By Murtadha Faraj
Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 40 Issue 3 Autumn 2019
The decades-old hostility between the United States and Iran escalated when U.S. President Donald Trump decided to unilaterally withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) and reimpose sanctions on Iran in May 2018. Iraq has political, economic, and security ties with both states. This new source of tension in the region will have direct and serious effects on Iraq.
Iraq’s political ties with the United States and Iran
The current bilateral relationship between the United States and Iraq is founded on the 2008 Strategic Framework Agreement, which supports and strengthens Iraq’s new constitutional democracy while protecting U.S. interests in the region. In practice, the agreement allows the United States to exert a great deal of pressure on the Iraqi government.
Iraq and Iran share significant cultural and religious values. In a region dominated by Sunni Muslims, they are home to at least half the world’s Shia population. More than 90 per cent of the total Iranian population and approximately 60 per cent of the Iraqi population are Shia. With twice Iraq’s population, Iran exerts a growing influence over its neighbour.
Iranian and U.S. economic influence in Iraq
After years of armed conflict, Iraq’s economy has floundered. The country has been unable to ensure reliable supplies of such basics as energy and food. The result has been countrywide citizen protests, which frequently break out in major urban centres.
Iran, whose engagement with the international economy has been constrained for decades, has significantly expanded economic activity in Iraq, selling large quantities of energy, food, medicine, and construction materials such as glass, bricks, and cement. Since 2015, Iran has exported commodities worth $6-billion a year.
Iraq also depends on Iranian tourists. Approximately 4,000,000 Iranians visit Iraqi holy sites and shrines each year, bringing much needed income. Iranian aid has constructed and improved cities that house shrines and tourist facilities.
Now, the U.S. “maximum pressure approach” requires Iraqi compliance with the new U.S. sanctions on Iran, which, in practice, entails the severing of most significant economic ties between Iran and Iraq.
The U.S. government has considerable economic heft of its own. Since 2016, Iraq has received almost $9-billion in U.S. foreign aid, most to support new democratic institutions and governance, and to enhance Iraqi peace and security. Iraq’s fragile democracy would quickly deteriorate without such support. As well, some U.S. firms, like ExxonMobil, are offering long-term multi-billion-dollar contracts to boost Iraq’s oil production and manufacturing sectors.
Now, growing discord between the United States and Iran is casting doubt on those contracts. Iran financially supports some armed Shia groups that operate around oil fields in southern Iraq. This makes U.S. firms uneasy, and Iraq is unwilling to accept some conditions that it feels threaten its sovereignty. For a number of reasons, then, U.S. promises of aid and support might not spell an end to economic problems for Iraq. Instead, discord between the United States and Iran heightens economic insecurity.
Complicated Iraqi security
Both U.S. military and Iranian paramilitary forces currently have a strong presence in Iraq. Both countries contributed training and equipment in Iraq’s fight to reclaim territory seized by terrorist group Islamic State (IS). After the IS defeat in 2017, forces of both countries remained to bolster Iraq’s security forces.
In 2014, Iraq requested U.S. military assistance to combat terrorism and the rise of IS. Today, the United States still has more than 5,000 troops in Iraq, although their exact mission is unclear. President Trump recently suggested that the stationed troops could “be looking a little bit at Iran.” On the other hand, U.S. Army General Joseph Votel recently stated that the troops are still missioned with combating terrorism—at Iraq’s request.
Iran continues to support the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Iraq. This umbrella organization is composed of about 40 militias, mainly Shia groups, and operates under the direct command of the Iraqi Prime Minister. U.S. officials have made repeated pleas to have the PMF disbanded or at least brought under official state control.
Though the Islamic State has lost its territory in Iraq, terrorism has not been eradicated. A still-fragile security infrastructure could allow terrorists to re-infiltrate Iraq—as they did in 2014. U.S. troops, the PMF, and Iraqi Security Forces all have vital roles in safeguarding Iraq’s security and stability.
But now, both Iranian-backed PMF and U.S. military bases in Iraq are being targeted by anonymous attackers. Both sides are taking preemptive measures to protect themselves, each suspecting the other of the attacks. PMF militia unofficially state that they are ready for Iraq’s next war, whether against “America, ISIS or other terrorists.” The United States has made it clear that, “if the U.S. were attacked on Iraqi soil, it would take action to defend itself without coordinating with Baghdad.”
Iraqi de-escalation efforts
The Iraqi government has tried diplomacy to deescalate the situation. Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi stated that “the government is doing its duty to protect all parties.” He travelled to Tehran in late July to act as the “regional peacemaker.”
One day later, PMF bases were attacked by unnamed drones. Following pressure from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Abdul-Mahdi ordered the integration of the PMF into the Iraqi Security Forces.
Implications for Canada and the world
An unstable Iraq is a concern for the entire region and, indeed, the world.
Currently, approximately 800 Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) personnel are deployed in Iraq under Operation IMPACT. The mission’s objectives recently shifted from combating terrorist group Islamic State to training, advising, and assisting Iraqi security forces. The CAF also support NATO in the region.
These troops could be put at greater risk if tensions between the United States and Iran escalate, Canada needs to monitor mounting tension carefully.
Murtadha Faraj, an Honours BA graduate of Wilfrid Laurier University, was the 2019 Peace and Technology Intern
at Project Ploughshares.