The transition period in the United States has put the Middle East on a knife’s edge—especially Iran and Iraq, which face a heightened risk of proxy war, along with the unpredictable effects of further sanctions. Some of the regional players with the closest relationships to Donald Trump are already attempting to maximize their gains with aggressive maneuvers, with the risks multiplying in the final weeks of the Trump presidency. For Iraq, the transition is particularly fraught, reflecting dangers that will continue to trouble Baghdad even after Joe Biden takes office.
Iraq’s predicament is simple to state and difficult to address: the country’s well-being depends, to a large degree, on its deeply intertwined relationship with Iran, its neighbor to the east, its most important trade partner, and the most dominant foreign player in Iraq’s security. At the same time, Iran is directly in the crosshairs of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel—which puts Iraq in an increasingly untenable situation. Baghdad’s interests, in terms of its relationship with Tehran, are not aligned with Washington’s. Iraq’s stability and good ties with Iran have no direct effect on the American economy or national security. In contrast, Iran and Iraq’s bilateral relationship is crucial for both countries—it is deeply grounded in history and will continue despite the threat of boycotts, sanctions, and war.
No matter how much Iraq wants to cultivate the goodwill of the United States (and many of its leaders and factions do), it cannot wish away its interdependence with Iran. Recent history has shown that Iran, partly by virtue of being Iraq’s neighbor, is a more consistent partner to Iraq than the United States, which despite being a superpower in a region that yearns for leadership, has struggled to define its relationship with Iraq. Under a new administration, the United States should seek to develop a policy for Iraq that is not conditional on either country’s relationship with Iran, but instead pursues shared goals, leveraging Iraq’s need for assistance and the United States’ wish to see a stable, well-governed democracy in Iraq.
Sometimes Friends, Always Neighbors
The 1,000-mile Iran–Iraq border is one of the oldest in the world. The shared history of the two nations stretches back to the earliest civilizations several millennia ago. Both countries share culture and communities, including large Kurdish populations. A majority of Iraqis are Shia Muslim, just as most Iranians are, and the shared Shia religious identity drives extensive exchange centered on holy shrines, which draw clerics, students, and millions of pilgrims across the border every year. There are also, of course, notable differences between the two countries: Iraq has a largely Arab identity whereas Iran is largely Persian. Both countries have bitter memories of the brutal 1980–88 Iran–Iraq war, which killed hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians from both countries. And Iran’s state is theocratic, while Iraq has a democratic system—albeit a weak one. Both nations also have, for different but related reasons, a troubled recent history with the United States.
Aside from the long-standing political ties that connect Iran and Iraq, the two countries’ economic relationship is so significant that it impacts daily life. More than 10 million trips between Iran and Iraq are made annually, and the value of bilateral trade is estimated at $1 billion per month. Iraq relies on imports of Iranian gas and electricity for its power sector, and a range of goods and materials that support Iraqi industries, including construction. Being downstream from Iran means that Iraq depends on good cooperation to receive the water flows essential to agriculture and high-population areas near the border where water is scarce, such as Basra.
Across the political spectrum in Iraq, there is recognition that Iran is a more reliable partner than the United States.
Across the political spectrum in Iraq, there is recognition that Iran is a more reliable partner than the United States. When the Islamic State took over large parts of Iraq in June 2014, Iran was the first to give support to the Iraqi government, while the United States withheld extra assistance for two months until a new government more to Washington’s liking was formed. The United States is engaged in Iraq so long as it has troop presence, and its attention to Iraqi policy has fluctuated wildly over the past decade. In contrast, Iran has no declared military presence, and has been far more consistent in its foreign policy. The simple fact is that Iran will always be next to Iraq and deeply involved; the same cannot be said of the United States. A recognition of this fact was evident in Barack Obama’s efforts to disentangle from Iraq, and continued to be manifest under Trump. The long-term trend of disengagement is not likely to change during the Biden presidency—the United States has limited skin in the game in Iraq.
Iran is clearly not an altruistic actor in Iraq. Tehran supports paramilitary groups that undermine the Iraqi state and skim its resources, use violence and intimidation to punish critical voices, and violate the rule of law by conducting rocket attacks against diplomatic and government facilities. The weakness of the Iraqi state has allowed such intrusion, but the United States has committed serious mistakes since 2003 that created the predicament. Most recently, the Trump administration viewed Iraq as an extension of its Iran policy, and has hung the threat of secondary sanctions around Baghdad’s neck for three years running. Trump undertook a dangerous escalation with the assassination of two senior security officials, one Iranian and one Iraqi, at the Baghdad airport in January of this year. That strike, in addition to violating international law, reinforced the notion that the U.S. mission in Iraq was focused on Iran and little else.
Arab nations—particularly the Gulf states—have not made much effort to support Iraq since 2003, and have viewed Iran’s influence in Iraq as a reason to boycott Iraq rather than compete with Iran. Influential and wealthy Arab states encouraged a hawkish U.S. policy on Iran, knowing that the harsh consequences of such a policy would play out in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon—with little cost to themselves. Going forward, a course correction may be possible, but would require strategic patience from those states. Iran will continue to be the dominant player in Iraq, but stronger ties with the Arab world would dilute some of that influence and give the Iraqi state more resilience. Undoubtedly, much depends on Iraq itself and its ability to properly conduct domestic and foreign policy, overcome crises, and enact reforms.
New President, Same Story?
Iraq cannot afford strained relations with Iran. If forced to choose between the United States and Iran, Iraq will choose the latter. Yet Iraq doesn’t want to be put in that situation by either country, and prefers the middle ground: to be a good neighbor to Iran and a good friend with the United States. This pragmatism is a necessary one for Iraq, and the United States should respect that. Iraq has begun a strategic dialogue with the United States that tries to reinforce a middle-ground policy. Iraq also needs a robust dialogue with Iran to advance the argument that, while Iran might prefer a weak Iraqi state that is easier to manipulate, both Iran and Iraq are actually stronger when Iraq is governed well and thus invites less negative attention from Iran’s rivals. From the U.S. perspective, Iraq’s desire for a close relationship with Iran may be a bitter pill to swallow. But the sooner the Biden administration recognizes Iraq’s true needs—and that forcing Iraq into a binary choice is the wrong approach—the better. Baghdad might cooperate with Washington, but it cannot repudiate or break ties with Tehran. That is simply the geopolitical reality. It was true when the United States was occupying Iraq, and it is all the more true now that Washington is fitfully attentive.
Baghdad might cooperate with Washington, but it cannot repudiate or break ties with Tehran. That is simply the geopolitical reality.
For the incoming U.S. administration, Iraq policy will not be a priority, and could take many months to develop. The transition period from Trump to Biden may affect how that policy is shaped. Further escalatory events—such as new sanctions, rocket attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, retaliation against Iranian assets or pro-Iran elements in Iraq, or assassinations of Iranian officials and scientists—could set a cycle in motion that empowers hardline or hawkish Iraqi and Iranian policymakers. Such developments would, in turn, drive the Iraq–U.S. relationship into an increasingly uneasy and negative posture. In such circumstances, the Biden administration might be pushed to accelerate the United States military pullout and diplomatic disengagement from Iraq. Within months of becoming president, Biden could be back almost exactly to where he was with Iraq policy in 2011, when the United States last minimized ties with Iraq—for what turned out to be a short while.
Even if that scenario is avoided and there is a positive reset with Iraq under Biden, there will continue to be friction between what the United States wants from Iraq with regard to Iran, and what Baghdad can and wants to do. Negotiating the middle ground is a very difficult task for Iraq, which has little leverage with either country. It has had some success in the past—namely in 2015–16, during the peak of the campaign against the Islamic State. During that period, Iraq achieved a balance, securing support and assistance from both Tehran and Washington while avoiding being drawn into the regional conflict that tends to define every state in the Middle East as being part of either a pro- or anti-Iranian axis. Half a decade ago, Iraq was better placed to seek this balance because of the détente produced by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran nuclear deal) and because both Iran and the United States wanted to support the campaign against the Islamic State. Now, Iraq must rely more on itself to elicit recognition from Iran and the United States that Baghdad needs simultaneously stable ties with both rivals. As Iraq works to achieve that recognition, friction among the three countries will be inevitable, particularly if changes are viewed as being zero-sum.
Iraq has low expectations of an immediate positive impact of the Biden presidency. Part of this is due to Biden’s role as the Iraq policy lead during Obama’s tenure, when the United States disengaged with Iraq until the Islamic State’s rise forced a grudging reversal. But mostly, these low expectations are a recognition of how much more complicated the region has become under Trump, and especially of the bitter mistrust between Iran and the United States, with Iraq being the arena to settle scores. Biden may be a pragmatist in the eyes of Iraq’s leaders, but this quality primarily serves American interests, and won’t necessarily help Iraq in difficult situations. History suggests that Biden may not be keen to do more in Iraq, and there is little appetite across the political spectrum in the United States to become more involved in Baghdad’s affairs. Further, the course Trump has set may be impossible for Biden to significantly reverse.
Ultimately, Baghdad must manage its own relationships with its neighbors, regardless of the United States’ interests in Iraq or the region. Iraq must increase its leverage with neighbors such as Turkey and coax Arabian Peninsula monarchies, such as Saudi Arabia, into deepening their relationships with Iraq—relationships that are currently superficial and hands-off. Throughout, Iraq needs to maintain a healthy relationship with Iran—and should not pay a price for doing so. Other countries cannot demand that Iraq cut ties with Iran, just as Iran cannot insist that Iraq spurn all other foreign relations. The United States must also face a similar question. Can it find a way to have a solid partnership with Iraq, while accepting Iraq’s simultaneous relationship with Iran?
header photo: An Iraqi border guard stands in front of a picture of the late Iranian leader Ruholla Khomeini on the Iranian side of the border crossing at al-Munthriya, Iraq, in 2004. The two countries have a long history of cultural exchange and close relations—despite war and periods of tension. Source: Spencer Platt/Getty Images