Iraq this year is living dangerously amid a revival of sectarian political violence, and its contentious domestic politics are playing an unhelpful role in how the young democracy is responding to a slew of foreign policy challenges, particularly from neighboring Syria.
Iraqis, Under Sectarian Pressure, Could Adopt a ‘Third Way’ Foreign Policy
Photo Credit: New York Times

But over the long run, suggests an extensive report by the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Iraqis could adopt “a third way” of non-alignment and non-interference in a region now wracked by conflict that avoids worsening their own internal disputes.

Iraq on the International Stage: Foreign Policy and National Identity in Transition” was funded by a grant made by the U.S. Institute of Peace in order to generate an in-depth assessment of Iraq’s foreign policy, the power centers and domestic divisions that shape it and foreign policy approaches that could support the country’s own stability. Iraqi foreign policy, notes USIP Senior Program Officer and grant specialist Raya Barazanji, “is often overlooked and understudied.” The new report draws on numerous field interviews and workshops in Iraq, the U.K. and the United States and was released at the Royal Institute, also known as Chatham House, on July 4.

The three authors are Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow in the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House; Gareth Stansfield, a professor of Middle East politics at the University of Exeter; and Omar Sirri, a research assistant in Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program. They have produced a frank examination of Iraqi foreign policy dilemmas; it offers a realistic option for pursuing the country’s interests abroad in ways that do not widen Iraq’s own Shi’a-Sunni and Arab-Kurdish divides.

The need to douse rather than ignite more domestic tensions is critical: Political violence in Iraq took 1,045 lives in May (the highest toll since the bloodletting of 2006-07) and another 761 in June, according to United Nations estimates. The risk of renewed civil war has been growing. Though key supporting governments like those in the United States and U.K. may be exhibiting “Iraq fatigue,” as the report notes, Iraq’s future trajectory will significantly affect Western strategic interests in the Middle East, which include security, counter-radicalization, economic development, oil policy and democracy. A new Iraqi civil conflict would put those priorities at further risk, say the report’s authors, and “it is essential that Western governments do remain engaged, above all to help protect the country’s borders and territorial integrity against the threat of overspill from Syria.”

The Chatham House paper says that Iraq’s foreign relations are growing more intertwined with domestic divisions, what it calls “the meshing of domestic and regional politics.” Splits over how to deal with Syria’s increasingly sectarian civil war are accelerating the trend. Syria has now become Iraq’s most divisive foreign policy issue, and no consensus exists on how to respond. Related, the Chatham House analysis argues that it is important for Washington and other Western governments to encourage Gulf Arab states not to play a Sunni sectarian card in Iraq as they try to mobilize regional opposition to the embattled Syrian regime of Bashar Assad and to Assad’s essential ally, Iran. They worry that employing such tactics in Iraq “will have toxic effects that could last for at least a generation.”

Iraq’s government, led by the Shi’a-based Dawa party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, is largely opposed to a regime change in Damascus because of its perception that it “shares with Assad the sense of a common enemy”—that is, Sunni fighters. Others in Iraq see it differently. Iraq’s more secular opposition coalition, Iraqiya, “expresses solidarity with the Syrian protestors and with Iraq’s Sunni Muslim protestors, while Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Iraq’s Muslim Brotherhood are seeking to capitalize on the Syrian conflict in order to bolster their domestic position,” the analysts say. But it is not only extremists who are using the Syria issue for political reasons. As the authors write, “The country’s political players still largely use foreign relations as a means to gain power back home.”

Adding to the domestic political complexity of Iraqi foreign policy is the international activism of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and its leading political parties. The KRG—particularly on issues of oil, relations with Turkey and strengthening Kurds in Syria as that country risks a break-up—is able “to pursue an independent foreign policy in all but name,” the authors write.

Iraq’s Syria problem is made worse by what they describe as the lack of “any back-up plan for a scenario in which the Assad regime falls.” Their warning: If Baghdad “does not at least hedge its bets it is likely to have a very hostile neighbor in the future.”

The divisions among domestic factions also play a big role in Iraq’s close but controversial relationship with Iran. Though both governments have cultivated ties and sought to put the bitter Saddam Hussein-era war behind them, mistrust remains, along with the potential for resumed regional competition. The two Shi’a-majority countries differ on where the spiritual center of the Shi’a world lies, and Iraq has now overtaken Iran in oil production. Many Iraqis, including some in Dawa, watch Iranian activities in their country with suspicion. With the United States continuing as a core supporter of Iraq, Baghdad finds itself balancing between its two most important foreign relationships. “The need to balance these two strategic alliances with countries that have diametrically opposed strategies and worldviews puts Iraq in a tricky position,” the report notes. Alliances with both, the authors believe, could create opportunities for acting as a mediator or bridge. Such a role is discussed but has not yet emerged.

A way forward for Iraq’s foreign policy could be the non-alignment, national interest-based approach the authors point to. Recent progress on trade and political relations with Kuwait suggest such an approach can gain traction in Iraq. On Syria, a plausible consensus over the Iraqi national interest could center on preventing violence and instability from flowing into Iraq and sparking even worse Shi’a-Sunni conflict there. Working with neighbors on such resource issues as oil and water and food security could also be a source of domestic consensus instead of strife.

Much will depend on the quality of Iraqi leadership—in particular its ability to think and act beyond narrower sectarian preferences and to be seen as putting Iraq’s interest in national integrity and security first. An engaged United States and other Western countries can help, if they look for practical ways of helping Iraqis protect their country and encourage a national conception of Iraqi foreign policy. But in the end, it is up to Iraqis to identify and coalesce around that foreign policy.

Further resources:

Related Publications

Iraq’s Election Takes a Tone That’s Hopeful for Democracy

Iraq’s Election Takes a Tone That’s Hopeful for Democracy

Friday, May 11, 2018

By: Sarhang Hamasaeed; James Rupert

As Iraq prepares to vote on May 12, the public debate has been just a bit unusual. Following the country’s war against the Islamic State extremists, candidates are seeking votes with appeals across sectarian lines and more discussion of issues than in any other election campaign. This change is incremental but is one of several that make this a moment to step back and measure Iraq’s evolution since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Despite what Iraqis have suffered over 15 years—or perhaps because of it—the will to democratize is alive and growing. A real meaning of these elections is this: If the United States and the international community can sustain their engagement, Iraq has a chance to stabilize, and to turn back the inevitable future attempts to revive extremist violence.

Democracy & Governance

Kurdistan Region’s Debt Crisis Threatens Iraq’s Economy

Kurdistan Region’s Debt Crisis Threatens Iraq’s Economy

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

By: Andrew Snow

As Iraq’s parliamentary elections approach this weekend, destabilizing disputes with the Kurdistan Region remain unresolved. Perhaps the most intractable, and least discussed, is how to address the insolvency of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). It’s a simmering crisis that threatens Iraq’s economic future and political unity, and one that the central government needs to step up and help defuse.

Economics & Environment

As Iraq Prepares for Elections, Iran's Influence Looms Large

As Iraq Prepares for Elections, Iran's Influence Looms Large

Monday, May 7, 2018

By: Sarhang Hamasaeed; Dr. Elie Abouaoun; Garrett Nada

Tehran’s interventions in conflicts throughout the Middle East have become a particular point of contention for detractors of the Iran Deal, which placed constraints on the country's nuclear program without addressing its role in Syria, Yemen, and across the region. There is no place Iranian influence has played a more conspicuous role than in neighboring Iraq.

Democracy & Governance; Conflict Analysis & Prevention

View All Publications