Baghdad is attempting to maintain strong diplomatic relations with both the US and Iran as the two rival nations ramp up tensions in the region.

The sharp rise in tensions between the United States and Saudi Arabia on one side and Iran on the other leaves Iraq in a difficult position. The leadership in Baghdad is increasingly concerned about being dragged into a potential conflict between the US and the Islamic Republic. Within this context, Iraq refused to sign the final joint statement that the Arab League issued in Saudi Arabia late last month when the kingdom also hosted Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) talks.

Having suffered from invasion, occupation, war, terrorism, insurgencies, state collapse, and other crises since Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003, Iraq’s current foreign policy is heavily geared toward achieving greater stability internally by strengthening ties with all its neighbours. 

From the Iraqi government’s perspective, the vision of a peaceful and prosperous Iraq depends on a balanced and skilfully waged foreign policy that accommodates the legitimate interests of Kuwait, Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey. Officials in Baghdad realise that making an enemy out of any neighbour would severely undermine vital Iraqi interests.

Yet while Iraq wants to avoid aligning against any of its neighbours, that is what some of Baghdad’s allies—chiefly the US and Saudi Arabia—would like to see from the country. 

A daunting challenge that Iraq’s leadership faces pertains to questions about maintaining Baghdad’s close ties with Iran during President Donald Trump’s administration.

Iraq and Iran are deeply interconnected through trade, culture, religion, defence, tourism, and other domains. Thus, from Baghdad’s viewpoint, the Trump administration’s anti-Iranian campaign of ‘maximum pressure’ bodes very poorly for Iraq’s national interests. 

The decline of Iraq’s religious tourism sector as a result of the US-imposed economic sanctions on Iran is an example of Baghdad paying a price for Washington’s efforts to isolate the Islamic Republic to the maximum extent possible.

That said, from a security standpoint the Iraqis remain heavily dependent on the United States, thus Baghdad is keen to avoid moves that could result in backlash from the US administration. 

During this sensitive juncture in which the Iraqi government and society continue to face a threat from Daesh insurgents, Washington remains an important partner for Baghdad. Iraq also needs foreign investment from the US, particularly in its oil industry.

Baghdad has vested interests in improving relations with Saudi Arabia too. The announced re-opening of the Arar border crossing in 2017 following 27 years of closure signalled the two Arab states’ determination to begin a new chapter in bilateral relations after years of Riyadh writing off post-Saddam Hussein Iraq as a puppet-state belonging to Iran. 

For Baghdad officials, closer ties with Saudi Arabia can be used to counter-balance what many Iraqis see as excessive Iranian influence in Iraq, as well as to secure assistance in many areas from trade to investment and energy to security.

Iraq seeks to serve a middleman role in the Middle East, serving as a backchannel between various states. The leadership in Baghdad has sought to use its positive relations with both Tehran and Washington in order to minimise the risks of a military confrontation between Iran and America. 

Given that such a scenario would almost inevitably have extremely dangerous implications from the standpoint of Iraq’s security and economic health, it is logical for Baghdad to try to play its cards right to prevent what would be the Persian Gulf’s fourth war since 1980.

As recent street protests in Baghdad illustrate, many Iraqi citizens are fearful of their country being pulled into a conflict between Iran and the US. Unfortunately, these concerns appear extremely valid. 

If the US were to strike Iran militarily, it is difficult to imagine the most pro-Iranian Shia militias in Iraq not targeting US military personnel or interests in the country. With the Iraqi army viewing the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) as puppets of Iran, and the PMU seeing Iraq’s official military as a puppet of the US, the escalating tension between Tehran and Washington is making it harder for Iraq’s different internal actors to accommodate each other.

Daesh would gain significantly from a military confrontation between Iran and the US, giving Baghdad even further incentive to try to de-escalate tensions between Tehran and Washington. Doubtless, the Iranian nuclear accord stood to severely undermine Daesh’s ability to retain influence because the deal opened the potential for growing security cooperation between Iran and Western countries, including the US, which fought against the terror group in Iraq in de facto coordination with Tehran. 

Yet with Washington and Tehran no longer even unofficially aligned, Daesh will be well-positioned to capitalise on its enemies’ deep divisions.

More broadly, if Iran and the US were to fight an all-out war, the widespread regional instability and tumult stemming from such a conflict would provide Daesh with countless opportunities to re-gain lost influence given that extremists are always best positioned to capitalise on chaos. 

The government in Baghdad will continue working to thwart such dangers from threatening Iraq as the country seeks to rebuild and establish itself as an effective backchannel between the US and Iran, and perhaps later between Washington and Syria’s government.

Given Iraq’s unique vulnerability to the dangers of escalating friction in American-Iranian relations, the concerns of both government officials in Baghdad as well as the average Iraqi on the street are understandable. Like other Persian Gulf countries—Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar—the leadership in Iraq will find balancing good relations with both the US and Iran to be increasingly difficult amid this period of the US administration, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi all pursuing maximalist goals while Tehran seeks to stand strong under pressure.

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