Reviving the nuclear deal would give Iran less of an incentive to target US positions in Iraq and support Baghdad’s sovereignty.
Iran’s Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi has emerged as president after an election with one of the lowest turnouts in the Islamic Republic’s history.
This outcome favours Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, as it consolidates power in the hands of the so-called “hardliners” in a triumvirate with the presidency and the Revolutionary Guard.
The last time such an alignment occurred was during the Bush administration and the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005. Both alignments also corresponded with more antagonistic American foreign policies.
By withdrawing from the nuclear deal and undermining Rouhani's foreign policy, Trump confirmed the hardliner mantra that the US is fickle and cannot be trusted to honour any agreement. He also contributed to Raisi’s election, as well as what is set to be a more assertive Iranian foreign policy towards Iraq.
But this wasn't the case before. Former president Hassan Rouhani’s foreign policy sought to respect Iraq’s sovereignty, which was at odds with the hardliners who wanted to use Iraq as a means of challenging the US during the more bellicose Trump administration.
The consolidation of hardliners in Tehran’s leadership today means that its internal foreign policy conflict no longer exists.
Iraq’s future is now tied to Iran and the US finding an agreement to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal.
America’s missed opportunity
After the September 11 attacks, Iran and the US shared enmity towards the Taliban in Afghanistan. The George W Bush administration missed a window to forge relations with what was then a conciliatory Iranian president Mohammed Khatami. Like Rouhani, Khatami sought to engage with the US.
However, the Bush administration declared that the Islamic Republic of Iran formed part of an “axis of evil,” which included Iraq and North Korea. In March 2003, American forces were on Iran’s border, having just successfully invaded Iraq, a member of the “Axis.”
It was then that Iran offered the US a comprehensive negotiation proposal, where the Islamic Republic was willing to open its nuclear program for inspections, work to stabilise Iraq and cooperate against Al Qaeda, offering Washington what Trump later asked of Iran during his administration.
The significance of this offer was not that it occurred during the presidency of a moderate, Khatami, but that it had the blessing of Khamenei, the key decision maker in Iran.
Yet former Vice President Dick Cheney responded, “We don’t talk to evil,” and the Bush administration never engaged with the Iranian offer.
The Axis of Evil speech led to the victory of Iranian hardliners in the nation’s parliament and after the Iraq War, hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the presidency in 2005, an outcome that Khamenei would have favoured then in response to American belligerency.
When Washington refused Iran’s overture, the Islamic Republic then was in a position to undermine US presence in Iraq after 2005. One tool at Iran’s disposal was its support of a variety of Iraqi insurgents to target American forces.
Jump to 2021, and Iran is in a much better position to project its influence in Iraq due to its sprawling network of allied militias. This is a message that the Biden administration has surely received.
Ultimately Iran, with its new constellation of power in Tehran, has found a way to shore up its position at home and in the region ahead of any potential renegotiations of the nuclear deal.
The future of US-Iran relations
Negotiations over re-entering the Iran deal continue in Vienna. Had these negotiations succeeded under Rouhani’s administration, it would have given the moderate faction in Iran a victory prior to the elections.
While a hardliner consolidation of power would not bode well for Iraq’s sovereignty, a resumption of the Iran nuclear deal would. It gives Iran less of an incentive to foment rocket strikes at US targets in Iraq, which only intensified in the aftermath of Trump’s withdrawal from this agreement.
Ironically, with a hardliner ascendancy today, a new deal is more likely, as there is one Iranian faction at the negotiating table rather than competing ones. This ultimately means Baghdad’s future domestic security is contingent on events in far-off Vienna and the nuclear negotiation.
Notwithstanding the hardliners in power, their legitimacy still rests on getting the Trump-era sanctions rescinded. Meanwhile, the Biden administration most likely wants to settle this issue in the Middle East to focus its efforts on China.
As Ali Vaez and Dina Esfandiary write in the New York Times, “The alternative to negotiations — an exponentially growing Iranian nuclear program — threatens to set the United States and the Islamic Republic on a collision course where there will be no winners.”
In this case there will also be another loser, Iraq, caught again between the two adversaries’ conflict.
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