In Strategic Dialogue, Iraq Tries to Strike Balance Between US, Iran

August 19, 2020 Updated: August 19, 2020

Iraq tried to strike a “balanced foreign policy” between the United States and Iran as its high-level delegation held a second strategic dialogue with their U.S. counterparts in Washington, according to experts.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein held a joint press availability on Aug. 19 with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, where Hussein spoke about Iraq’s relationships with its ally, the United States, and also with its neighbor, Iran.

“With respect to the Iraqi policy, we see that the United States of America is an ally and a strong ally for Iraq and we’ll continue to protect this alliance and to deepen it and to expand it. And regarding Iran, Iran is a neighboring country and as a result, there are ties pertaining to geography, history, culture, economy, and Iraqi policy or Iraq’s foreign policy is out of Iraq’s national interest,” he said, responding to a question about “snapback sanctions” against Iran and how they affect Iraq.

“We want to have good relations with our neighbors, provided that nobody interferes in Iraq’s affairs and the Iraqi decision will be made by the Iraqis to protect our alliances and relations with others, including the United States of America.”

Experts told The Epoch Times that Iraq is trying to maintain a balanced foreign policy between the adversaries United States and Iran, and the on-ground development is that, for the time being, both have taken a step back from their confrontational stance in Iraq.

“The Iraqi government generally, and the new Prime Minister Kadhimi (as well as the foreign minister), have to maintain a delicate balance,” Yezid​ Sayigh, a senior fellow with the Carnegie Middle East Center, told The Epoch Times in an email.

Epoch Times Photo
U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo (R) meets with Iraq’s Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein during a press conference at the State Department in Washington on Aug. 19, 2020. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

“So the FM could hardly say anything different. But Kadhimi is regarded as trying to contain Iranian influence, especially within the security and defense sectors, in part by asserting more control over the Popular Mobilization Units, some parts of which are closely allied with Iran,” said Sayigh, who is based in Beirut.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, who was named as the nation’s 43rd prime minister by President Barham Salih in April, after the previous government collapsed after months of public protests, will visit the White House on Aug. 20.

“As close partners, the United States and Iraq will look to expand our relations across a range of issues, including security, energy, health care, and economic cooperation,” the State Department said in an Aug. 7 statement.

Sayigh said Iraqi officials want to reiterate a “positive neutrality” toward Iran and the United States but also want to be able to reduce Iranian influence.

“They don’t just do this to please the U.S., but also to defuse anti-Iranian sentiment among Iraqi’s Sunni Arabs and also Iraqi nationalists among the Shia and other constituencies. So their approach reflects diverse factors,” Sayigh said.

Iran faces a difficult situation as both the United States and Iran compete for supremacy in the Middle East, according to Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow and the director of the Iran program at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

“This has been true for successive Iraqi governments since 2003. It is a reality that will not change anytime soon. The good news is that both Washington and Tehran have chosen to reduce their competition for influence in Iraq to give Kadhimi some space to put his government in place,” Vatanka told The Epoch Times in an email.

“Both Iran and the U.S. want the other party out of Iraq, but are happy to settle for a long-term strategy to achieve it instead of risking fueling the collapse of the Iraqi state.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi at the prime minister’s office in Baghdad, on June 4, 2020. (Iraqi Prime Minister Media Office/Handout via Reuters)

Can Iraq Be Hostile Toward Iran?

Sayigh said Iraq “cannot and will not” adopt a foreign policy that’s hostile toward Iran, because the country has suffered because of it previously.

“The country suffered massively from that kind of policy under Saddam Hussein and will not go that far, no matter how much pressure the Trump administration places on it.”

Sam Bazzi, an independent Middle East expert and the founder of the Hezbollah Watch project, told The Epoch Times in a chat message that Iraq is in a tough situation.

“Iraq is stuck between a rock and a hard place: the rock is America and the hard place is Iran,” Bazzi wrote, adding that in Iraq, the United States has thousands of troops stationed and has allies who rely on the United States for security and for sustaining political power.

U.S. soldiers stand guard
U.S. soldiers stand guard during the handover ceremony of Qayyarah Airfield to Iraqi Security Forces, in the south of Mosul, Iraq, early on March 27, 2020. (Ali Abdul Hassan/AP Photo)

He said, on the other hand, the Iranian regime has backed several large Khomeinist sectarian militias inside Iraq for its agenda.

“Thus, even West-leaning, Washington-friendly governments in Baghdad have to tread a fine line. Tehran looms large in Iraq and, simply put, its interests and agenda cannot be ignored,” he wrote.

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