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Iraq government must choose between US and Iran — its people already have

U.S. President Donald Trump receives Iraq’s PM Mustafa Al-Kadhimi in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., Aug. 20, 2020. (Reuters)
U.S. President Donald Trump receives Iraq’s PM Mustafa Al-Kadhimi in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., Aug. 20, 2020. (Reuters)
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27 Aug 2020 01:08:46 GMT9
27 Aug 2020 01:08:46 GMT9

The three things America wants Baghdad to know are: Iran is Washington’s focus, Daesh is bigger than the Baghdad pulse on the US presence, and the White House is prepared to deal with both Iran and Daesh at Baghdad’s expense and to its detriment if it continues its pro-Tehran position.

Why do I say Baghdad instead of Iraq? Because Baghdad is at odds with the rest of the country, it is the center of power, and 80 percent of the country wants this corrupt and loyal-to-Tehran system replaced in new elections. Elections that are free, fair and timely — as in, now. Elections that won’t happen without the consent of Tehran and to the benefit of parties tied to Tehran. Elections Iraqis demand.

Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi’s visit to the US last week was full of promises from both sides. Promises are easy, and this doesn’t mean the trip was a promising one. A “promising” description would mean that what transpired in Washington was highly likely to happen — but what was talked about and tentatively agreed to by Al-Kadhimi is something he will fail to sell to the Council of Representatives, which is dominated by pro-Tehran militia leaders in suits.

There were promises made to focus on the fight against Daesh; promises by the US to leave Iraq once Iraq can defend itself; promises to help Iraq’s economy; and promises to not mention, at least in public, the threat of Iraqi militias and Al-Kadhimi’s inability to take them on.

It was all public pleasantries and platitudes in Washington, but the message was clear: Iraq can benefit from a strong relationship with the US or it can be quickly abandoned if Baghdad continues to do nothing as security degradation continues to reveal the facade that is a sovereign and post-Daesh Iraq.

The militias tied to Tehran have primacy and Daesh is reconstituting where the US has pulled out along the Iraq-Syria border. The militias are taking over the bases the US is handing back over to the Iraqi government. Most analysts in Washington say Iraq is better than it has ever been, which is easily said, unless you are actually paying attention.

The US will remain in Iraq as long as Daesh is present and as long as the militias continue to threaten the region. The US is repositioning to areas where it has more support from Sunnis and Kurds; to areas distrustful of Baghdad and against Iran’s militias. This is what Nouri Al-Maliki and Hadi Al-Ameri believe, it is what the militias believe, and it is what they should worry about. Baghdad has a choice: Iraq can become like Syria, Yemen or Lebanon, or it can become one of the strongest economies in the region, with solid ties to the US, NATO and its Arab neighbors.

Security degradation will not allow for the economic incentives the US proposed during Al-Kadhimi’s visit. The message to Baghdad effectively was, “look what can be if you tilt away from Iran and look at what you will lose if you continue to let Iran dictate what Baghdad does.”

American companies are preparing to do things in Iraq that will move the country away from Iranian energy and forced dependence, which also happens to cost five times as much as the US rate. These contracts aren’t signed in isolation; they will complement the US moves to bring snapback sanctions on Iran and end the waivers for Iraq to use Iranian gas and electricity.

Again, the wild cards — a Daesh resurgence and Iran’s militias — could derail international investment in Iraq. The proposed contracts will not happen while militias are attacking anything American with impunity and Daesh cells are active in previously cleared territory because the militias and the Iraqi security forces are not focused on them.

The government of Iraq has no interest in protecting its people from the militias, no willingness or capability to protect US and NATO forces from militia attacks, and no ability to protect opponents of the militias in government. How is Al-Kadhimi going to protect Americans working on these economic projects from a militia force that is paid and equipped by the Iraqi government yet answers to Tehran?

Washington believes the UN will have to snapback sanctions on Iran next month. No member of the Security Council can stop a permanent member — in this case the US — from implementing snapback sanctions if Iran has breached its obligations under the nuclear deal. The International Atomic Energy Agency has stated Tehran is in violation and Iran has also stated its intention to violate the deal, meaning there really is no option to stop the US triggering snapback sanctions.

Snapback will mean the return of all sanctions on Iran that were lifted as a result of the 2015 nuclear deal. It means Iraq will become more important to Iran. It also means Baghdad will have to break ties with the pariah regime. There will be no more waivers, no carve-outs, as the US would be in violation of UN and its own sanctions if Iraqi violations went unpunished.

Iraq can benefit from a strong relationship with the US or it can be quickly abandoned if Baghdad continues to do nothing.

Michael Pregent

It will also mean the militias tied to Tehran cannot be on the Iraqi government payroll without Baghdad being punished under US secondary sanctions. And political parties tied to Tehran will not be able to hold positions in Iraq’s parliament. The US cannot do business in an Iraq where Tehran’s parties and militias have primacy. It is a big deal and changes everything that is currently in place.

Iran and Baghdad may think they can wait out the Trump administration, but snapback sanctions will come into effect before the election and will hurt both. The regime in Tehran won’t have a say in the pain that is coming, while Baghdad has a say despite Tehran’s hold. If Baghdad chooses to distance itself from its subordinated relationship with Iran, then it will be insulated from the economic ramifications that will hit the regime hard ahead of the US election in November. If Baghdad chooses Iran — despite its population urging it to pull away from this toxic regime, which needs Iraq as a lifeline — then it will seal Iraq’s fate. That is until the protest movement becomes an armed revolution.

  • Michael Pregent, a former intelligence officer, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
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