Iraq hopes to give peace a chance
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Iraq this week — his first visit as head of state to his country’s neighbor. There have been several high-level visits over the last few months, including those of the first vice president, the oil minister, the head of the central bank, and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who came in January.
Zarif also came to Baghdad a few days before his president and described the presidential visit as a “new chapter,” a “new start” and “historic.” He referred to “historic commonalities” between the two countries and said the visit would convey a “message of regional cooperation,” given that Iraq was “an important pillar of regional security.”
The Rouhani visit was meant to upgrade Iran’s relations with Iraq beyond their military dimension into the areas of politics, security, energy and economic ties. It was also aimed at ensuring that Iran-Iraq ties would remain substantial just as US sanctions are restricting Iran’s market access globally and Washington has heightened its hostile rhetoric and initiatives.
The visit fulfilled Iran’s agenda in ample measure. Several agreements were signed in the areas of energy, transport, agriculture, industry and health. The two countries are completing a 48-mile railway line from Khorramshahr to Basra, which will bring Iranian goods to the Iraqi port for domestic and regional distribution. They are also looking at a rail connection from Iran to Iraq that would then link up with the Syrian system and go as far as Latakia on the Mediterranean.
The two countries already have $12 billion of bilateral trade, which they will seek to expand to $20 billion. Energy has brought the two sides very close, with Iraq buying Iranian gas and electricity, despite US sanctions. For fear of rousing popular anger, Iraq cannot allow disruptions to the power supply like those that caused widespread protests last summer.
As ties deepen, they will explore more ambitious proposals, such as a joint bank and a free-trade zone at the border, as well as addressing long-simmering issues such as defining the border in some areas and jointly developing oil fields along the frontier.
The highlight of Rouhani’s visit was his meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani in Najaf, the first meeting between a sitting Iranian president and the senior cleric, who has played a decisive role at crucial moments in Iraqi politics. Al-Sistani stressed the importance of “balanced and moderate regional and international policies in this region to avoid further tragedies and damage.” With this meeting, he also boosted the status of Rouhani and Zarif in Iran’s own contentious politics.
Given the sharp divisions in the region, there are grave doubts that Iraq will be given this opportunity of seeking a chance at peace.
Iran is not the only significant player in Iraq. Saudi Arabia has also built close ties with a wide array of Iraqi leaders across the sectarian spectrum, as affirmed by the recent visit to Riyadh of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.
Saudi Arabia’s ties with Iraq also have a strong economic content, covering transport links and, uniquely, the development of a million hectares of Iraqi farmland for rich agricultural produce.
The Kingdom views these ties as being founded on the two countries’ Arab identity and it would like to bring Iraq into a regional Arab security system. A writer in Al-Hayat, Hamid Al-Kifai, has stressed that these links are valuable in themselves and are not directed at any other country in the region. However, the Kingdom will certainly seek to balance Iran’s influence in Iraq.
The US is the other major player in Baghdad. Here, the situation is more confusing. On Feb. 3, US President Donald Trump announced that US troops would stay on in Iraq to “watch Iran.” This united Iraq’s politicians in outrage and President Barham Salih pleaded with the US not to “overburden Iraq with your own issues.”
US troops in Iraq are said to number 5,200 and, according to US sources, are primarily used for training and intelligence support. But many Iraqis are not convinced about the numbers and limited role, believing that the US is looking at a long-term military presence to confront Iran.
Iraq, after decades of conflict, is desperately seeking normalcy, in which it could consolidate its political and economic institutions and address the urgent matters of national reconciliation, reconstruction, poverty alleviation and comprehensive development. It does not wish to be caught in the vortex of regional competitions.
Hence, not surprisingly, Iraqi commentators are firmly insisting that their blood-soaked land now be given the chance for peace. Salih has said that his country should be an “arena for consensus and reconciliation among the countries of the region.” He promotes the vision of an integrated economic sphere — based on railways, pipelines and free-trade zones — which would make Iraq “the bridge between the region’s economies.”
Clearly, Iraq is seeking a chance at peace. But, given the sharp divisions in the region, there are grave doubts that it will be given this opportunity.
- Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. He holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.