As the coronavirus pandemic spreads in both countries, USIP’s Sarhang Hamasaeed examines the obstacles facing Iraq’s newly appointed prime minister, as well as whether addressing the crisis might open the door for de-escalation between the U.S. and Iran, saying, “I do hope that these unfortunate challenges still come with some opportunity.”

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.

Tim Farley: Iraq's president has designated a former provincial governor with American citizenship as prime minister, which has drawn criticism from Iran’s allies in the country and the new tensions between Washington and Tehran. That's the story in the Wall Street Journal. President Barham Salih on Tuesday tasked Adnan al-Zurfi with forming a government in a bid to break a political deadlock, undermining the country's ability to respond to the coronavirus outbreak and recent attacks on U.S. troops, attacks, which are being traced to Iran, which may be in retaliation for the U.S. actions against Iran. And also Iran, feeling that the U.S. should relieve some of the pressure of sanctions as a result of the increasing pressure on their economy because, and it's people, because of the coronavirus outbreak. As I said, leading into this, it's a very complicated triangle. So to help us negotiate and navigate some of that geometry, Sarhang Hamasaeed with us, director of Middle East programs at the United States Institute of Peace. He is tweeting @sarhangsalar. Sarhang Hamasaeed, welcome back. Thank you for being on POTUS today.

Sarhang Hamasaeed: Thank you, Tim. Good to be back.

Tim Farley: Talk first about this new government, the newly designated prime minister.

Sarhang Hamasaeed: Uh, yes. So as you mentioned, he's a member of parliament. He is from not just city originally, but an American citizen. He served as the governor of Najaf, one of the Holy cities in Iraq. So, he's coming from the Shia community, since that's usually who nominates the prime minister in Iraq, given that they have a majority of the population. He is coming at a very difficult time because we have a caretaker government in Iraq. The sitting prime minister resigned late last year. And then, the president appointed, at the end of February, Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi and he had 30 days to form a government and couldn't because he had the difficult task of forming a government that the political class would accept and that the demonstrators, who have been on the streets since October one, would accept. And these two groups have opposing interests where the people want the government and the prime minister who is not from the political class, is not corrupt, who has not served in office since 2003, when Saddam was toppled. And the political class, on the other hand, they want someone from within. They want to preserve their status quo and their powers and the access to the Iraq's economic resources. So Muhammad Allawi failed at getting support to form a government. Now, basically, the new prime minister designate, Mr. Adnan al-Zurfi, will face, the same challenges and even more. He's starting with a strong opposition from very powerful blocks in the political class, namely, [inaudible], block, which is considered to be strongly affiliated, or have strong relations with Iran. So the current prime minister designate has 30 days and he will start the negotiations. But he is starting with a very tough hand already.

Tim Farley: And we have already seen the complication of the U.S. and Iran using Iraq as a, sort of a, staging ground for attacks on one another. And, you know, I'm reading about, the increased effect of coronavirus on Iran where they've seen an increased number of deaths, including among the leadership there, and they are begging the United States who are demanding that the United States lessen the pressure of sanctions. And, and one wonders if with the U.S. having a hard line against Tehran, this is going to continue to be a problem in how that involves Iraq getting sort of caught in the middle of all this.

Sarhang Hamasaeed: Right. So, I think the U.S.-Iran tensions will continue to play out in general between the two countries and the Middle East, and some specific countries in the Middle East, and Iraq as being one of them. The Iraq, the Iraqi leaders, I mean, you and I have spoken about this before, have always expressed concern that they do not want their country to be the battle ground between the United States and Iran, whether for direct confrontation or proxy confrontation. And we have seen since late, specifically since late 2019 and in the past few months, how actually there has been direct action, on the Iraqi soil, by basically the armed groups affiliated with Iran, attacking U.S. facilities, military and civilian, and the U.S. retaliating and then basically turning into a cycle of tit-for-tat. And, it has, there has been some escalation in the past few days. So, the Iraqi, that concern has become a reality, where you have these confrontations. It has been controlled so far, but, the militias have publicly committed they want the U.S. out of Iraq, and the U.S. military presence. And the U.S. has also stated publicly that they will retaliate, they will not tolerate attacks. So, and the Iraqi government is caught in between. On the one hand, it has not been able to stop these attacks. And on the other hand, it has been embarrassed by U.S. attacks because it considers those to be a violation of its sovereignty and the agreement between the United States and Iraq for the presence of these troops to be focused on fighting ISIS, not other attacks.

Tim Farley: Sarhang Hamasaeed with us, director of Middle East programs at the United States Institute of Peace. I want to quote something to you from Foreign Policy where Robert Malley, who is a former special assistant to the Middle East for, under President Barack Obama, and Ali Vaez, who's a professor at Georgetown University, are writing that “the confluence of a coronavirus pandemic security threats and financial troubles has deepened the political systems legitimacy crisis in the wake of last month's parliamentary elections that saw the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic's history. Washington might view this as a validation of its so-called maximum pressure strategy against Tehran. But if it fails to capitalize on this moment to deescalate tensions and lay the groundwork for a mutually beneficial diplomatic settlement, the leadership in Tehran is likely to become more aggressive in the region, increasing the risk of a conflict that neither side appears to want.” How would you respond to that thought?

Sarhang Hamasaeed: Well, um, there is a, that's a scenario. It's true that even before the coronavirus, the indicators were clear that the Iranian system and the Iranian people were hurting under the severe U.S. sanctions. And Iran has committed and stated publicly, and they have acted on that, on the threat that they will not drown, they will take down others in the region with them. They will stage attacks or support attacks on Saudi Arabia and UAE ships, in the Gulf, and all of that. Now that the country is going into a more desperate measure, I think the paths are open. Will, they, actually, then be more open to dialogue and try to relieve the pressure on themselves that's coming from the economic pressure from the, isolation? And now, with all the challenges of current upbringing. So that's one possibility. But there is also, from what I hear, there's a strong view, at least in some corners, in the political system in Iran where they say, actually Iran’s achievements at the regional level, a strong influence in Iraq and Lebanon and Syria and Yemen, should not be given up. And these are actually the leverages that will still keep Iran strong. So I think we do not quite yet know what's the net effect of all of this and where all these effects will land. But, uh, I think all these, with any crisis comes also opportunities, and, again, something that you and I also discussed in January in the post-Soleimani strike, I'm sure backdoor diplomacy is working, it’s trying, but probably all countries involved in this are probably more inwardly focused at dealing with their own coronavirus situation. But, I do hope that these unfortunate challenges would still come with some opportunities.

Tim Farley: Last question. Has there been any sense, I see different reports about whether or not demonstrations are continuing or whether they are lessening in Iraq, there's one story that says that protesters stand firm, saying corruption is worse than ever, they're going out there despite coronavirus, others that say that they're on the wane, what's, what's your sense of this right now?

Sarhang Hamasaeed: So the demonstrators have been under a lot of pressure coming from the political class, from violence directed at them, and also a lot of tactics of torture and intimidation. So then the numbers on any given day have been fluctuating, and probably on balance going down a little bit, but they changed tactics. Instead of having always hundreds of thousands on the street, they have been using specific days like Fridays or Tuesdays to call on all schools, on all syndicates and unions to come out. And so in those ways, they have maintained their strength in showing that the spirit of the demonstration is still strong. And when they want to increase numbers on the streets, they can. So that, and the fact is, that the coronavirus has now changed those dynamics where the Iraqi government and the [inaudible] regional governments in the North have imposed restrictions in movement, closed down the border and imposed curfews in different parts of the country. So those have definitely, their own effect. And the, the demonstrators, a good number of them, have gone home as a result of those measures, or out of an abundance of precautions elated to the coronavirus because Iraq has 154 cases and 11 fatalities, yesterday. Um, so that will have an effect. I think the spirit of the op, of that demonstration, will continue. And so far, the changes that they have brought about, forcing a government to resign, asking for new government, continues with the designation of Mr. Adnan al-Zurfi. And the challenge ahead is now to complete the election law that is on the table, and that is bound to change balance of power in Iraq, should it proceed as is, between the people in the state, and also, among the different Iraqi communities. That is the big challenge ahead if the new government is formed, to run those elections, hold perpetrators of violence against the demonstrators accountable. No easy task at all, with the economic crisis that Iraq is facing due to a drop in oil prices and coronavirus now.

Tim Farley: Sarhang Hamasaeed, thank you. As always, thanks for being on.

Sarhang Hamasaeed: Thank you. Thank you.

Tim Farley: Sarhang Hamasaeed, director of Middle East programs at the United States Institute of Peace. The complicated geometry again. The United States, Iraq, Iran. Trying to make sense of it all. Tweeting at @sarhangsalar.

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