Iran rejects Iraqi-US “cosmetic surgery,” but US-Iran cooperation is not impossible 5&6

Iraq, By Elijah J. Magnier:

Iran responded to the US expansionist plans in the Middle East by amplifying its support for the Syrian government considered a strategic ally, to Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq, to Houthis in Yemen, to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to the Palestinians in Gaza. The US formed a ring of US military bases around the “Islamic Republic” and Iran formed another larger ring, capable of hitting the US and its closest allies and partners in the Middle East. Iran learned to derive benefit from the presence of the US forces in dozens of bases in the Middle East by transforming the threat into an opportunity, adding these US bases to its bank of objectives. The US forces on the jet carriers navigating in the Straits of Hormuz became sitting ducks for Iran’s precision missiles and armed drones in the case of war. The US Navy no longer represent a threat to Iran as it used to be in past years. The US decades of US sanctions on Iran were extremely harsh. However, these sanctions forced Iran to consolidate its relationship with China and Russia and become more independent in its domestic production, relying on its capabilities in all civilian and military fields. Iran is no longer dependant on oil production and selling in its yearly budget, neither on importing most of its goods unlike so many Middle Eastern countries who rely on import and on oil only for the highest percentage of their budget.

Iran is in a position to supply oil, food and oil to its allies in Lebanon due to the small geographical presence of Hezbollah in the suburb of Beirut, the Beqaa Valley and the south of Lebanon. Hezbollah opened warehouses and supermarkets with 30 to 35 percent discount on all goods and said it is supplying food rations to over 100,000 families and ready to cover more. Iran has supplied large quantities of food and medical supplies to its allies in Lebanon to be spent at Hezbollah’s discretion. Therefore, the US financial policy, to starve Lebanon, though it affects most Lebanese, hits mainly the US allies in the country.

However, Iran is not in a position to sustain a continuous flow of goods and finance to both the Syrian and the Iraqi governments and provide all their needs if Iraq comes under sanctions. Syria is still suffering from harsh European and US sanctions. However, after eleven years of war, though the population struggle, they have learned to live with bare necessities.

In Iraq, the approach is different. The Iraqi population still has the memory of the US sanctions on Saddam Hussein (oil for food programme) and is not ready to live these sanctions again. The reason why the potentiality of sanctions on Iraq is mentioned here, is because the US threatened Iraqi officials to impose sanctions if ever the US troops are forced to leave the country.

Iraq relies on oil for 90 percent of its budget. The oil revenue goes through the Bank of New York, allowing the US full control over to whom Iraq can pay its own money: it requires US approval, particularly for Iraq to pay back it $7 billion loan to Iran for the electricity supply Tehran is delivering to many Iraqi cities.

Iraqi officials of all walks, Sunni, Shia and Kurds, consider that the fall of Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi was due to his multiple billions deal with China in the first place and his request to the Parliament and to the US government to pull out all combat forces from Iraq. Moreover, the US officials threatened Iraqi officials that any business agreement between Iraq and European, Russian or Chinese company would trigger US discontent and possible sanctions on these deals.

Fear of the US reaction is putting psychological pressure on Iraqi officials, who are trying to find a way to avoid the US anger. This is why, political groups, even those close to Iran, came up with the idea of a “European NATO” remaining aware that the US will be camouflaged under another label but will stay in Iraq. Will Iran accept and abide by these Iraqi concerns? What is the position of the Iraqi resistance?

Iraqi politicians close to Washington consider that the Parliament’s binding decision to seek the departure of all foreign forces from Iraq was not constitutional because it was the government who initially and previously had signed an agreement with the US forces to stay in Iraq. They are referring back to the former Foreign Ministers Hoshyar Zebari (2004-2014) and Ibrahim al-Jaafari (2014-2018) who asked for the US intervention in two different circumstances, as requested by the government. 

However, Iraqi politicians are hiding their heads in the sand: they no longer recall that former Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, in his letter to the Parliament, asked for the Parliament’s approval to seek the withdrawal of all foreign forces. In fact, Abdel Mahdi, following the Parliamentary approval of the government’s recommendation, sent a letter to the US command requesting the withdrawal of their combat forces from the country. Therefore, regardless of how Iraqi politicians are looking at the matter, the request of the government and the Parliament is legal and binding. Out of 329 MPs, 173 MPs voted (165 are needed according to the constitution) for the departure of the US forces. These were the Shia majority, a few Sunni, and other minorities. Regardless of who voted, the democratic voting result is binding. This conflict is at the heart of the domestic and international debate, creating fear and instability in the country. Iraq would like to avoid being a boxing ring where Iran and the US settle their differences.

For the first time since President Joe Biden took power, Iraq and the US held a meeting to agree on a schedule to withdraw US combat troops. The joint statement was diplomatically and carefully written. It indicates how the US will help Iraq to implement energy projects and to improve electricity, projects that China has offered the US is making sure there is no place in Iraq for non-US companies. It is to be noted that the US, under Donald Trump, created a link between Iraq and Jordan and Saudi Arabia so that they import electricity to Iraq and replace the Iranian version, preventing more income going to Iran.

The US-Iraq meeting failed to establish a time-table for the US withdrawal, reassuring that the US forces are in Iraq “at the invitation of Iraqi government”, when in fact the Abdel Mahdi government asked these forces to leave, a decision voted by the Parliament. Moreover, the joint statement allows a large flexibility for the US forces to stay in Iraq because it has given these forces the task to “redeploy, with the timing to be established in upcoming technical talks”. That is evidently incompatible with the previous government decision, the Parliament, the Iraqi resistance and Iran.There is little doubt that the MPs’ original vote came as a reaction to the US assassination of both commanders Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandes on the Baghdad airport’s road. It is also possible to say that had the Iraqis waited for several weeks to vote, and not immediately after the US assassination act, it may have been difficult to reach the majority of MPs in favour of the US withdrawal. However, no political party in Iraq would dare to ask the Parliament to vote again on this issue. The bottom line is that the vote was decided and 

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now Iraqi groups close to Iran remain determined to see the US leave, unlike most politicians. Thus, the different political groups are not united over this objective and the strategy to adopt in relation to the US forces’ presence for various reasons. They are caught in their own differences.

The other concern of Iraqi officials is the possible return of “Islamic State”, ISIS, to the Iraqi scene and the increase of its terrorist activities on a larger scale. Iraqis accuse the US of being behind the support of ISIS. Rightly or wrongly the US behaviour in Iraq led to this belief. US general Michael Flynn revealed that the intelligence directorate he led in 2010 was aware of ISIS plans and expansion activities but chose to remain idle. He accused former President Barack Obama of refusing to act against the group before it had spread towards Syria. Moreover, the hundreds of millions of dollars the US spent on training programmes in Syria in fact supported jihadist Takfiris, who either fight for ISIS or al-Qaeda.

Iraqi officials are trying to avoid a confrontation with the Americans and are looking for ways for the forces to remain, perhaps under a different title. Many ask for the departure of the combat forces and for US military trainers to stay in Iraq. However, the US army has not been effective: they trained the Iraqi security forces in 2003 until 2014 when, on the first confrontation with ISIS, the Iraqi army was disorientated and dispersed. This showed that US training is not sufficient to stand against an ideology like that of ISIS and that Iraq needs security forces with a strong ideology to confront jihadists with. This fighting motivation can’t be provided by the US or any other western army but it has been provided by Iran at a time when the Hashd al-Shaabi was the only force facing ISIS and preventing it from occupying the capital Baghdad in 2014.

Moreover, Iraq is facing a dire financial situation and is in need of dozens of billions of dollars to reboot its economy. Iraq is convinced that only the US, its allies and those within its orbit (the World Bank) can help Iraq financially. If the government in Baghdad insists on the US withdrawal, Iraqis believe the consequences are greater than any government could assume.

The Iraqis are not even daring to revive the multi-billion-dollar deal with China for fear of upsetting the US. The Mustafa al-Kadhemi government is far from implementing the Iraqi-Chinese deal, that is now expected to be postponed at least until the formation of the following government sometime next year. It is difficult to see a Parliamentary election this year and it most probably will be postponed until next spring, 2022.

As far as it concerns Iran, the stability of Iraq is important. The Iraqi government is not hostile to Iran (certainly not to the US either) and is allowing goods to flow between the two countries. Iran continues to supply Iraq with gas and electricity needed in many cities even if the government of Baghdad is still not authorised by the US to release the amount due ($7 billion) to Iran.

All the above cannot be taken into consideration by the Iraqi resistance as long as the US is demonstrating its passive-aggressive policy in the Middle East by keeping its forces occupying Syria and holding on to Donald Trump’s tough sanctions against the Syrians, maintaining the harsh sanctions on Iran and “drying out” the Lebanese economy. However, even if the Iran-US nuclear deal is not connected with the other dossiers in the Middle East, a return to the JCPOA indicates a de-escalation in the Middle East and may lead to a slowdown of the US withdrawal from Iraq. Otherwise, Iraq can expect a sharp increase of attacks against the US forces to drag these into escalation and a wider confrontation. The coming months will decide the direction the Middle East will be taking. A de-escalation in the coming months is far from certain.

Proofread by: Maurice Brasher

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