Iraqi Leader Will Not Allow U.S.-Iran Rivalry to Destabilize His Country

Iraq will keep close ties with the U.S. and Iran even as tensions rise between the two, but warned them both away from competing on Iraq’s turf reclaimed from the retreating forces of Islamic State and the Kurds, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi stressed in an interview for The Wall Street Journal.

He issued a plea to Washington and Tehran not to involve Iraq in their growing confrontation over Iran’s nuclear deal and missile program, and the U.S. threat of renewed sanctions.

“What we are telling everyone, including our Iranian neighbors and the U.S., who have become our friends by supporting us in our fight against Daesh, is that we welcome your support, we would like to work with you, both of you, but please don’t bring your trouble inside Iraq. To impose something on us is very unacceptable,” Abadi said.

Abadi also said he wants U.S. forces to remain in Iraq after the last remaining Islamic State redoubts are liberated, and he pledged to disarm Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim militias that refuse to come under his control. According to a senior U.S. official, the ball is in Iran’s court since U.S. has no intention of conducting a campaign against Iran in Iraq.

“But it will really be up to the groups that may or may not be under the control of the prime minister. What will happen will depend upon the actions of the proxies of Iran inside Iraq,” the official said, referring to Iran-backed Shi’ite militias.“

Abadi said the U.S. and other Western troops are in Iraq on the government’s invitation and that Baghdad won’t tolerate any hostile action against these coalition forces.

“Any attack on them is an attack on Iraq, on the sovereignty of Iraq, the sovereignty of the state,” he said.

Buoyed by recent successes against Islamic State and Kurdish forces, and with national elections scheduled for May, he is increasingly trying to position himself as an Iraqi nationalist leader who isn’t beholden to Tehran. While Abadi secured the backing of Sunni Arab states and Turkey over his handling of Kurdistan, the issue of Iraqi Shi’ite militias, some of them operating as de facto subsidiaries of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, remains a sore point in relations with these neighbors—and Washington.

Some of the groups reacted angrily when U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Sunday that Iranian militias in Iraq “need to go home.” While Abadi said he seeks to avoid confrontation, he added that militias refusing to comply with this policy will be treated as “outlaws.”

Abadi has been consistently viewed as a less divisive figure than his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, who oversaw a purge of minority representation in the Iraqi government, setting the stage for deepening Iranian influence over the Shi’ite majority.

At the same time, various analysts had highlighted improvements in ties between Iraq and Saudi Arabia as evidence that Iranian influence over Baghdad and the Iraqi military might begin to wane in the near future, Iran News Update reports.

This is certainly the hoped-for outcome in the White House and among Western policymakers more generally. But many analysts see these hopes as fantastical, and this was the emphasis of an in-depth article published by CNN regarding apparently inconsistent American policies in the Middle East. The author, Michael Weiss, argues that despite efforts to downplay Iran’s role in the recapture of Kirkuk, the White House effectively sided with Iran against the Kurds by remaining silent in the face of last week’s assault on Kirkuk.

In essence, Abadi appears to be putting forth some effort to play both sides of the conflict between Tehran and Riyadh, much as the U.S. appears to be playing both sides of the conflict between Baghdad and Erbil. This is assuredly not an ideal situation for Washington.

Assuming that direct appeals to the Iraqi government continue to prove ineffective, the White House will presumably need to formulate a more comprehensive plan for challenging Iranian influence while providing weakened states like Iraq with alternative security apparatuses that are more amenable to Western interests.