by Shireen T. Hunter
In Iran, President Hassan Rouhani’s recent visit to Iraq has been hailed as a great victory. In particular, Iranian officials and media have portrayed the visit as demonstrating the inability of the United States as well as Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf Arabs to undermine Tehran’s position in Iraq. Iranian officials and media have been particularly fond of contrasting Rouhani’s reception in Iraq with Donald Trump’s unannounced visit to Baghdad.
In their interviews and speeches, Iranian officials went overboard in stressing the unity of Iraqi and Iranian peoples. Zarif went so far as to say that Iranian and Iraqi blood was intermingled in their joint fight against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). They also frequently emphasized the fact that Iran sided with Iraq during its hard times. The subtext of these statements was that Baghdad should return the favor now that Iran is facing difficult conditions. Iran’s minister of oil, Bijan Namdar Zanganeh, openly said that in its relations with Iran, Iraq has acted solely on the basis of its own self-interest and not taken into consideration Iran’s concerns. He said that Baghdad has not paid the money it owes to Iran for gas deliveries and has refused all proposals regarding energy cooperation. Because of these pressures, Iraq finally agreed to pay $3 billion of its debt to Iran, but it still owes a lot more.
Given that Iraq still faces many problems, including the possible return of IS, Baghdad cannot afford to alienate Iran beyond a certain point. Moreover, it would be a long time before most Iraqi Shias will come to trust Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arabs, especially the UAE. Thus, having reasonable relations with Tehran is still of considerable value for Iraq as a counterweight to Gulf power and influence. Because of these considerations, Baghdad gave a polite reception to Rouhani and his entourage. The warmest reception was by Iraq’s president Barham Salih, an ethnic Kurd who belongs to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and was an associate of the late Jalal Talabani, who, unlike Masoud Barzani, had reasonably good relations with Tehran.
But the statements of Iraqi leaders make clear that none of them bought into Iran’s view of the two states’ strategic relations. Nor do they embrace Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s talk of creating a “strong region” as opposed to strong states, which is theoretically appealing and practically impossible, especially in the Middle East context. Instead, Iraqi leaders put Baghdad’s relations with Tehran in the framework of its broader relations with all regional states. All they said was that Baghdad wants good relations with all its neighbors. This showed their wariness of embracing a special relationship with Tehran. No sooner had Rouhani left Baghdad it was reported that Iraq’s prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, will soon visit Riyadh, thus showing Iraq’s desire not to allow its relations with Tehran damage its ties with other Arab states.
More importantly, during his meeting with Rouhani, Ayatollah Sistani stated positions that many in Tehran do not like. He insisted that Iraq’s sovereignty must be respected, thus hinting that Iran should not interfere in Iraq. He also said that all military forces should be under the control of the central government. This would mean that some of the pro-Iran militia and the Hashd al-Shaabi should be disarmed. In other words, rather than endorsing tight Baghdad-Tehran relations, he essentially warned Iran against interfering in Iraqi affairs.
Moreover, although a number of bilateral agreements were signed, there is no certainty that they will be implemented. Similar agreements in the past have been ignored. Nor did the Iraqis unequivocally restore the Algiers agreement of 1975, which divided the Shatt al-Arab along the Talweg. Thus, the issue of navigation rights over the waterway remains a potential irritant in Baghdad-Tehran relations. Should the circumstances warrant it, Baghdad could use the issue to pressure Iran as it did in the 1960s and 1970s. The only agreement they reached on the Shatt was that it should be cleaned up. The Iraqis also refused Iran’s request for visa-free travel, agreeing only to make visas free of charge. The future of the rail connection between Shalmacheh in Iran and Basra in Iraq, which has been languishing for many years, is also still uncertain. The Iraqis are apparently not anxious to make it easier for Iranians to travel to Iraq.
Beyond polite words and vague promises, then, Rouhani did not obtain any concrete gains in his Iraq trip. It’s difficult to see how Iraq, with its own problems, can help Iran overcome its current economic difficulties even if it wanted to. More fundamentally, Iraq has its own national and regional ambitions and deep down is not unhappy to see a weakened Iran. Some Iraqis, especially Sunni Arabs, also see closer ties with Iran as a threat to Iraq’s Arab character and its links to the Arab world. This view smacks of paranoia. But more practical considerations also argue against Iraq embracing Iran too tightly.
Iran is counting on sectarian ties and a sense of obligation among some Iraqi Shias towards Tehran for past help to gain Baghdad’s cooperation. But interstate relations are not governed by noble sentiments such as gratitude. On the contrary, considerations of interest and balance of power determine state behavior. When Iran is weak, Baghdad will not likely risk its own interests by moving too close to Tehran. Moreover, some Iraqis hold Iran responsible for most of their current problems.
Also, Iraq is changing like Iran itself. Iraqi youth are more concerned about their jobs and future well- being than with martyrdom. They might even be getting tired of the excessive zeal of some Iranians. The advice of President Barham Salih to Iranian visitors to increase cultural exchanges, especially to send famous Persian singers to Iraq to cement bilateral relations, could also be read in this light. Persian culture, rather than Iran’s Islamist ideology, is a potent element of Iran’s soft power, which the government has largely ignored.
Like Bashar al-Assad’s visit to Iran, Rouhani’s trip to Iraq was rich in symbolism but poor in terms of tangible results, especially in terms of helping Tehran to cope with its economic problems. Iran’s hardliners still refuse to accept international and regional realities and think that they can overcome their difficulties by relying solely on internal resources and cultivating regional ties. But Tehran’s neighbors are not in a position to provide it with any significant help. Many of them are Iran’s rivals, and some even covet its territory.