Last year, American Enterprise Institute scholar Ken Pollack testified before the House Foreign Relations Committee, saying: “Every year since 2003, knowledgeable Americans have been warning that the current year is absolutely critical in Iraq. They have been right every time and 2018 will be no exception.”
With Turkish-American relations at an all-time low; President Erdogan in power until at least 2029; and Iranian expansionism extending into critical American areas of interest throughout the Middle East, the new reality requires an American effort to improve its problematic and fragile relationship with Iraq.
The aftermath of the Iraqi elections this spring were a punch in the face to American interests, especially after so much blood and treasure have been lost. America’s favored party, that of current Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s came in third, while the anti-American Sadrist Party of Muqtada al Sadr and the Iranian supported Fatah Party gained the lion’s share of votes.
But no party in Iraq can govern without forming a coalition – and America may still have enough influence to marginalize Fatah, empower Prime Minister Abadi and even support Muqtada al Sadr, who although anti-Western is not a fan of Iranian influence. Politics makes strange bedfellows.
Good news seemed to have arrived in early August when Abadi shocked both America and Iran by stating that although he thinks new US sanctions against Iran are a “strategic mistake… we [Iraq] will abide by them.” It seemed this was an opportunity not to be missed. At first there was reason for optimism as Voice of America reported that Iranian merchants claimed that Iraq was turning away Iranian goods.
On August 13, the pressure on Abadi from Iran and its minions within Iraq forced him to backtrack on his promise regarding American sanctions. The news headline from Al Jazeera read, “Iraqi PM walks back on commitment to US sanctions on Iran.”
But looking deeper, all is not lost and there remains a window of opportunity to advance American interests. What Abadi did say was that the sanctions were being “reviewed” and “we honestly have not made any decision.” He also did confirm that Iraq would abide and not use dollars to transact business with Tehran.
SO IS IT too late to help Iraq disentangle itself from growing Iranian control?
It would be naïve to believe that America could engineer a complete break in relations between the two Shi’ite nations. Not only do they share the same version of Islam, but Iran is also Iraq’s largest trading partner. Yet Iraq does not want to be dominated by Iran. This is where a new well-thought-out strategic policy could help Iraq create some distance from Iran, furthering American interests while stabilizing the region.
There may be an uphill climb convincing the Trump White House. Last year before John Bolton joined the administration, he said in The Wall Street Journal that it was against American interests to continue our military support of Iraq.
What should not be glossed over is that the Shi’ites of Iran, the majority of whom are Persian, are very different from the Shi’ites of Iraq who are Arab – no small difference. Shi’ite Iraqi Muslim leaders like the Grand Ayatollah Sistani remain religiously independent from the Iranian Supreme Leader Khomeini, in contrast to Hezbollah’s Nasrallah in Lebanon, who follows Velayat-e Faqih (guardianship of the jurist), compelling all Shi’ites to unquestioningly follow the Iranian Supreme Leader. This is why Hezbollah does not have an independent foreign policy, allowing Iran to exert far too much influence in Lebanon, both militarily and politically.
To help Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi fulfill his promise to uphold sanctions, America must creatively reach out to Iraq and see how we can help mitigate whatever economic damage Iraq will sustain from abiding by the sanctions we want to place on Iran.
One of the missed opportunities of American Middle East foreign policy post 9/11 was not appreciating the region’s fault lines other than the Sunni-Shi’ite divide in formulating strategies to advance American foreign policy interests. The sectarian divide is just one way to see the region, where interests sometimes outweigh ideology. Shi’ite Persian Iranians ally with Sunni Arab Hamas in their shared ambition to destroy Israel, which they both have been taught to believe resides on Islamic land.
FOR MANY in the post-Iraq invasion era, they see two Shi’ite majority countries that were politically divided by Saddam Hussein, where a minority ruled a Shi’ite majority country. Once Saddam was sent to the dustbin of history by the United States, many thought and feared the two nations would naturally gravitate together, despite American soldiers’ lives and billions of dollars sacrificed to liberate the Iraqi Shi’ite people from their Sunni Ba’ath tyrant.
At the height of Islamic State’s power in 2014, Iran saw an opportunity to exert control over Iraq. A weakened Iraq under the siege of ISIS accepted Iranian Popular Mobilization Units (PMU’s) controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Iran then used the vanguard of these PMU’s to complete its land corridor to the Mediterranean, undermining American interests and allies, especially the Kurds in the North.
America needs a more pro-Western Iraq, especially with long-term ally Turkey crossing over to the dark side, and Iran and America on a collision course in the post-JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal) era.
The US is considering creating an Arab/Sunni alliance – something like NATO – against Iran. Although the Iraqis are Arabs they are not Sunnis and would have zero interest in being involved with such an alliance. However, the more realistic goal to advance American interests is an Iraq that remains more neutral and less under Iranian influence.
Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi has offered America a fleeting opportunity; it is up to us not to waste it.
Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the Director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. Dr. Mandel regularly briefs members of the Senate, House and their foreign policy advisors. He is a regular columnist for The Jerusalem Post, and a contributor to i24TV, The Hill, and The Forward.