Iran and Iraq: the struggle for lasting relations

On July 25, the Iraq Initiative and the Iran Future Initiative of the Atlantic Council hosted a virtual event titled “Iran and Iraq: the struggle for lasting relations.” Moderated by Masoud Mostajabi, associate director of Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council, the discussion analyzed the political, economic and cultural ties and irritants between Iran and Iraq. The event included an introduction by Barbara Slavin, director of the Iran Future Initiative at the Atlantic Council, and included a panel including Abbas Kadhim, director of the Iraq Initiative at the Atlantic ; Mohsen Milani, executive director of the Center for Strategic & Diplomatic Studies and professor of politics at the University of South Florida; Randa Slim, senior researcher and director of the Conflict Resolution and Dialogues Track II program at the Middle East Institute; and Ahmed Tabaqchali, non-resident senior researcher at the Atlantic Council.

Current state of Iran-Iraq relations
There are many dynamics at play that demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of the Iran-Iraq relationship. Milani and Kadhim said ties are the strongest since the establishment of the modern Iraqi state in the 1920s. Kadhim described religious exchanges and the lack of visa requirements between the two countries as evidence of ties positive political, economic and cultural. Milani noted Iran’s strong support for Iraq against ISIS. Milani and Slim emphasized Iran’s overriding objective of preventing Iraq from becoming hostile to Iran as in the 1980-88 war. They claimed that while Iran is more influential than it was following the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iran does not always dictate Iraqi policy, even if it supports friendly governments of Tehran from a Shiite-dominated bloc. Slim and Milani said Iran was concerned about growing rifts within Iraq’s Shia bloc that could undermine Iran’s influence. Slim said the deaths of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were assassinated by the United States in 2020, had reduced coordination between different militias.

Trade relations between the two countries remain unbalanced. Tabaqchali noted that Iranian exports to Iraq exceed $8 billion per year while Iraqi exports to Iran are only $1 billion. Rather than seeing this gap as a sign of Iranian dominance, Tabaqchali believes these data demonstrate the lack of diversification and unsustainable structure of the Iraqi economy. “What would Iran import from us?” Tabaqchali asked, since Iraq doesn’t produce much except oil, which Iran already has in abundance.

Both Iran and Iraq face domestic political turmoil. Iraq still does not have a new government despite the holding of elections last October. Milani said the death of Ayatollah Sistani could create a power vacuum among observant Shiites.

Regional actors in Iran-Iraq relations
Kadhim welcomed improved relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, but argued that Saudi Arabia had not sought to repair relations with Iraq earlier after Saddam’s overthrow. Slim noted the important role Iraq has played recently in trying to mend ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia, evident in the latest Baghdad-mediated talks between the two nations. Milani said it was necessary for Iran and Saudi Arabia to address their political disagreements while accepting the fact that the two nations cannot eliminate each other’s influence in the region. Slim agreed with Milani’s analysis but expressed concern that it could be difficult to continue Iraqi mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia if a new Iraqi prime minister is appointed given the deep trust the Saudis have developed with interim Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi.

Speakers also discussed the energy relationship between Iraq and Iran. For years Iraq has relied on Iranian natural gas to keep the lights on, but Iran has growing domestic demand and an inefficient network and periodically cuts gas supplies to Iraq to serve its own people. . Iran is also suffering from US sanctions. Tabaqchali said both countries need investment. The Gulf Cooperation Council could help create a more interconnected power grid to be more flexible in the face of seasonally fluctuating demand. Kadhim stressed that power grid integration is necessary for regional development, but should not be politicized or used as an alternative to autonomy, and the focus should remain on building Iraqi internal capabilities .

While many Iraqis resent Iranian intrusion into their affairs, there are also growing complaints against Turkey after the bombing of a tourist resort in the northern Kurdistan regional government. Tabaqchali said Iraq must “get our house in order” so that Iran and Turkey cannot continue to “act with impunity” in Iraq. Kadhim said the presence of Turkish forces in Iraq is illegal and advised Iraq to raise the issue before the United Nations Security Council or the International Criminal Court. Beyond military encroachment, concerns have been raised about water security, with Turkey having built several dams that restrict access to water in Iraq.

Israel in Iraq-Iran relations
The panel also discussed Israeli influence in the KRG and the impact of the Abraham Accords. Milani referred to Iran’s and Israel’s deep involvement in Kurdistan prior to the 1979 Iranian Revolution and said Mossad and Iran’s intelligence organization Savak helped establish the Kurdish intelligence agency. Iran abandoned the Kurds when it signed the Algiers Accords obtaining territorial concessions from Saddam. Slim noted Israel’s history of connecting with minority groups across the Middle East that had been part of its “periphery” strategy prior to peace agreements with Arab states. Milani and Slim said Iran accepts some Turkish and Russian influence in Kurdistan but remains aloof from Israeli involvement. Kadhim claimed that Iraq would not normalize relations with Israel for fear of public outcry and the current lack of necessity.

Policy Recommendations and Outlet for US Forces
In the American context, speakers noted that policy toward Iraq was often an extension of Iranian policy. The Iraqis are dealing with pressure from the United States and Iran in a way that is not always in Iraq’s interest. All speakers said it was important for the United States and Iraq to have a multi-faceted relationship that is not dominated by the American desire to contain Iran.

Asked about the small residual presence of US forces in Iraq, Kadhim said it was not an Iraqi priority at the moment. Milani said US troops in Iraq support an essential balance against Iran and Turkey. Kadhim said US troops will eventually leave Iraq, but the decision must be mutual and involve a transition so that Iraq can manage its own security. Milani said Iran’s strategic goal remains the ejection of American forces, but said the United States was unlikely to end its presence in the Middle East.

Alexandra Kaiss is a Global Young Professional with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.

Mariah Smith is a Global Young Professional with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.

Further reading

Associate specialists:
Barbara Slavin,
Abbas Kadim,
Ahmed Tabaqchaliand
Massoud Mostajabi

Image: Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi attend a press conference in Tehran, Iran, June 26, 2022. President’s website/WANA (West Asian News Agency )/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS – THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.