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[Research Reports] Iraq in Big Power Politics

Akiko Yoshioka (Senior Analyst, JIME Center, The Institute of Energy Economics, Japan)
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Research Group on 'the Middle East and Africa' FY2021-#3

"Research Reports" are compiled by participants in research groups set up at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, and are designed to disseminate, in a timely fashion, the content of presentations made at research group meetings or analyses of current affairs. The "Research Reports" represent their authors' views. In addition to these "Research Reports", individual research groups will publish "Research Bulletins" covering the full range of the group's research themes.

The US and Iran: The Impact of the US-Iran Confrontation

It goes without saying that the United States and Iran have great importance in Iraq's external relations. Although the United States, which has overseen the nation-building of Iraq since 2003, withdrew from Iraq in 2011, it dispatched troops to Iraq again in 2014 to fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The United States has had a significant influence on the security of Iraq through huge military assistance and arms exports. The withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq is currently being discussed, but the US will maintain its influence in Iraq through training and intelligence cooperation. In addition, the two countries have wide-ranging ties in counterterrorism, economic and energy cooperation, environmental issues, cultural relations and so forth under the Strategic Framework Agreement concluded in 2008.

Iran, which is in a bitter confrontation with the United States, has connections with Shiites and various political actors in Iraq, and maintains close political and military relations especially through the police under the Ministry of Interior and the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which were organized for the war against ISIS. Iran's greatest strength lies in the presence of pro-Iran PMF factions in Iraq that act in concert with Iran's own interests against the backdrop of Iraq's long-term relations with Iran since the 1980s. The direct conflict between Iran and the United States in Iraq culminated in the January 2020 assassination by the United States of Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, a division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and Iran's retaliation in the form of missile strikes against US forces in Iraq. Although the situation has subsided since then, rocket attacks targeting US military bases and US government interests as well as simple bomb attacks on trucks supporting US logistics have occurred almost daily in Iraq. In February 2021, shortly after the inauguration of the Biden administration, a Filipino military contractor for the US military was killed in a rocket attack. In retaliation, the US government launched air strikes on the Iraq-Syria border against pro-Iranian militias. The reason for not carrying out these air strikes in Iraq may have been consideration for friendly relations with the Iraqi government. However interestingly, Defense Secretary Austin publicly stated that intelligence from Iraq had helped him scrutinize the targets of the bombing. Although the Iraqi government denied having any part in this action, the US government's daring mention of Iraq's cooperation was intended to be nothing less than a check on Iran.

The Saudi Approach

The diplomatic relations with Iraq of other neighboring countries and major powers have been built on the premise that the United States and Iran hold such significant sway in Iraq. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab countries kept distance from the Iraqi government after the Iraq War and secretly sought out relations with Sunni forces for a long time. They have changed their policy since the mid-2010s, partly because support for Iraqi Sunnis resulted not in an increased Sunni presence in Iraqi politics but rather in the rise of ISIS, a threat to the Gulf monarchies. The change of both the Iraqi prime minister and the Saudi king in mid-2010s also contributed in the new diplomatic relations. Saudi Arabia's intention was apparently to reduce Iran's influence by strengthening connections with the Iraqi government. In this regard, the Gulf countries' economic power was considered their biggest weapon, and the Iraqi government, which was struggling against post-war reconstruction, had high expectations for their support. However, despite occasional references to aid and assistance by Gulf countries, the pace of implementation has been extremely slow. This can be attributed not only to bureaucracy, corruption and other problems plaguing Iraq's business environment but also interference from pro-Iranian groups and a lack of experience among the Gulf countries in providing economic assistance in such a difficult environment.

It was reported in April 2021 that Iraq was acting as a mediator between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which have suspended their diplomatic relations since 2016, and Iraqi President Barham Saleh confirmed this report. Iraq has connections with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. This is a valuable opportunity to influence politics in the region, and the easing of tensions between the two countries will benefit Iraqi stability. However, the question remains whether the Iraqi government has the leverage and political power to conclude the negotiations.

Predominant Turkey

While Iran continues to exert its national interests in Iraq by maintaining its influence in various directions or, in other words, using its soft power, its northern neighbor Turkey tends to practice diplomacy in Iraq by using hard power more straightforwardly for its own benefit. Turkey is Iraq's main trade partner, and there is a lot of visits on ministerial level between the two countries. Thus, Turkey maintains close relations with Iraq as a neighboring country. However, when Turkey launches cross-border military attacks on Iraq to fight against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which it considers a terrorist entity, it pays no heed to the Iraqi government's objections. These military operations are not limited to the border area; the Turkish army has already penetrated about 40km inland from the border and built a military base there, and Iraqi civilians and border guards have been killed in the repeated attacks. The Iraqi government has called on Turkey to respect its sovereignty, but it has no viable and practical political leverage to change the behavior of the Turkish government. In the face of several disputes, such as removal of the Turkish military base near Mosul, the flow of the Tigris River, and the Iraq-Turkey Pipeline, Turkey does not appear to be willing to cooperate with Iraq.

In September 2017, when the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) carried out a referendum on independence from Iraq, Iraq and Turkey united in opposition to this and cooperated in applying pressure through such means as banning flights to and from the Iraqi Kurdistan region, deploying Iraqi troops on the Turkish border and building up their military forces. However, this was a rare instance of shared interests between the two countries and, as the independence issue subsided, such cooperation disappeared. The Turkish government seems to view its relations with the KRG as separate from its relations with the Iraqi government, and it imports crude oil from the KRG and provides financial support to the region without the involvement of the Iraqi government. The relationship between the two countries illustrates the reality that Turkey has a military and political advantage over a fragile Iraq.

The Presence of China and Russia

Under Saddam Hussein's regime, Iraqi relations with China and Russia, two permanent members of the Security Council, were of strategic importance in order to counter the UN sanctions pursued by the United States and Britain. However, this situation has changed since 2003, and the presence of China and Russia has declined significantly in the shadow of the US's enormous influence. Even so, Iraq, which has been the second largest oil exporter in OPEC since 2015, has been increasing its crude oil exports to China year by year, and increased its weapons purchases from Russia for the war against ISIS. Thus, both Russia and China have gradually started to make their presence felt as new players in Iraq.

In addition to oil imports from Iraq, China's participation in upstream oil field development by its state-owned oil companies is remarkable. Over a decade-long period starting in 2009, it was involved in the development of 12 sites. In 2019, Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi visited China and announced a plan of 'oil for reconstruction' investment scheme and the participation in the Belt and Road Initiative. At present, however, there is no sign that China's presence will expand beyond the economic/energy sector. Even though Iraq purchased armed drones from China for the war against ISIS, China is not a member of the US-led coalition against ISIS and is thus making little military contribution.

Russia, too, does not participate in the coalition of the willing against ISIS, and the Russia is not engaged in military operations in Iraq as it is in Syria. Since around 2015, however, Russia has provided Iraq with a variety of weapons, including 48 mobile air defense systems, 19 attack helicopters, 10 rocket launchers, 4 fighter jets, 73 tanks, and 300 military vehicles. These have the advantage of being cheaper than American weapons, but the absolute quantity of American weapons in Iraq is greater, and it is unclear how the Iraqi military combines weapons procured from the United States and Russia. Russia is also participating in Iraq's energy development, but its presence is most prominent in the Kurdistan region. From 2017 to 2018, Russia made a series of announcements on advance payments for crude oil imports from cash-strapped KRG and investment in oil and gas pipelines in the region. The expansion of investment in the Kurdistan region at a time when it was isolated from the international community after the failed referendum attracted considerable attention, not least for its political motives. However, the United States remains with no doubt the most important ally for the KRG. In addition, Russia's approach to KRG gas sector is rather backed by the strategic purpose of securing gas export routes to European markets. Thus, while China and Russia are emerging as new actors in the Kurdistan region and the rest of Iraq, their presence still remains limited.

(This is an English translation of a paper originally published in Japanese on June 30, 2021.)