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Spinning Plates: Al-Sudani’s Foreign Policy Balancing Act

After more than a year of political deadlock, Mohammed al-Sudani finally succeeded in forming a government on October 27. The Iraqi government’s new leader faces the same old set of economic, social, and security problems. This time, however, the al-Sudani government subscribes to a different ideology than its predecessors, which could have a spillover effect on Baghdad’s foreign policy. The new prime minister mentioned on several occasions that he aspires to maintain balanced relationships with all nations. He has disclosed that the guiding light of his government’s foreign policy will be the Iraqi national interest. However, given Iraq’s brittle internal politics and the increasingly competitive region Iraq inhabits, identifying the national interest and pursuing international “balance” will almost certainly be more difficult to achieve than the prime minister’s speeches make it sound. Moreover, the Coordination Framework—the largest political bloc in the government—remains a close partner of Iran. Therefore, Iraq’s foreign policy under al-Sudani will depend largely on how pragmatic al-Sudani’s coalition partners are. It will also test the government’s willingness to reform a self-serving political system that has lost the confidence of the Iraqi people.

An Imposing Islamic Republic

The biggest challenge for the al-Sudani government will be establishing a balanced relationship with Iran. Tehran has maintained tremendous influence in Iraq through its political and militia proxies. In some cases, the Islamic Republic has nurtured its connections with these operatives for decades. In fact, groups such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Badr Organization constitute core pillars of Iraqi politics. The economic and agricultural relationship is already skewed in Iran’s favor and Iran’s deleterious water policies have further complicated relations. In addition, the formation of the Sudani government comes as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) continues its incursions into Iraqi territory in its fight against Iraqi Kurds. Official condemnations of Iranian aggression have been rare this campaign cycle; instead, the leader of Iran-backed Asaib Ahl Al-haq militia, Qais al-Khazali have called on the government to join with Iranian forces and target Kurdish groups within Iraq.

The only solution for this dilemma, yet it is unlikely to happen, is Iraq’s reassessment and transformation of its relationship with the Islamic Republic. The Iraqi government must realize that the domestic situation is, at the moment, extremely tenuous, bordering on combustible. Reform, therefore, should not simply be a wish, but a necessity. The dire economic conditions that have gripped the country—in large part due to Iran’s influence and proxies—have placed enormous pressure on Iraq’s political parties and leaders. In this light, the Iraqi government might seek a more balanced and independent economic and security relationship with Iran. It may draw closer to its other neighbors, who offer greater economic benefits for Baghdad and the Iraqi people. Though this course of action would help legitimize the national government in the eyes of ordinary Iraqis, past actions and statements by current officials indicate that Baghdad has no intention of changing course vis-a-vis Tehran.

An Arab Reconciliation?

Meanwhile, Iraq’s Arab neighbors continue to wait for Baghdad to be more clear about its relations with Tehran before approaching the new government. Iraq’s relationship with the GCC states improved steadily under former Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadimi, who enjoyed a strong friendship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Former PM al-Khadimi deepened ties between Baghdad and the GCC’s most powerful states: Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Iraq and the GCC Interconnection Authority (GCCIA) signed an agreement during a recent summit in Jeddah to supply the former with electricity. Al-Kadimi also held a summit with Egyptian President Abdul Fatah el-Sisi and King Abdullah II of Jordan, which focused on security, political, and economic issues. Al-Sudani seems keen to follow his predecessor’s path. He paid his first foreign visit to Jordan—a deviation from past trips—and he praised Saudi Arabia for its “important” regional role.

These gestures do not necessarily guarantee that Iraqi relations with the country’s Arab neighbors will improve, however. For example, al-Sudani has already created a commission to evaluate the bilateral deals that Iraq entered into during Khadimi’s tenure. The commission will reassess Iraq’s financial and economic gains from these agreements and most likely seek amendments to or withdraw from them. Similarly, Iraq under al-Sudani is unlikely to continue mediating between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Despite the PM’s hopes of continuing the talks and his claim that he was asked to continue in this role by both parties, progress will likely be limited in the near future. Iraqi diplomats have admitted that these statements are for media consumption only and that the window for negotiations is “long gone.” The resumption of talks is highly unlikely given the ongoing unrest within Iran, which the Islamic Republic has accused Saudi Arabia of supporting. This has driven a wedge between the two parties. Meanwhile, Iraq is forced to choose sides yet again. If history is any indication of which side Iraq will support, Baghdad’s relationship with Saudi Arabia may cool in the near future.

Working with Washington

Another balancing act to be struck is Iraq’s foreign policy vis-a-vis the United States. Al-Sudani had already met five times with the U.S. ambassador, Alina Romanowski, in the first three weeks of his premiership. The two sides discussed efforts to combat terrorism and develop the capability of Iraqi security forces. According to sources, the United States informed the Iraqi government that it will not interact with ministers affiliated with groups Washington has designated as terrorist organizations. This might prove a contentious issue, given the domestic situation Sudani must grapple with and the sordid history between the United States and militias operating within Iraq.

The United States continues to maintain personnel in Iraq to cooperate with the government on security issues, but Iran’s proxies bristle at their presence. For instance, Kataib Hezbollah has demanded many times that U.S. forces leave Iraq. It has threatened continued military operations until this goal is achieved. Hadi al-Ameri, a leader in the Iraqi government’s main coalition, stated that it is a historic responsibility to evict U.S. troops from Iraq. Qais al-Khazali said on one occasion that Iraq’s reliance on U.S. forces is an insult to the country. Although he cannot afford to alienate a powerful player such as the United States, he cannot draw close to Washington without risking the political alliances his rule depends on.

Ultimately, Iraq’s stability relies on its regional relations and foreign policy. The country faces seemingly insurmountable obstacles, yet Baghdad is far too frail to pursue a purely self-interested foreign policy. In other words, regional and international players will continue to jostle for influence within the country. This competition has reduced Iraq’s “national interest” to a difficult balancing act executed by a weakened and self-serving elite.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Dr. Massaab Al-Aloosy is a Non-Resident Fellow at Gulf International Forum and a researcher focusing on Iraq, Iran, and Shia non-state armed groups. He holds a PhD from the Fletcher School-Tufts University and is the author of The Changing Ideology of Hezbollah, Palgrave 2020.

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