As the United States and Iraq engage in important talks this month, USIP’s Sarhang Hamasaeed says the focus should be “Iraq-centric policy,” even as Baghdad “is under a lot of pressure from Iran and its allies … to use the dialogue to put pressure on the United States to withdraw its troops and limit U.S. influence.”

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Transcript

Tim Farley: You know, if you go back to January of this year, President Trump was getting questions about Iraq and what the United States was going to do or not there.

Audio of President Trump: Well, it's something that I want to, I mean, eventually they have to be able to defend themselves and take care of themselves. And it's something, ultimately, that I want to see. We don't want to be there forever. We want to be able to get out. I didn't want to be there in the first place to be honest. And everybody knows that.

Tim Farley: That is President Trump speaking in January. Well, here we are now where they have launched the Iraq-U.S., or U.S.-Iraq, strategic dialogue. Since October of 2019, the country has had a lot of crises, protestors hitting the streets last fall, wanting an end to corruption among other things. Several attempts to form a new government have failed. The U.S. airstrike killed Iranian Commander Qassem Soleimani, as you know, at the beginning of the year, and that ratcheted up tensions. Beginning this month, though, the U.S.-Iraq strategic dialogue, as according to our next guest, presents an opportunity for the two countries to reset relations and advance mutual interest and stability in Iraq. Joining us is Sarhang Hamasaeed, director of Middle East programs at the United States Institute of Peace. He is tweeting @sarhangsalar. Sarhang, welcome back. Thank you for being on POTUS today.

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

Tim Farley: This has been a rather complex, shall we say, six months since the President said the words we just heard him say, and obviously, as I just noted, a lot has happened. What, for people, so we understand, what exactly is the U.S.-Iraq strategic dialogue?

Sarhang Hamasaeed: Well, it is supposed to be a process where the two countries talk to each other at the strategic level, within the framework of what's called the “strategic framework agreements,” and between the two countries. SFA is the acronym that's often used. It was signed in 2008. It covers diplomatic areas, security, economic and cultural cooperation. And obviously at the immediate stage there are issues between the two countries where, related to the presence of U.S. troops, and other issues that have been matters of tension between the two countries and under the previous government. Iraq now has a new government just over a month now. And those issues relate to Iranian groups attacking Iraqi bases that host U.S. and coalition troops, attacks against the U.S. Embassy. So, and then the criticism from the United States against Iraq, not limiting Iranian influence in the country and not setting its economy free from energy imports from Iran, as you know, Iran is under U.S. sanctions. So, there's a, there's a range of issues that the countries have tensions over. And so these dialogues present an opportunity for addressing those, but really focus the relationship between the two countries over the long-term on an Iraq centric policy, because for most of the past few years, the conversation about Iraq has been in the context of fighting the terrorist organization ISIS and countering Iranian influence in Iraq and in the region.

Tim Farley: So, what would be a priority right now? Obviously, you know, stability in the region is the ultimate goal, and there would be a desire for, you know, less upheaval, and so on. But I mean, are there, is there a sort of a checklist of things that could happen in a particular order that might improve the situation?

Sarhang Hamasaeed: Right, so there are different views on this. Obviously, an immediate matter is the presence and the safety of U.S. troops in Iraq, which the U.S. has signaled that it wants to draw down and withdraw those troops because the campaign against ISIS has been winding down. The military defeat has been declared for over two years now. But there has been concerns about ongoing threats and resurgence of ISIS. So, the United States is being advised by experts in this country and around the world that it should not repeat the 2012 experience, it's 2011 experience and withdraw prematurely to leave a security gap and a political gap that would be exploited by ISIS, by Iran and others. So that's an immediate concern. Obviously on the other side, Iraq is under a lot of pressure from Iran and its allies in Iraq to use the dialogues to put pressure on the United States to withdraw its troops and limit U.S. influence there. So these two competing agendas are pressing on the Iraqi government, and the Iraqi government is really embarrassed in this because they have not been able to prevent attacks on the U.S. troops and they have not been able to stop a U.S. response. And so it's a quite difficult moment, but then, so that's, people think that this should be the immediate concern. But my view, and others, that of others, is that if you start there, then you may face a big challenge at the beginning, rather than tackle that, open the door for a broader relationship and tackle this after you set the stage for it. But I think as long as attacks continue on the U.S. troops, and they have in the past few days and weeks and months, that could apply pressure. Now, talks have been set for July, in-person if COVID-19 allows, we will see, but it has been a positive start so far.

Tim Farley: Last question, the government obviously is changed. We have a new prime minister, but like his predecessor, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi is now an unelected official, correct? I mean, does that help, or not help the situation?

Sarhang Hamasaeed: Well it's a, it’s definitely, it definitely helps that Iraq has a new government under Mr. Al-Kadhimi, because, as I said, the relationship between the two countries with the previous government was not going well. And in the Iraq context, having a new prime minister breaking a political stalemate that was going on for months after the demonstrations started in October, as you mentioned, it is also a positive step. Obviously, there's a lot on the plate for Mr. Al-Kadhimi and his government related to responding to the coronavirus and economic crisis, financial crisis by plummeting oil prices, continuing threat of ISIS, the Iranian challenges on the agenda. He is obviously quite challenged. He needs all the help that he can get from the United States, the international community and the Iraqi people. And this is a, this is another opportunity where if the Iraqis can go past the political gridlock of the past few months to rally around this new prime minister, obviously Iraq's history does not support this in a promising way, but I think the opportunity is there. And the prime minister seems to follow a different style, so far, where he wants to be more active than his predecessor. So, this gives the opportunity and provides hope, but there are plenty of challenges. Tim Farley: Sarhang Hamasaeed, thank you for joining us on POTUS this morning.

Sarhang Hamasaeed: Thank you, Tim.

Tim Farley: Sarhang Hamasaeed, director of Middle East programs at the United States Institute of Peace. Latest developments in the U.S.-Iraq strategic dialogue. What will happen next? We'll have to wait and see. He is tweeting @sarhangsalar.

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