The recent visit of Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi to Iran was the latest in a series of high-level diplomatic exchanges between Tehran and Baghdad. The bilateral relationship, which has gone from adversarial to friendly as a result of the 2003 US overthrow of the Saddam-era regime, appears to be going from strength to strength. But with the threat of ISIS receding, Iraq may increasingly emerge as a battleground for influence between Iran and the US.
Iran’s interests in its western neighbour are four-fold: ensuring that Iraq will not regain enough strength to once again pose a territorial threat; using its influence to keep parties in power that are beholden and friendly to Iran; countering political or military tendencies that would undermine Iraq’s territorial integrity; and ensuring that Tehran’s strategic rivals cannot use the country as a springboard for challenging Iran. Hence Iran’s opposition to moves toward Kurdish independence and sponsorship of paramilitary units (Hashd al-Shaabi) operating in an ambivalent legal grey zone within the framework of the state, as well as its relationships with an array of Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish political factions. Iran has growing economic interests, too, the significance of which rises for Iran as US sanctions squeeze its economy. “Today, our economic cooperation [with Iraq] amounts to $12 billion a year”, President Hassan Rouhani indicated upon setting off on a three-day visit to Baghdad, Karbala and Najaf last month. “We can easily increase this to $20 billion in the coming years”.
Iraqi leaders have been clear in expressing their opposition to having the region’s cold wars thrust upon them. “Iraq is part of this region and it is in our interest to enjoy good relations with Iran based on common interests”, Iraqi President Barham Salih recently asserted. The reverse is also true: Iran and the US both benefit from a stable Iraqi government and preventing the country from once more becoming a security vacuum; so does Saudi Arabia, which has of late stepped up its profile in the country, as well as Russia.
In the zero-sum logic that has come to characterise much of the region’s dynamics, especially after the beginning of the Syrian conflict, those common interests risk being undermined by a destabilising geopolitical contest. “Any escalation in the region would make us all losers”, Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi declared, following the April 8th US decision to blacklist Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as a foreign terrorist organization. It would be much healthier for all stakeholders to compete in developing Iraq and thus preserve their gains there than to use it to thwart one another.