The visit of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to the US has gained great importance in the context of Iraqi-US relations, given the nature of the major changes taking place in the region and Iraq’s position within the framework of those shifts, as well as Iraq’s position in the US strategic perception and its role in the regional and international balances of power. At a time when the manifestations of the US-Iranian conflict in the region are increasing, Iraq emerges as the hottest arena of this conflict and its repercussions. Besides, the continued state of political instability in Iraq is linked to the continuation of the Iranian role in Iraq and the US continuous efforts to reduce that role and limit its effects.
Dimensions and motives of Kadhimi's visit to Washington
The choice of Mustafa al-Kadhimi as the head of the Iraqi government constituted a major development in the Iraqi political scene because Kadhimi does not belong to any of the Shiite Islamic political forces that have dominated the premiership since 2005. Besides, Kadhimi is considered a member of the moderate Shiite trend that is close to the US and that seeks to develop regional Iraqi relations, especially with the Gulf and Arab countries, and rejects Iranian hegemony over the Iraqi political decision. This was evidenced during Kadhimi’s work as head of the Iraqi intelligence service since the tenure of Haider al-Abadi's government in 2016. Signs and dimensions of the importance of Kadhimi's visit to Washington are evident compared to the US refusal to receive former Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi who during his tenure as prime minister tried to visit the US to hold talks in Washington. However, he did not obtain US approval due to the nature of his relations with Iran and the dominance of the Iranian axis over his government's decision.
Based on the above, the dimensions and motives of Kadhimi's visit to the US stand out in light of the following:
The importance of Kadhimi's visit and strengthening the strategic partnership with the US
Kadhimi's visit to Washington at this time raises many questions about the path of development of Iraqi-US relations, and its impact on Iraq's regional relations, especially with Iran. The importance of Kadhimi's visit in the vision of the decision-maker in Washington is evident through the position that Iraq enjoys in the US strategic perception, and the US endeavour to limit the Iranian role in Iraq and the region and deliver a clear message to Kadhimi that any US support for Iraq would be accompanied by the Iraqi government’s will to get rid of Iranian pressures and interventions in the Iraqi political decision, at the internal level and in terms of the relationship between the social components as well as the relationship between Baghdad and the Government of the Kurdistan Region, as well as Iraq’s external relations with both the regional and international environments.
This was evident through the level of interest that Kadhimi received during his visit to Washington which, as some Iraqi observers noted, surpassed all previous visits by Iraqi prime ministers to the US capital since 2004. This was evident in the joint statement issued by the US State Department and the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which indicated that the two sides sought to achieve a strategic partnership between them in various fields. US media also indicated that President Trump met Kadhimi in private, away from the aides of both sides, for half an hour, in addition to the official meeting in front of the media, which indicates the kind of attention received by Kadhimi's visit to Washington from the official US perspective.
Also in the context of the US interest in Kadhimi's visit to Washington, the visit received great political and media attention, which reflected the importance represented by Kadhimi for the US and his hoped-for role in developing Iraqi-US relations, both at present and in the future, especially in light of the relationship he has had with the US since his chairmanship of the Iraqi intelligence service when he was appointed in 2016 during the liberation battles against the Daesh Organisation (ISIS). This importance was reflected in the interest shown by various US political decision-making institutions in Kadhimi’s visit, especially that his visit was not limited to meeting President Trump, as is usual in the visits of other presidents, but included also a meeting with the House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The visit also witnessed sending a joint message to Kadhimi by the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Senator Jim Risch (from the Republican Party) and the Committee Ranking Member Senator Bob Menendez (from the Democratic Party). This message had great significance for two considerations: first, it is unusual for members of Congress to send letters to officials who visit the US, unless the visits are of great importance to political decision-makers in the US. The second consideration is clear through the fact that the message was jointly issued by representatives of both the Republican and Democratic parties, a situation that may not be very common in US politics when dealing with foreign affairs issues.
Both the joint statement issued by the ministries of foreign affairs of Iraq and the US and the message of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee underlined the most important areas of cooperation between the two countries and the main agenda included in Kadhimi’s visit to Washington. Both the statement and the message indicated the importance of seeking to achieve a strategic partnership between the two countries through cooperation on the issues of the economy, energy, health, the environment, higher education, respect for Iraqi sovereignty, and the US role in providing security support to Iraq, especially in the post-Daesh phase. The focus was also on the US role in supporting the private sector and opening cooperation horizons for Iraq with the global financial and economic institutions, in addition to emphasis on US support in the energy sector through the role of major US companies in increasing the production of electricity and gas and the US contribution to linking Iraq with the Arab Gulf states to reduce Iraqi dependence on Iranian energy. It was announced that the volume of investment cooperation between the two countries in the energy sector would reach 8 billion dollars, and that the main companies that would get involved in investment in the energy sector are Chevron, Honeywell International, Baker Hughes, and General Electric.
Reference was also made to the US role in the respect for Iraqi sovereignty, respect for the decisions of the Iraqi government and Parliament, and support of political stability in Iraq through holding early, free and fair parliamentary elections, as well as preserving freedom of the press and the media, and bringing the killers of peaceful protesters to justice. Washington also announced the provision of up to 200 million dollars to help Iraq in humanitarian issues and to confront the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, the agenda of Kadhimi's visit to Washington included discussing the future of the US military presence in Iraq and the importance of continuing to provide logistical and training support to the Iraqi forces in the post-Daesh phase, and the joint affirmation of the continued Iraqi need for the stay of the US forces and the commitment of the Iraqi government to provide them with the necessary protection, although President Trump informed Kadhimi, during their recent meeting at the White House, of his commitment to the rapid exit of the international coalition forces from Iraq within three years.
The future of Iraqi-US relations
The future of Iraqi-US relations is linked to a set of determinants, foremost of which are the following basic three:
1. The impact of the Iranian role in Iraq on the future of relations between the two countries.
2. The nature of the strategic changes in the Middle East in light of the current and potential future regional and international power balances.
3. The results of the US presidential elections and the future of US strategy in the region, in light of the possibility of renewing confidence in President Trump, or in light of the possibility that the Democratic candidate Joe Biden would win, especially that Biden is considered one of the architects of the Iranian nuclear agreement with the major powers (5+1), and has a completely different vision from Trump in dealing with crises and challenges of the Middle East.
In light of the above, foreseeing the future of Iraqi-US relations indicates the emergence of the following two main scenarios:
First scenario: the development of Iraqi-US relations and the growth of the US role in Iraq
This scenario assumes Kadhimi's success in benefiting from the US support offered to him and translating it into efforts to reduce the Iranian role and lead the Iraqi government in the transitional phase to achieve the goals for which it was formed, especially preparing for early, free and fair parliamentary elections in the middle of 2021, and seeking to restore the prestige of the state through confining the possession of weapons to the state and preventing unofficial armed forces from targeting US bases and headquarters, in addition to his ability to succeed in economic cooperation with the US and benefit from US support in encouraging economic cooperation between Iraq and regional countries, especially Jordan and the Arab Gulf states.
This scenario is based on the assumption that the success of Kadhimi's policies would lead to the decline of the Iranian role in Iraq, thus affecting the Iranian influence in Syria, Lebanon and the rest of the region. Indications of the materialisation of this scenario are reflected in Kadhimi’s success in the dismissal of Faleh al-Fayyad (Iran's traditional ally in Iraq) from the positions of adviser and head of the National Security Agency in Iraq, and assigning leaders that are either independent or far from the hegemony of the Iranian axis, such as Qasim al-Araji and Lieutenant General Abdul Ghani al-Asadi.
The re-election of President Trump for a second term (2020-2024) is expected to contribute to the materialisation of this scenario through the nature of the governing trends of President Trump's behaviour, especially in the conflict with Iran after his decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and re-impose US sanctions on Iran. Recently, the US representative to the United Nations (UN) Kelly Craft announced that Secretary of State Mark Pompeo submitted to the delegate of Indonesia to the UN, who is assuming the functions of the presidency of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for the current term, the US request to re-impose all UN sanctions on Iran after its failure in fulfil its nuclear obligations.
As for the most prominent aspects of the Iraqi-US relations that are associated with the US military presence in Iraq, indications of the materialisation of this scenario assume that the US forces would continue to stay for the stage ahead in order to provide security, intelligence and logistical support to the Iraqi forces, especially in the post-Daesh phase. In this connection, the expert in the Congressional Research Service Kenneth Katzman indicated that Iraq and the US could agree to reduce the number of forces without agreeing to withdraw them completely. A similar opinion was expressed by Michael Rubin, an expert on Iraqi affairs at the American Enterprise Institute and a former official in the US Department of Defense, who underlined that the complete withdrawal from Iraq was not a goal for the two countries in the next stage.
Second scenario: decline in Iraqi-US relations and diminishing US military role
This scenario stems from the assumption that Kadhimi would fail to fulfil the requirements of achieving the strategic partnership between Iraq and the US in the next stage, in addition to his failure to confront Iranian influence in Iraq through his inability to restrict the possession of weapons to the state and stop the targeting of US headquarters and bases by armed groups associated with the Iranian project in Iraq, and the continuation of the Iranian influence to dominate the Iraqi political decision in all its dimensions and levels.
With regard to the US military presence, the materialisation of this scenario in the stage ahead would increase the problematic nature of this presence in light of Washington's lack of conviction that the US should withdraw from Iraq at the present time. However, the continued military attacks against US sites could change the conviction of the foreign political decision maker in the US, especially in the event that Democratic candidate Joe Biden wins the presidential elections in late 2020, given that he has a completely different vision from President Trump in dealing with crises and issues in the Middle East, mainly the Iranian nuclear crisis. The materialisation of this possibility would lead to an increase in the Iranian role in the region and the growth of Iran’s influence in Iraq, which would lead to a reduction of the US role in Iraq and a decline in the Iraqi-US relations.
Ahmed Nadhif | 01 May 2021
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