of Iranian hegemony and holding Iran responsible for the greater part of the chaos and the decline of the Iraqi state over the last two decades.
Kadhimi is an explicit opponent of the Iranian influence in his country and of the imbalance in relations between the two countries. His government programme was based on the goals of enhancing Iraqi sovereignty, restoring the authority of the state, and limiting the possession of weapons to the state. He started his rule by arresting operatives from the Hezbollah in Iraq Battalions, the strongest loyalist militias in the country. They consider themselves the backbone of the so-called Shiite resistance axis which expressly accuses Kadhimi of being involved in the killing of the former commander of the Revolutionary Guards Qasem Soleimani and the deputy chairman of the Popular Mobilization Committee (PMC) and commander of the Hezbollah Batallions Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
Practically, the pro-Iran Iraqi group started by disturbing Kadhimi, politically through the collection by the Fatah Alliance, led by Hadi al-Amiri, and the State of Law Coalition, led by Nouri al-Maliki, of signatures to summon Kadhimi to Parliament, and security-wise through the explicit announcement by the armed factions of their rejection of Kadhimi and their endeavours to embarrass him and prove that he is powerless through shelling the Green Zone with Katyusha rockets and the execution of assassinations, kidnappings and demonstration of power on the streets.
Under the circumstances, Iran received Kadhimi, knowing that it faces a different Prime Minister than earlier ones. He is supported by a wide popular and political base and adopts a new foreign policy that resorts to the surrounding Arab and Gulf regions. That is why Kadhimi chose to visit Saudi Arabia first before Iran. This outraged Iran which sent its Foreign Minister Mohammad Jawad Zarif to Baghdad on 19 July 2020 in a visit that was described by Iraqi and Western political circles as unexpected. Kadhimi was supposed to visit Tehran immediately after his visit to Saudi Arabia. So why would Iran send a high-level official to Iraq when its Prime Minister was going to visit Tehran three days later?
The messages of Kadhimi’s visit
Tension and parity were the title of Kadhimi’s visit to Tehran. Iran received him at a time when its Iraqi team has been running a wide political and media campaign against him while he was being cautious in his statements and positions, distancing himself from the compliments that Iraqi officials usually pay during their visits to Tehran. Kadhimi was keen to wear the badge of the Iraqi flag on his suit throughout his meetings with the Iranian officials, including the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Kadhimi’s visit revealed the depth of the crises facing Iran and the clearer division between the reformist trend represented by President Hassan Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif on the one hand, and the hard-line trend led by Khamanei and the Speaker of the Consultative Assembly (Parliament) Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf on the other, with regard to the policy towards Kadhimi. The visit revealed the following facts:
1. According to political sources close to Kadhimi that accompanied him during the visit, he spoke frankly about the economic assistance provided by Iraq to Iran, the volume of pressure facing Baghdad due to this position, and Baghdad’s approach to the brink of the abyss in being subject to economic sanctions that could lead to Iraq’s collapse. That is why, Iran must support the Iraqi government’s approach to strengthening the state’s authority, controlling the pro-Iran factions, stopping their interference in the government’s recent reformist measures, including the review of the lists of numbers of PMC operatives to reveal the thousands of fake names that receive large salaries, and deleting the receivers of double salaries from the categories of the Rafha detainees and political prisoners and martyrs who practically constitute the audience of Iraqi political forces and pro-Iran factions.
2. Kadhemi presented to the Iranians a proposal to mediate between them and the US, dealing at least with the disputed Iraqi files between Tehran and Washington, provided that Iran takes encouraging steps to reduce its interventionist policies in Iraq and the region.
3. Kadhemi said in his press conference with Rouhani that “the Iraqi people is eager for cooperative relations with Iran based on the privacy of each country, and according to the principle of non-interference in internal affairs”. On his part, Rouhani focused on his government’s strong desire to “increase the volume of trade exchange between the two countries to 20 billion dollars annually”, and reopen the border crossings with Iraq to resume the exports that were halted due to the Corona pandemic and which constitute a significant resource for Iran. Kadhemi did not offer great promises in this regard. Rather, he informed the Iranians explicitly that the economic situation in Iraq is also not good, and that Iraq is well aware that the trade balance is in favour of Iran, which has contributed to alleviating Iran’s economic crisis, and that any promises to enhance trade cooperation would be accompanied by Iran’s support of Iraq’s efforts to confront the deep state and the unruly armed factions in Iraq.
4. Kadhemi’s separate meetings with Ali Khamenei and Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf were jerky. Khamenei did not hide his dissatisfaction with the recent political developments in Iraq, during his discussion of the incident of the killing of Qasem Soleimani, and his threat that “his country will strike America in response to Soleimani’s killing”. He blamed the Iraqi Prime Minister when he said to him: “They killed your guest in your house”, stressing the “necessity of removing US forces from Iraq”. This is something that the Kadhemi government does not favour. Indeed, two weeks before his visit to Tehran, Kadhemi met Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of the US Central Command, and informed him that the presence of US troops and the international coalition in Iraq is subject to the need of Iraq in the fight against terrorism, not in accordance with political procedures that may be imposed by some quarters.
5. Kadhemi refused to meet the commander of the Iranian Quds Corps, Ismail Qaani, who was assigned the task of managing the Iraqi file as the successor of Qasem Soleimani. While this was also confirmed by the Iranian opposition website Avatoday, the website revealed that Khamenei tried to influence Kadhimi with the aim of convincing him to transfer six billion dollars from Iran’s frozen funds in Iraq, which mostly relate to the sale of Iranian electricity and gas to Iraq through Chinese banks, but Kadhemi said that he cannot work through Chinese banks for fear of US sanctions.
Iraqi mediation between Tehran and Washington
Kadhemi realizes that his success in his difficult task of leading the country under these exceptional circumstances depends largely on cooling the conflict between Tehran and Washington. Indeed, a large part of the success of his domestic policy and embarking on political and financial reform depends on that as well. While Iraq is the field of this conflict, it is the most qualified to mediate between the two sides, even between Tehran and the Gulf states.
Although Iranian Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif welcomed Iraqi mediation with Saudi Arabia while he was in Moscow during Kadhemi’s visit to Tehran, and although some Iranian leaders announced their satisfaction with any Iraqi initiative in this regard, the Iraqi side did not express any position or make any comment on the idea of mediation. Iraq has important negotiating cards in this regard, as follows:
1. Iraq can negotiate between the two parties on issues related to Iraq at the very least. Tehran seeks to ensure relative stability in Iraq that would ensure the flow of goods and increasing Iran’s exports to Iraq, aspiring to reach 20 billion dollars annually. In return for ensuring continued trade between the two countries, Baghdad can impose conditions related to Iran's role in Iraq, most importantly ensuring that the US is not provoked and threatened inside Iraq. A large part of ensuring economic exchange between Tehran and Baghdad is linked to the US exemptions granted to Baghdad with regard to the sanctions imposed on Tehran. The elimination of those exemptions, which Washington is keen to extend for short periods, means the suspension of Iranian exports to Baghdad in large proportions.
2. On the other hand, Washington seeks to ensure its military presence in Iraq and promote political and economic partnerships with Iraq. Achieving this requires reducing its tone towards Tehran, which drives its political allies and armed factions to press for the expulsion of US forces completely from Iraq through procedures in Parliament and by targeting US bases and interests in Iraq. While the second round of the strategic dialogue between Baghdad and Washington will resume in late August 2020, the US military presence is a priority for Washington, and Baghdad must offer a settlement on the issue of the US military presence in Iraq within a package of files related to the Iranian side.
Iranian influence in Iraq is passing through its most difficult stage, along with the economic crisis that has stalled financial support for Iran’s arms in Iraq and the region. Besides, there is a strongly growing Iraqi political and popular feeling of discontent with Tehran and its role in the country. This situation creates a new opportunity to limit Iran’s influence. For the first time, the three Iraqi presidencies (the President, the government, and Parliament) agree on this goal, which is reinforced by the scale of mounting popular discontent against Tehran.
Iraq now needs more than ever the support of the international community in its current endeavors. While Washington realizes this opportunity, it has not hidden its support for the Iraqi government team in return for urging similar support from the Arab and Gulf region. This support can best be reflected in the economy. The Iraqi economic situation is on the verge of collapse due to the economic repercussions of the Corona pandemic and the decline in oil prices. Providing economic and trade offers to Iraq, such as investment in gas fields, electrical networking and other investments, would strengthen Iraq’s association with the Gulf states.
Because of the depth of the crisis facing the Iranian regime, Tehran no longer objects to the support that Iraq would get from the US and the Gulf. Tehran knows that the situation in Iraq is serious and that the collapse of the Iraqi economy will lead to a catastrophe not only for Iraq but for Iran as well. Remarkably, Iran did not object to the electrical networking between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, although it had rejected it two years ago during the period of Adel Abdul Mahdi’s government.
The Kadhemi government could be considered an important opportunity to score points in the Western and Arab/Gulf endeavor to limit Tehran’s influence in Iraq. Kadhimi has established his position and announced his goals of rejecting the Iranian hegemony. The margin of maneuvering for the Iranians in this regard will be very limited compared to the strengths it had over the past years.
Kadhemi’s expected visits to Saudi Arabia and the US in August 2020 will determine the political paths in Iraq and play a role in giving Kadhemi enough support to continue his government’s efforts, or abandoning him and making his endeavors remain as merely attempts without results. While economic support in the field of energy and investments leads the topics of the visit to Saudi Arabia, the visit to Washington will determine the security situation in the country by agreeing on the next role of the US forces in the country.
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