Nervous Iran races to secure Iraq interests

The pro-Iranian Shiite Al-Fattah alliance that came second in the election with 47 seats, is led by Hadi Al-Amiri, head of the Badr Organization. AFP
Updated 06 June 2018
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Nervous Iran races to secure Iraq interests

  • The pro-Iranian Shiite Al-Fattah alliance came second in the election with 47 seats
  • Iranian airlines have been under a suffocating blockade since 2011 over their involvement in transporting arms and fighters to Syria and Iraq

BAGHDAD: Iran is scrambling to secure its interests in Iraq amid fears it will lose out in the political battle to form Iraq’s new government.

Negotiators and political analysts told Arab News that Tehran is even ready to support an administration led by its rivals in a bid to maintain influence in the country.
Iran and its Shiite allies in Iraq have been “cautiously” watching the new kingmaker Muqtada Al-Sadr, whose Sairoon alliance triumphed in elections last month.
While Al-Sadr has led talks to build the largest coalition in Parliament, Iran’s allies “have not sought to seriously compete” to form a rival bloc, but instead joined negotiations to try to secure Iran’s interests in the country, the sources said.
Iraq is a focal point for international rivalry in the region, especially between Iran and the US since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. No stable government can form without the agreement of both nations.
Al-Sadr, the influential Shiite cleric openly hostile to Iran, heads the Sairoon bloc, which won 54 seats in the May 12 election.
Arab News revealed last week that he is close to securing the largest coalition without the need for any of the Iran-backed parties.
That bloc would then be able to nominate a prime minister who would be assigned to form a government.
The pro-Iranian Shiite Al-Fattah alliance came second in the election with 47 seats. The alliance is led by Hadi Al-Amiri, head of the Badr Organization, one of the most prominent Shiite armed factions, supported by Tehran.
Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Al-Quds Force, made a short visit to Baghdad on May 18 to tell Al-Fattah’s leaders that they should keep negotiating.
“The message was very clear. No red lines against anyone, not Sadr or Abadi,” a senior Fattah leader who attended the meeting with Soleimani told Arab News.
Al-Fattah leaders were advised by the Iranian commander to “negotiate with whoever you think will serve your interests.”
Two days later, Al-Amiri went to visit Al-Sadr in his temporary Baghdad headquarters to “discuss the developments of the political process … and the formation of a patriarchal government,” the senior leader said.
“Iranians are still negotiating to get Al-Amiri into the coalition,” a negotiator close to Al-Abadi told Arab News.
But he said it would not include the other main Shiite armed faction in the Al-Fattah alliance — Assaib Ahl Al-Haq.
Last week, the US Congress included Assaib in the list of terrorist organizations whose members or collaborators would be covered by US Treasury sanctions.
“They (the Iranians) knew that Assaib had no chance to get any position in the government,” the negotiator said.
“So they negotiate to get just Badr in.”
Al-Amiri’s Badr faction won more than 20 seats and is angling to get the transport ministry, negotiators involved in the talks told Arab News.
An Iran ally controlling that ministry would help maintain the air bridge between Iran and Syria, where Iranian forces and militias are heavily involved in military support for President Bashar Assad, the source said.
Keeping the transport routes running freely through Iraq would also help Iran get around US sanctions.
Iranian airlines have been under a suffocating blockade since 2011 over their involvement in transporting arms and fighters to Syria and Iraq.
Iraq’s Transport Ministry is responsible for the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority, and the Iraqi government and private transport fleet, and Al-Badr’s control of the ministry would relieve the pressure on Iran.
Fearing this outcome from negotiations, Al-Abadi, who is favorite to stay as prime minister and enjoys US support, last week ordered the Civil Aviation Authority to be separated from the Transport Ministry and linked to the Cabinet.
The move sparked widespread objections from his Shiite rivals, who accused him of seeking to control the aviation authority for personal reasons.
 “Separating the aviation authority from the ministry of transport is a proactive step to reassure the international community,” the negotiator said.
Tehran is also seeking to ensure it can continue to use Iraq to circumvent US sanctions and ensure the flow of foreign currency into Iran and the sale of Iranian oil on the global market away from US monitoring.
“(Iran’s) concern is that the flow of money is threatened. US Treasury sanctions may be imposed on Iraqi banks and companies linked to Iran at any moment,” a Shiite politician familiar with the negotiations told Arab News.
Last month, the US Treasury Department listed Arass Habib, the owner of Iraq’s Al-Billad Islamic Bank, on the list of terrorist-cooperating organizations for transferring funds to Hezbollah on behalf of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
“Also, they want us to sell oil on their behalf,” a negotiator said.
Sami Al-Asskari, a prominent Shiite leader and one of the negotiators of the State of Law bloc, told Arab News that Iran wants a government that will not be involved in any hostile policy toward Iran or its interests in Iraq.
“A government that does not engage in any regional or international axis against Iran,” he said.


Yemen groups agree to reopen Sanaa airport, still in talks on port at Sweden talks

Updated 44 min 8 sec ago
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Yemen groups agree to reopen Sanaa airport, still in talks on port at Sweden talks

  • Askar Zaeel, a member of the government delegation, said his camp would hold firm to UN Security Council Resolution 2216
  • Multiple draft proposals have been submitted to the two delegations over the past week

RIMBO, Sweden: Yemen's warring parties agreed on Wednesday to reopen Sanaa airport in the Houthi-held capital, sources said, as Western nations press the two sides to agree on confidence-building measures before the end of the first UN-led peace talks in two years.
The Iranian-backed Houthi movement and the Arab coalition-backed government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi were still discussing a UN proposal on the contested port city of Hodeidah, a lifeline for millions of Yemenis.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is due to attend final talks in Sweden on Thursday to support his envoy's efforts to launch a political process to end the nearly four-year-old war. Another round of talks could be held in early 2019.
The Houthi militia hold most population centres, including Hodeidah and the capital Sanaa from which it ousted Hadi's government in 2014. The government is now based in the southern port of Aden.
The two parties agreed that international flights would stop at a government-held airport for inspections before flying in or out of Sanaa, two sources familiar with the talks said.
They have yet to agree on whether those inspections would be in Aden airport or that of Sayun, the sources added.
The Arab coalition intervened in the war in 2015 to restore Hadi's government controls the air space.
UN envoy Martin Griffiths, trying to avert a full-scale assault on Hodeidah, where coalition forces have massed on the outskirts, is asking both sides to withdraw from the city.
His proposal envisions an interim entity being formed to run the city and port and international monitors being deployed.
Asked if the government could accept that proposal, culture minister Marwan Dammaj said: "We are still discussing it."
Both sides have agreed to a UN role in the port, the entry point for most of Yemen's commercial imports and vital aid, but differ on who should run the city. The Houthi militia want Hodeidah declared a neutral zone, while Hadi's government believes the city should fall under its control as a matter of sovereignty.
"The devil is in the details - withdraw how far (from Hodeidah), the sequence, who governs and delivers services," said one diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
They have also yet to agree on shoring up the central bank, and on a transitional governing body, although a deal was struck on a prisoner swap that could see 15,000 prisoners released.