America’s Iran sanctions complicate Iraqi politics

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America’s Iran sanctions complicate Iraqi politics

Iraq’s caretaker Prime Minister Haider Abadi has had a difficult fortnight. On Aug. 7, US President Donald Trump reinstated sanctions on Iran following America’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement. The president’s executive order banned the use of US dollars by Iran and barred imports of Iranian vehicles, graphite, aluminum, steel, coal and software used in industry. These are a precursor to the more stringent sanctions on Iran’s oil sales, shipping and financial transactions that will be enforced from Nov. 5.

But the reverberations of this announcement have already been felt in Iraq. Abadi immediately made a convoluted statement: He rejected the idea of sanctions in principle but said that Iraq “will abide by them to protect the interests of our people.”

These remarks led to a storm in Iraq. The PM was sharply criticized by the country’s president, the head of the Kurdistan Regional Government, his own Da’awa Party, and a wide range of Shiite political parties and militia. Iranian media was equally harsh, while Tehran also cancelled a proposed visit by Abadi.

While some regional Arab commentators welcomed Abadi’s position and criticized the “rabid campaign” against him, others saw him as the “most prominent victim” of US sanctions and said his posture was “muddled and compromising.”

On Aug. 13, Abadi tried to regain some lost ground when his spokesman clarified that Iraq would only abide by those sanctions that covered dollar-related transactions with Iran. And this week it has been reported that Baghdad will send a delegation to Washington to ask for exemptions from the sanctions.

The announcement of US sanctions came as Iraq’s various political alliances jostled to form a government following the May elections. The manual recount of votes declared on Aug. 9 has shown hardly any change in the results announced earlier. Thus, though the Sairoon coalition led by Muqtada Al-Sadr continues to lead the pack, it has only 54 seats in a 329-member house. It is followed by the pro-Iran Fatah coalition with 48 seats, Abadi’s Nasr group with 42 seats, and former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s State of Law alliance with 25 seats.

Since the elections, both Iran and the US have been attempting to influence the government formation. While Iran would like to retain its predominant influence in Baghdad, particularly through its sectarian affiliates, the US is seeking to undermine this link and secure a government that is closer to Washington and the Gulf states.

The announcement of US sanctions came as Iraq’s various political alliances jostled to form a government following the May elections

Talmiz Ahmad

The sanctions announcement has highlighted Iraq’s sharp sectarian and political divisions. The US is supporting Abadi’s prime ministership in the new government, set up in association with the Al-Sadr-led alliance, which explains Abadi’s half-hearted acceptance of the sanctions announcement. The negative response to his statement and the strong pro-Iran positions of several groups, such as those of Fatah and Al-Maliki, also reflect their electoral calculus, commencing with neutralizing Abadi’s ambitions. This led Abadi to hurriedly moderate his stance, though it might not improve his fortunes.

Al-Sadr has been projecting himself as an Arab nationalist, but he has been careful not to alienate Iran and has also been in discussions with the Fatah Alliance, which is largely made up of the Iran-backed Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi that was in the vanguard of the fight against Daesh. Al-Sadr could also opt to remain in opposition.

Whatever the shape of the new government in Iraq, US sanctions have affirmed that Iran’s influence in the country will remain undiminished.

  • Talmiz Ahmad is a former Indian diplomat.
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