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Between Sanctions and Survival: Iraqi Sovereignty amidst U.S.–Iranian Competition

Iraq has recently made ample evidence of the careful balancing act it must pursue between two strategic allies: Iran and the United States. Baghdad has maintained a stance of strategic impartiality since ISIS’s defeat, a victory that the U.S. and Iran have tried to claim would not have been possible without respective support from their governments. Nonetheless, thus far Baghdad has been able to successfully distance itself from Iranian-American tensions despite both states being critical to Iraq’s future economy and security. While each state possesses different kinds of leverage over Iraq’s needs in these two realms, both have also kowtowed to Baghdad as Iraqi politicians repeatedly demonstrate their determination to remain impartial amidst the ongoing upsurge in tensions. In a recent show of their united front, most of Iraq’s political parties and powers emphasized the importance of impartiality in light of the detrimental consequences that such a conflict would have on Iraq’s fragile economy and security. At the same time, it seems that both Iran and the U.S. have concluded forcing Iraq to take sides in a “with us or against us” scenario risks pushing Iraq into the opposing camp, thereby worsening an already-bad situation.

Iraq Asserts Its Impartiality:

Despite these maneuverings, competition for influence over Baghdad might be futile for two reasons. First, it seems that Iraq’s current government is more determined than its predecessors to avoid getting caught up in emerging tension. Second, it seems that Washington and Tehran have different grounds and motives for dealing with Baghdad. For example, Iran’s strategic relations with Iraq stem from three unchangeable factors: history, religion, and geography. In contrast, the U.S.’s relations with Iraq stem from Baghdad’s need for American economic and military support, as well as Washington’s historical relationship with Iraq as the imposer of its current democratic political system after toppling Saddam Hussein.

However, since removing Saddam from power and initiating the dismantling of Iraq’s state institutions, the U.S. has largely overlooked the expanding Iranian role in the country. This has been particularly evident in relation to the economy and security via Iran’s mobilization and training of Shiite militias. At some point after the U.S.’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2009, Tehran’s presence in Iraq became more significant than the U.S.’s and, arguably, in some areas more significant than that of the recognized Iraqi state.

Among the many reasons for the upsurge in American-Iranian tension has been Tehran’s burgeoning role in the region, which has transformed Iraq into a competitive arena as Trump seeks to reduce Tehran’s influence and reassert American hegemony after years of retreat. However, Iran will probably resist this pressure since Iraq is strategically important for its non-oil exports and regional agenda, as it connects Iran with Lebanon and Syria, both Iranian strongholds. This complex situation comes at a time when Iraqi society has begun to articulate a resentment of all foreign influence in Iraq, a resentment that bolstered the electoral victory of a nationalist bloc and the elected President’s subsequent announcement of an “Iraq First” policy. Nonetheless, this pronouncement has not deterred Iran or the U.S. from pressuring Baghdad to, at minimum, avoid adopting policies harmful to either of their respective regional agendas.

Iraqis Unite Against Attempts to Drag Iraq into War:

Recognition by Iraqis to remain impartial amidst U.S – Iran tensions has been voiced by Iraqi officials at all levels: parliamentarians, the executive branch, military, militia leaders, and clerics. It is telling that when a mortar landed less than a mile from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, militias hostile to the American presence in Iraq denounced the incident.[1] [2] In what seemed to be de-escalatory language, both Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Hezbollah Iraq (both of which are U.S.-designated terrorist organizations) denounced the May 20th mortar launch near the U.S. embassy, in spite of these militias having launched their own mortars at the embassy only a few months earlier.[3] [4]

Moreover, the strongest realization of the impact of the conflict between Iran and the U.S. in Iraq came from Muqtada AlSadr, the head of Iraq’s largest parliamentary bloc, who described any Iraqi faction or politician attempting to drag Iraq into the Iranian-American confrontation as “the enemy of the Iraqi people.” AlSadr went on to describe the potential for an Iranian-American war as the end of Iraq.[5] Though this is an apocalyptic description of the ramifications of an armed conflict between Iran and the U.S., it succinctly shows the perception among Iraqi leaders of how such a war would be catastrophic for Iraq’s slowly recovering economy and security apparatus.

Despite these denouncements, the mortar launch and calls for impartiality indicate that the prospect of a clash between Iran and the U.S. on Iraqi territory is possibly equal to the possibility that one could erupt in the Hormuz Strait, one of the most contentious areas in the Middle East. As the U.S. has more than 5,000 troops in Iraq, and Iran supports and trains thousands of Iraqi militiamen, such a clash involving thousands of foreign troops on Iraqi soil would be catastrophic for Baghdad’s authority and sovereignty. In what seemed like a precaution measure by the Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdelmahdi, on July 1st he announced a decree to put the Iranian-backed paramilitary group Popular Mobilization Forces under the command of the Iraqi national army and closed all their offices throughout Iraq. The decree seemed an attempt to prevent any provocation by a foreign-backed militia that could drag Iraq into a regional conflict.[6]

Yet, lessening the probability of such a conflict are indications from both Iran and the U.S. that either country would like to avoid a clash on Iraqi soil for three main reasons. First, initiation of hostilities would produce a backlash from Iraqis toward the aggressor. Second, Iraqi politicians and paramilitary groups seem determined to distance themselves and Baghdad from the current tension. Third, this clash represents a gamble that Washington and Tehran cannot afford losing. For Iran, a conflict with the U.S. on Iraqi soil would only increase its economic and political isolation; for the U.S., it would jeopardize the safety of American troops in Iraq and risk a collapse of Iraq’s hard-fought-for state institutions. Moreover, since Iranian-trained militias in Iraq are more organized and better-trained than the Iraqi army, they would most likely force the government to ally itself more closely with Iran.

Furthermore, in recent weeks, Baghdad has attempted to use its positive relations with both the U.S. and Iran to create a mediation channel and begin diplomatic resolution efforts. Recently, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdulmahdi sent delegations to Washington and Tehran in an attempt to lower tensions on both sides.[7] These efforts seemingly built off previous experience aimed at reducing tensions between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, an American ally. On April 20th, Baghdad hosted a summit for Parliamentary Speakers that included Iranian and Saudi officials.[8]  Given Iraq’s expanding role in the region, their presence was, in turn, interpreted as a sign that Iraq’s neighbors were trying to flatter Baghdad.


Overall, despite the success that Baghdad has had in alienating itself from this tension, it is unlikely that if a conflict occurs, the spillover will avoid Iraq. Despite the apparent impartiality that is coming from Iraqi leaders, if a war between the U.S. and Iran is pursued, the conditions will probably force the different parties and militias to take sides, and majority will take that of Tehran. At the very least they will not align themselves against Iran due to its religious, geographic and familial ties to Iraq. Still, up until war breaks out, from all that we have seen so far Iraq will continue pushing for a neutral stance as long as possible.


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[1] John Davison, Ahmed Rasheed, Ahmed Aboulenein, and Raya Jalabi. “As U.S.-Iran tension simmers, rocket fired near Iraq’s U.S. Embassy.” Reuters. May 19, 2019

[2] Mina Aldroubi. “Iraqi leaders condemn Katyusha rocket attack on Baghdad’s Green Zone.” The National. May 20, 2019.

[3] “Iran-backed groups call for calm after rocket fired into Baghdad Green Zone.” MEE. May 20, 2019

[4] Laurie Mylroie. “White House warns Iran on proxy rocket attacks, while Iran charges US responsible for instability.” Kurdistan 24. September 13, 2018

[5] Muqtada AlSadr. @Mu_AlSadr. https://twitter.com/Mu_AlSadr/status/1130225932852191234

[6] “Iraqi PM orders Iran-backed militias into army command.” DW. July 2, 2019

[7] “Iraq to send delegations to US and Iran to calm tensions: PM.” France 24. May 201, 2019

[8] “Top regional officials in Iraq for symbolic summit.” France24. April 20, 2019

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