Between Washington and Tehran: Why Iraqi Neutrality is So Difficult

By Mustafa Habib, Baghdad


Amid US-Iran tensions, Iraqi politics is divided. But true neutrality is not an option.

In Iraq, diplomatic neutrality means something a little different from what most outsiders might expect, one senior Iraqi politician recently said, in an illuminating private conversation. “According to local definitions it means Iraq remains on Iran’s side, but at the same time, we do not provoke American anger,” the politician mused.

Over the past week or so, tensions between the US and Iran have been rising, as a result of everything from the downing of a US surveillance drone, increased sanctions on Iran and the threat – and then withdrawal – of US military action as well as belligerent statements by representatives of both governments.

Iraq is trapped between the two powers and political reality means that there is no true middle ground for the country’s politicians to run to, even those who have the best of intentions.

Since the formation of the current Iraqi government in late 2018, politicians have tried to adopt a new foreign policy, on based on neutrality. The country’s president, Kurdish politician Barham Saleh, has sought to encourage this attitude in neighboring countries with a wide-ranging round of shuttle diplomacy. He has visited countries not usually known for their good relationship with Iraq, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar and he has also been to Iran, Turkey and Egypt. Meanwhile the Iraqi prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, has signed trade agreements with Saudi Arabia, Iran, Jordan and Egypt.

The problem of Iraq’s neutrality is the result of historical actions by both internal and external actors. Since 2003, the various US administrations involved in the country have not accepted the fact that Iraq must have a relationship with Iran, due not only to geography but also because of societal and religious connections. At the same time, Iran has made the US its geopolitical enemy and disregards the fact that Iraq is reliant on the support of the US and other western nations for its economic and also political development.

Iraq’s professions of neutrality never seem to have been accepted by either side and currently, in the midst of rising US-Iran tensions, the country’s political establishment is divided. One side openly stands with Iran against the US while the other is preparing for a US military attack on Iran, seeing it as a long-sought opportunity for Iraq to escape Iranian influence.

Both sides are playing a dangerous game and should better appreciate the repercussions any military intervention might have on their own country. Having said that, there is no real Iraqi middle ground, nor any strong Iraqi nationalist identity to shelter behind.

When the Shiite Muslim militias – formerly volunteer groups formed to defend against the extremist group known as the Islamic State – pledge allegiance to Iran, they are in fact arguing for their own existence. They have little choice. They fear – perhaps rightly – that if Iranian influence were to vanish from Iraq, then they too would no longer have much influence.

The same argument applies equally to the Sunni Muslim political parties and other forces: they believe a US withdrawal from Iraq would weaken them to the point of exclusion. US troops provide something of a balancing effect in the country against the Iran-backed militias and if they withdraw, the Sunni forces fear they would be swallowed up by the other side.

Both Iran and the US must bear part of the blame for this as each state has encouraged these alliances. The result is a weaker Iraq.

If there was an Iraqi political identity that allowed a more neutral space for regional and international parties to interact, which also distinguished between support and cooperation, and influence and hegemony, the internal division between Iraqi groups on this issue wouldn’t be quite so dangerous.

A long-lasting solution to Iraq’s neutrality problems will take time. What is required now is strict restraint from both Iraqi sides and support for certain government elements’ efforts to establish a more independent foreign policy.



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