Since October 2019, Iraq has been rocked by multiple crises. Protesters hit the street last fall to demand an end to corruption and foreign interference, an overhaul of the political system, and economic justice, leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi in November. Several attempts to form a new government failed until Mustafa al-Kadhimi succeeded in May. At the beginning of 2020, the U.S. airstrike that killed Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani resulted in ratcheted up tensions between Washington and Tehran that largely played out on Iraqi soil. Then the coronavirus descended up Iraq.

Antigovernment protesters sit in front of murals in Baghdad on Nov. 22, 2019.  (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)
Antigovernment protesters sit in front of murals in Baghdad on Nov. 22, 2019. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)

Beginning this month, the U.S.-Iraq strategic dialogue presents an opportunity for the two countries to reset relations and advance mutual interests and stability in Iraq. USIP’s Sarhang Hamasaeed discusses how Iran will factor into the dialogue and what partners outside the Iraqi government the United States should engage with to build peace.

How can the U.S.-Iraq strategic dialogue play a positive role in stabilizing Iraq?

The dialogue is an opportunity for both countries to turn the page in their relations under the new Iraqi government headed by Prime Minister al-Kadhimi. It could help stabilize a key diplomatic front for Iraq that has seen rising tensions for over a year. The dialogue could also open the door for more cooperation at a time that Iraq needs U.S. and international help with responding to the coronavirus pandemic, the ongoing threat of ISIS, humanitarian assistance for 1.39 million internally displaced persons, holding free and fair elections, and economic reform, among many other things. The dialogue is expected to occur within the Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA), which was signed in 2008 and covers diplomatic, security, economic, and cultural areas.

Bilateral relations hit a low point under the Abdul-Mahdi government over a number of issues, including:

  • Attacks by Iranian-backed armed groups against U.S. military personnel hosted on Iraqi bases and the U.S. embassy in Baghdad;
  • The failure to reign in elements of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) who are not fully controlled by the state;
  • The Baghdad government not doing enough to protect and facilitate the return of ethnic and religious minorities, especially Christians and Yazidis, as well as others displaced by the conflict against ISIS; and
  • Iraq not working enough to set itself free from reliance on energy imports from Iran.

After the U.S. killing of Soleimani and the deputy head of the PMF, Abu-Mahdi al-Muhandis, and Iranian military retaliation against U.S. troops in Iraq, the risk of U.S.-Iran confrontation on Iraqi soil increased further. Washington also became increasingly vocal about Iraqi security forces’ and armed groups’ violent and lethal response against peaceful Iraqi demonstrators who demanded better governance, reforms, jobs, and an end to external interference, especially from the Iranians.

What opportunities and challenges are presented by the installment of the new al-Kadhimi government?

The formation of the al-Kadhimi government ended months of political stalemate after former Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi resigned at the end of November 2019 under pressure from protesters and Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Al-Kadhimi now has a full cabinet within a month of receiving a vote of confidence, which has been unusual in the most recent elections. This gives the government the opportunity to swiftly embark on developing the long-overdue 2020 budget, managing the COVID-19 crisis, regaining momentum in the fight against an ISIS resurgence, finalizing the election law and preparing for elections, and responding to protesters’ demands. The new government also gives the United States partners it can work with, including the prime minister himself and the new foreign minister who both have worked with the United States in their previous capacities as head of Iraq’s national intelligence service and minister of finance, respectively.

The new government does not come challenge free. Like his predecessor, al-Kadhimi was not voted into office by the Iraqi public and does not have a parliamentary bloc or a political party that can support his agenda. Powerful political elites will likely see his success as their loss, as they did with Abdul-Mahdi. Bringing the PMF and other armed groups under the full control of the state will be one of his primary challenges. So far, he seems to be following a two-prong strategy of embracing the PMF while also trying to instill more discipline within its ranks, something former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi started but could not fully follow through on.

Al-Kadhimi and his government are racing against time, as the Iraqi people are short on patience after years of poor governance. Should his government fail, it could further alienate the people, especially the youth, decrease hope that change through the system is possible, and may cause more instability and violence. Iran may grow impatient fast if it feels that the new government is slipping away from its grip, especially in the direction of the United States.

How should the United States approach its conflict with Iran in the strategic dialogue?

Both the U.S. and Iraq would be better served by making the strategic dialogue Iraq-centric, based on common interests, and aimed at laying a vision and foundation for a new chapter between the two countries. The role and influence of Iran in Iraq and the Middle East broadly are of paramount importance, but that should be a component of the dialogue rather than the driving one. Iraq cannot afford to make binary choices, choosing either Iran or the United States, because there will be a heavy cost either way. The United States investing in strengthening and improving the Iraqi state, bridging the relationship between the people and the state, and continued engagement beyond security interests could help Iraq gradually reduce Iran’s influence. This requires Washington’s strategic patience and sustained attention.

The United States, Iraq, and Iran need to strike a balance where Iran also feels that its legitimate interests—such as border security, religious and cultural exchanges, and economic cooperation—in Iraq are protected through acceptable state, private sector, and communal mechanisms rather than its own dominance.

Some Iraqis fear that the United States may use the dialogue as an avenue for a graceful exit for U.S. troops and for possible political disengagement after. A maximalist U.S. approach that requires Iraq to meet U.S. demands, and threatens to downgrade relations if those demands are not met, would be risky because Iran and its Iraqi partners will be working toward ensuring U.S. disengagement. Both Iraq and the United States would benefit from drawing from lessons learned from the SFA negotiations, the 2011 Status of Force negotiations that did not reach an agreement, and the diplomatic drawdown that followed. A premature end to U.S. and coalition support to Iraqi security forces will be exploited by ISIS and political gaps will be filled by undesired internal and external actors, particularly Iran.

Other than the Iraqi government, can Washington engage with others in Iraq in to advance dialogue and peace? What would success ultimately look like?

The United States post-2003 experience in Iraq demonstrates that engagement with the prime minister or the executive branch, as important as that might be, is not sufficient. The Iraqi Council of Representatives, the High Judicial Council and the judiciary in general, the Kurdistan Regional Government and Parliament, Iraqi media and civil society organizations, and private sector companies are among the key actors that the United States could engage more to deepen the relations between the two countries.

U.S. relations have witnessed some setbacks with Sunni Arabs before and after the military conflict with ISIS and the Kurds around the referendum on independence, but they have been on a recovery path since then, with the latter coming along the furthest. Earlier this year, both Sunnis and Kurds showed that even under significant pressure from Iran and its Iraqi allies, they were not willing to support even a non-binding resolution to ask foreign troops to leave Iraq. They value the U.S. role as do Christians, Yazidis, and many in the Shia community.

While the United States may not be able to directly engage al-Sistani, he is another key actor who has considerable influence and his words carry a lot of weight in Iraq. His January 31 statement included an important message: “It is imperative to speed up holding early elections so the people have their say and the next Council of Representatives that emerges from their free will is the one to take the necessary steps for reforms and making the fateful decisions that determine the future of the country  especially as it relates to protecting its sovereignty, independence of its political decisions, the unity of its people, and territorial integrity.” Al-Sistani’s remarks came the week after Moqtada al-Sadr and the PMF were calling for all U.S. troops to leave Iraq.

For the United States to achieve success in the dialogue it needs to engage more broadly in Iraq, just as its rivals do. For example, the Iranians are engaged at the rank and file level and Chinese officials have been delivering masks in person at the local level. Similarly, Iraqis will need to ensure the dialogues are based on the broad spectrum of views and interests representing Iraq’s diversity, not just elites that may be under the influence of Iran. The dialogues present an opportunity for Iraqis to present a common agenda and what they can bring to the table. However, it is important to manage expectations as Iraq’s free will now is under question, as al-Sistani’s January statement also suggests and offers a solution for.

Outside the negotiating teams, competing theories and expectations abound about what success should look like, including keeping or withdrawing U.S. troops. At the bare minimum, it is important for the dialogue to lead to resetting the relationship, to offer some sort of deconfliction mechanism, and to put things on a better trajectory. This would not be a bad start for the near-term. In more positive and longer-term scenarios, it could lead to better, mutually beneficial cooperation to boost business and trade, help Iraq’s reform efforts and recovery from conflict, and for its government and people to shape a better future for themselves.

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