Another opinion by someone who studies the ME
Iraq’s choice: US air strikes or Iranian air conditioners?
by Tanya Goudsouzian, 19 March 2019
Iraq’s choice: US air strikes or Iranian air conditioners?
As American delegations swoop in and out of Iraq attempting to persuade, cajole or bully Iraqi politicians to limit relations with Iran, there is a running joke in the region: ‘With summer around the corner, must we choose between American air strikes and Iranian air conditioners?’
As ISIS is afar in Syria and no longer an existential threat to Iraq, this is hardly a choice. In fact, the choice may not be in Baghdad at all, but in Washington: demand that Iraq adheres to draconian Iranian sanctions and let people from Basra (in the south) deep-fry again this summer; or embrace a broader strategy that relies less on military support and diplomatic demands, and more on humanitarian, commercial and economic assistance.
The first (let them fry) will lead to more unrest and further calls for the US forces to leave; the latter could help to reverse the trend of declining American influence.
In the battle for influence, the US is being challenged by an increasingly ambitious Iran which sees Iraq as a (re)developing country, not as a proxy battlefield with the US. While it has provided significant military support in the anti-ISIS fight, Tehran has recently shifted its focus towards broadening its relations with Baghdad. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s first visit to Baghdad on 12-13 March was billed by mainstream western media as an attempt to increase its influence in Iraq, and regional media spoke of the Islamic Republic’s aspirations to deepen economic ties and ‘strengthen brotherly ties’.
And then there were the unassailable optics of the trip. It was hard not to compare Rouhani's daylight trip, touring every part of Iraq and warmly greeting Iraqi politicians and clerics, to Donald Trump’s clandestine three-hour nighttime visit to Al-Asad airbase in Baghdad last December, which did not involve any meetings with Iraqi leaders. Rouhani earned praise for boosting business and diplomatic relations; Trump earned opprobrium for violating Iraqi sovereignty and disrespecting national leaders.
Worse, Trump’s widely panned gaffe on 3 February about using US troop presence in Iraq surprise visit was seen as a further affront to Iraqi sovereignty and drew condemnations from across the Iraqi political spectrum. Another surprise visit this time by Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan in an apparent bid to patch up the damage, did little to help. And Shanahan’s efforts were insufficient to deter the influential political blocs Sairoon and Fatah from drafting a bill calling for the eviction of all foreign troops from Iraq.
If the US is trying to maintain or enhance its influence in Iraq, there is a significant disconnect between its words and actions. While its words may speak of a strong bilateral relationship, its actions suggest that Washington’s concerns are not to address the needs of Iraq, but to use Iraq as a platform to carry out US policy against Iran that is best described as ‘Iran foe: Iraq pawn’. Any irony seems lost on Washington.
Money talks louder than ultimatums
What also seems to be lost on Washington is the level of popular discontent throughout Iraq and the potential for follow-on instability. From mid-July to the end of 2018, violent protests swept across Basra and Baghdad as people lamented the absence of employment opportunities and basic services. ISIS was, and is, low on the list of concerns, especially as victory had been declared in December 2017. With few significant attacks, bombings or televised atrocities, ISIS seems a distant problem. Basic services, by contrast, are problematic, immediate and widespread.
Yet, the Americans continue to trumpet their accomplishments in the war against ISIS and, although the fight has moved on from Iraq to Syria, still believe the anti-ISIS coalition retains enough leverage with the people of Iraq to not only justify a continued US military presence in the country but for Iraq to join with the US to ‘keep an eye on Iran’. For the Iraqis, drinking fetid water and sweltering in the heat, and for the leaders who carefully calculate the threat of popular discontent, these are the most important and most immediate problems. While this may be lost on the US, it is not lost on the Iranians, the Chinese, and a host of other countries which see leverage in humanitarian assistance, reconstruction, economic development and government grants.
Indeed, for average Iraqis, the equation is simple. US military support does nothing to improve basic services or quell popular discontent. Iraq relies on foreign countries for financial and economic assistance, and depends on Iran for day-to-day needs from fresh produce to natural gas and automobiles – trade which has grown to almost $12 Billion a year. For energy needs alone, despite US efforts to push for Saudi Arabia to replace Iran as a supplier to meet Iraq’s energy needs, the solution is years away. The need is now.
‘The [US] ultimatum is not going to work because Iraq’s situation is more than black and white,’ said Farhad Alaaldin, chairman of the Iraq Advisory Council and former political advisor to President Fuad Masum. ‘Iraq needs Iran and has strategic relations with it, long border, common culture, common faith and shared interest, but also desire to be independent if it can help it. Breaking Iraq away from Iran takes a lot more than just waving a stick.’
According to Ali Allawi, a former minister of both trade and finance, the US approach is ‘a losing strategy because there is no long-term basis of US support outside of the Kurdish area.’ By contrast, ‘Iran has a large natural constituency of support inside the country and have made themselves indispensable players across all of Iraq’s communities,’ he said. ‘The Chinese wield huge economic power and are able to marshal it and focus it on specific programs and projects that are of interest to Iraq.’
For example, in May 2018, the Iraqi oil ministry and China’s ZhenHua oil company signed a contract to develop part of the East Baghdad Oil Field. Earlier this month, Iraq and China were reportedly set to finalise a major bilateral agreement that would give investors access to roughly $10 billion worth of financing. An infusion of foreign investment of this magnitude is expected to help prop up the Iraqi economy and fund much needed reconstruction projects in the country, and adds another major player in the battle for influence.
Short term victory, long term defeat
If the US merely seeks to use Iraq as an element in its anti-Iran strategy, there is little benefit to expanding its assistance efforts in Iraq. Yet if America is genuinely interested in retaining a first-among-equals influence with Iraq, there has to be a major shift in its approach. Military support alone (perhaps tempered with a bit of nostalgia and guilt for assistance in days long past) is a losing strategy.
‘The US has to carve for itself a mutually supportive relationship with Iraqi political parties and groups,’ said Allawi. ‘A longer term strategy is to preside over the economic regeneration of the country. However, unlike the Far East experience, Iraq’s economic regeneration cannot be based on access to US markets or the inflow of US direct investments.’
Alaaldin shares these sentiments: ‘The Americans have helped immensely in the past but they never presided over the economic regeneration. We didn’t have regeneration at all, we simply have oil to sell and if the prices are high then Iraq’s economy is excellent and if they go low then Iraq’s economy is in trouble.’
Influence matters. So does leverage
So how does the US up its game? ‘Inflow of US money has stopped a while ago,’ said Alaaldin. ‘The US only injects money in what they call “stabilisation effort” and it is limited to the war struck areas such as Ninawa and other provinces. US investment is near non-existent, although a recent visit by some 50+ businesses to Baghdad have rekindled some interest from US corporations to come to Iraq, but I think this is sometime away.’ Yet, as is evident of late, the Iranians, Chinese, and Koreans are already on the doorstep.
Achieving influence in Iraq will be gained through resolving near-term shortfalls in basic services and, in the long run, addressing economic, humanitarian and reconstruction needs. In this, Iran, China and other countries are gaining while the Americans are well behind. To the Iraqi on the street, military support against ISIS and the Great Game competition between the US and Iran is far less consequential than human needs, and it seems everyone but the US is leveraging those needs into palpable influence. While the US and Iran were both essential to the Iraqi victory against ISIS, the effectiveness of the post-ISIS follow up by Iran and others seems lost on the US.
In Baghdad, leverage matters. Iraq is still dependent on outside powers for critical needs and will be for years. If the US continues to see and use Iraq only as a pawn in its fight against Iran, it should expect significant pushback. If it fails to up its game in Iraq through increasing commercial, diplomatic, economic and humanitarian support, it will cede influence to others with a better sense of Iraq’s needs and wants. If the US believes military support and diplomatic pressure will remain the primary source of leverage in Iraq, it better get used to disappointment.
Tanya Goudsouzian is a Canadian journalist who has covered Iraq and Afghanistan for over 15 years. She is former Opinion editor of Al Jazeera English Online. Follow her on Twitter: @tgoudsouzian.