This week, Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, made his first official trip to Baghdad. Following a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, the two leaders announced agreements to expand trade, establish a rail link between the two countries, and remove travel restrictions. Rouhani also had a high-profile meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most revered religious authority in Iraq. USIP’s Sarhang Hamasaeed examines the implications for the complicated Iran-Iraq relationship.

 President Hassan Rouhani of Iran addresses the U.N. General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. (Dave Sanders/The New York Times)
President Hassan Rouhani of Iran addresses the U.N. General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, Sept. 25, 2018. (Dave Sanders/The New York Times)

What does Rouhani’s first visit to Iraq as Iran’s president mean for relations between the two countries?

Views on the relationship between the two states differ among both the Iraqi people and expert observers of the country. Some believe that Iran has benefited most in post-2003 Iraq by increasing its political, security, economic, and cultural influence—if not outright capturing the state. The visit of President Rouhani, likewise, could be seen as a continuation of Iranian inroads.

Those advances were made through consolidating political, security, and economic gains after U.S. troops withdrew in 2011; the proliferation of Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), who secured the second-highest number of seats in the Iraqi Council of Representatives; and the military defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS).

Others acknowledge Iranian advances but believe the picture is not so bleak and that a more balanced relationship is possible. In that view, the visit by Rouhani, Foreign Minister Zarif and other government officials before him, may provide opportunities for more state-to-state dialogue and negotiations through diplomatic and other specialized channels.

It’s true that the balance of power is tilted toward Iran and not easy for Iraq to change. But it’s also a fact that Iran needs Iraq more than ever due to U.S. sanctions and Iran’s internal economic situation. Iraq is gaining more leverage through increased engagement with other Arab countries, a point that Rouhani shrewdly recognized by referring to Iraq as an “Arab state.”

Iraq has relied on Iranian paramilitary support in the fight against the Islamic State. With the military defeat of ISIS, how will Iranian support for these groups change?

As the military campaign ends, the groups backed by Iran arguably do not need its logistical support as before. These groups—part of the PMF—are without doubt very powerful in their own right. But they continue to need Iran’s political and organizational help. They also need Iran to cajole them to stay focused on a common purpose, and possibly to help resolve disputes within the PMF among its factions.

Iraqi leaders and international observers discuss ideas for disarming, demobilizing, and reintegrating the PMF, but their thoughts often lag behind reality. The reasons for the rise of the PMF continue to exist. For the foreseeable future, the more realistic question is how to reduce the need for the use of the PMF and improve their discipline and accountability to the state and the people.

In the meantime, the armed groups that either expanded or formed to fight ISIS—many of them in direct response to the fatwa “religious call” by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani—have been legalized by the Iraqi Council of Representatives under the PMF law. Some of them competed in the May 2018 national elections and secured 48 seats (the second largest bloc), which enhanced their access to government resources in the form of salaries, training, and arms.

Iraqi leaders acknowledge that crucial Iranian support arrived quickly when the Baghdad and Erbil appeared threatened by ISIS, and that the assistance continued through the war against the extremists. The U.S.-led coalition not only helped Iraq win the military fight against ISIS, but also provided humanitarian assistance to over five million people displaced by the conflict, supported Iraq’s economy amid falling oil prices and the need for international guarantees, and provided stabilization assistance for areas liberated from ISIS, including support for religious minorities. 

While Iraqis appreciate the external support they received, they take pride in their forces fighting ISIS, retaking land and enabling over four million people to go home.

What other common interests do Baghdad and Tehran share that could enhance cooperation? What issues divide them?

The list of shared and diverging interests is long and complicated. Common concerns include: securing their 900-mile border; preventing the re-emergence of ISIS and other extremist groups; cooperating on energy issues; strengthening economic integration through—for example—cultural and religious tourism; and importing food products from Iran, as conflict and negligence have badly damaged Iraq’s agricultural sector.

Key issues dividing the countries include: Iran’s heavy-handed involvement in Iraq to secure strategic depth and influence, and in the view of many, outright control; Iran’s diversion of rivers flowing into Iraq; and differences over border demarcation. The successful plunge by Iran-backed PMF groups into politics has turned the PMF into a sensitive topic that occupies a gray zone between common and diverging interests.

How can Iraq limit external, negative influence? Who can help Iraq?

The Iraqi people are the best bet for countering violent extremism and malign influences. Iraqis of every ethnicity and religious stream have taken to the streets repeatedly to demand services, jobs, justice, security, and action against corruption. They also increasingly express anti-Iranian sentiments and object to Iranian interference in Iraq, blaming their neighbor for constricting natural water flows, being a source of illicit drugs, and more.

Iraqi leaders in all spheres—government, policy, community and politics, and some top PMF officials, too—have stated publicly that they want Iraq to avoid entanglement in international conflicts, like Iran-Saudi Arabia or U.S.-Iran. The best way to reduce external negative influence in Iraq is to help the country recover from violent conflict. Continued U.S. and international engagement in Iraq after its military fight against ISIS is needed to strengthen its state and communal institutions, address the needs of its people, and constructively support stronger relations with regional countries and the international community. Supporting Iraqi state institutions and civil society also will help. Pressing Iraq to choose sides, or abandoning Iraq, will only backfire.


Related Publications

Robin Wright on What to Expect from Iran’s New President

Robin Wright on What to Expect from Iran’s New President

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

The election of reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian as Iran’s new president dealt a “stunning blow in many ways to the hardliners,” says USIP’s Robin Wright. However, “the hardliners still have control of the legislature and the judiciary, and they can create havoc for the new president” and his agenda.

Type: Podcast

What You Need to Know About Iran’s Election and New President

What You Need to Know About Iran’s Election and New President

Tuesday, July 9, 2024

In a clear challenge to regime hardliners, Masoud Pezeshkian, a reformist and cardiac surgeon, won Iran’s snap presidential election on July 5. The elections were called after President Ebrahim Raisi died in a helicopter crash on May 19. The runoff had been considered a tight race, but Pezeshkian won decisively with almost three million more votes than Saeed Jalili, a hardliner and former nuclear negotiator. Due to take office in August, Pezeshkian, a former deputy speaker of parliament and health minister, will take power as Iran’s government faces legitimacy challenges amid an economic crisis.

Type: Question and Answer

Global Elections & ConflictGlobal Policy

What Does Further Expansion Mean for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization?

What Does Further Expansion Mean for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization?

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Last week, foreign ministers from member-states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) gathered in Astana, Kazakhstan. The nine-member SCO — made up of China, India, Russia, Pakistan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — represents one of the largest regional organizations in the world. And with the SCO’s annual heads-of-state summit slated for early July, the ministers’ meeting offers an important glimpse into the group’s priorities going forward. USIP’s Bates Gill and Carla Freeman examine how regional security made its way to the top of the agenda, China’s evolving role in Central Asia and why SCO expansion has led to frustrations among member states.

Type: Question and Answer

Global Policy

Robin Wright on Raisi’s Death and What It Means for Iran

Robin Wright on Raisi’s Death and What It Means for Iran

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

With the death of President Ebrahim Raisi, the Iranian regime has reached “a critical turning point.” And with just two weeks until the vote to replace him, it’s important to pay attention to “not only who wins the new presidency, but how many Iranians actually participate in the process,” says USIP’s Robin Wright.

Type: Podcast

View All Publications