On August 19, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi arrived in Washington to meet with President Donald Trump and continue a U.S.-Iraq strategic dialogue that kicked off in June. The talks between senior officials covered security and counterterrorism, economics and energy, political issues, and cultural relations. In various forums, Iraqi leaders underscored the importance of having working relationships with Iran and the United States. But they also said that they wanted to keep the U.S.-Iran rivalry out of Iraq's domestic affairs.
“It is a bitter fact that sometimes both countries [Iran and the United States] were deciding who will be the next [Iraqi] prime minister,” Foreign Minister Hussein said at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council on August 21. “The conflict between Washington and Tehran reflects itself inside Iran... but we need both of you. One of them is our neighbor and a big power in the region. And the other one is our ally and big power in the world.”
Iran has emerged as the most influential foreign player in Iraq since U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. Iran has taken advantage of deep cultural and religious ties – and a 900-mile border – to permeate Iraq’s political, security, economic, and religious spheres.
Iraq has become a battleground between U.S. forces and Iran, especially since the U.S. killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad in January 2020. Iran fired more than a dozen missiles at two Iraqi military bases housing U.S. troops in retaliation for the assassination. And Iran-backed militias have allegedly attacked U.S. targets in Iraq at least two dozen times since then.
Kadhimi has shown willingness to reign in armed groups that are not accountable to Baghdad. In June, he ordered a raid on Kataib Hezbollah, a Shiite militia backed by Iran that has attacked U.S. forces. Kadhimi said that U.S. officials expressed concern about “certain” armed groups during the dialogue but did not specify further. “Any weapons outside government control will not be tolerated,” he told journalists on August 20.
During the visit, Kadhimi and his ministers worked toward achieving energy independence for their country. On August 19, Iraq’s oil and electricity ministers signed agreements worth $8 billion with five U.S. companies, including Chevron Corp and General Electric, to develop Iraq’s energy sector. Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette “stressed the need for rapid progress towards energy independence from Iran” during a meeting with Oil Minister Ihsan Abdul Jabbar Ismail and Electricity Minister Majid Mahdi Hantoush.
The United States has long wanted to wean Iraq off its dependence on Iranian energy. The Trump administration has urged Iraq to find alternative ways to meet its needs, in part to deprive Iran of the revenue stream. The United States, as part of its “maximum pressure” campaign, has used sanctions to cut off most of Iran’s oil exports. But it has repeatedly issued waivers to allow Iraq to import Iranian energy to ensure Iraq’s stability. “Iraq currently has no choice but to import natural gas and electricity from Iran,” Kadhimi acknowledged on August 20.
Kadhimi has also tried to improve relations with Iran since taking office in May 2020. In July, Kadhimi met with Iran’s leaders in Tehran, his first trip abroad since becoming prime minister. The diplomatic talks were convened amid friction between Tehran and Baghdad over Iran-backed militias, border closures and Iran’s influence on Iraqi politics. “We are an independent state. We asked them [Iranians] also to treat us as such,” Hussein recounted on August 21 in Washington. The following are excerpted remarks by Iraqi officials on Iran from their visit to Washington.
Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi to journalists on August 20:
Question: “How much of the discussion with U.S. officials centered on Iran? What does the administration want you to do about Iran - whether its militias, its influence, its presence - in Iraq?”
Kadhimi: “During our talks with our colleagues in the U.S. administration, they did express some worries about certain groups that operate in Iraq. We explained the Iraqi situation to them, and we explained that what Iraq is going through today is a reflection of what Iraq had to go through from the appearance of ISIS until its defeat. Whenever a society becomes militarized there are consequences to this, and these consequences will continue until this issue of militarization is dealt with. As we stated in our government program and also stated to other partners, we put Iraqi interests at the top. Any weapons outside government control will not be tolerated. We are also working on security sector reform in Iraq. This security sector reform program involves tackling the issue of these weapons that are not under state control.”
Question: How does the U.S. continued focus on Iran affect, if at all, your efforts to reform and stabilize Iraq?
Kadhimi: “These tensions between the United States and Iran undoubtedly will have repercussions on Iraq. And in Iraq, we always aim to see an end to this tension between these two countries because it impacts our internal situation. This is why we always try to avoid any conflict on Iraqi territory. And we don't want to see any conflict between Iran and the United States, neither on Iraqi territory nor anywhere else. And we always work very hard to try to distance Iraq from this conflict.
“Accordingly, whenever we see some signs of some improvement in the relationship or solutions for the problems between Iran and the United States, we are enthusiastic to encourage such tendencies. And when we notice or see that the relationship between these two countries is heading towards confrontation, we always try to distance ourselves from such confrontation and try to distance this confrontation from Iraq.”
Question: “The secretary of state is at the United Nations today calling for the snapback of U.N. sanctions. Will Iraq observe sanctions if the U.S. snaps them back?”
Kadhimi: “I don't think Iraq will be party to a side of this new arrangement. Iran is a neighboring country of Iraq. But at the same time, Iraq always tries to distance itself from conflicts involving these two countries. We have enough problems of our own.”
Question: “What about the [U.S.] waiver on importing electricity [from Iran]? Will you be able to get an extension?”
Kadhimi: “Regarding the waivers, Iraq currently has no choice but to import natural gas and electricity from Iran. We are talking about the current situation, until we manage to improve our natural gas production or we find alternatives. And we are embarking on major projects to capture natural gas to compensate or to provide self-sufficiency from Iranian natural gas. We also need to achieve self-reliance when it comes to electricity generation. And we are working to acquire electricity generation with competitive prices like the ones offered by the connection with the national grids of the Gulf countries.”
Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council on August 21: “What Prime Minister Kadhimi told the Iranians is: we want to have a good relationship with Iran. Iran is our neighbor, and the longest border that we have is with Iran. If we go back to the relationship between Iran and Iraq, it has also to do with the history, the culture, with religion, as well as economic ties. The influence of the Iranians is there. This is part of the reality. But a country can have influence in another country or another society. But the decision must be in the hands of the Iraqis. We have got some problems in this area.
“I was in the meeting with [Kadhimi] when he met President [Hassan] Rouhani and he made it clear: we want to have relations but on the basis of being equal. Two, three years ago, there was a kind of gentlemen accord between Washington and Tehran when issues in Iraq had been solved. It is a bitter fact that sometimes both countries were deciding who will be the next prime minister. They were indirectly or through other channels.
“The conflict between Washington and Tehran reflects itself inside Iran... but we need both of you. One of them is our neighbor and a big power in the region. And the other one is our ally and big power in the world.
“In this case, the Iranians are intervening more to decide for us. They have got a different position inside of our political system. Though the Prime Minister wanted to make it clear for the Iranians that we want to have a normal relationship, but you are not going to decide for us.”
Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein at an event hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace on August 20: “I was part of the delegation of the prime minister in the recent visit to Tehran. The message was clear: we want to deal with Iran as a state. We are an independent state. We asked them also to treat us as such. The important thing for the Iraqis is to establish the decision process. The process of making decisions must be established in Iraq. To take the decision must be in the hand of the Iraqis.
“When I'm talking about making decisions, I am realistic. Of course, there are some decisions which are interlinked with others. But Iraqis must decide about their future. Iraqis must decide about their security. Iraqis must decide about their government. Iraqis must decide about their policy -- foreign policy or internal policy. This is an Iraqi matter that the neighboring countries must understand. We are trying to make it clear for them that this is not acceptable.
“If this intervention will continue by others, including some neighboring countries, then there will be an unstable Iraq. It would create huge problems, not only for the Iraqis, but also for the region. We have seen it. When ISIS controlled one-third of the country, it was not only an Iraqi problem. It became a regional problem but also an international problem.”
“You see trade relations between Iraq and Iran, but also between Turkey and Iraq. It's all in the interest of both countries. The balance of trade is in the interest of Iran and Turkey. Iran was exporting $12 billion each year to Iraq -- exporting agricultural products and their own products which has been produced inside Iraq … We are buying about 1200 megawatts of electricity from Iran. The Iranians are providing gas to three main power stations in Iraq. Translating what they are selling to us into money: that's about $4 billion. In total, the trade relationship between Iran and Iraq is about $12 billion, but because of the corona disease the border has been closed. That has affected the trading relationship. It's not comparable now with a year ago. But still we are importing electricity and gas from Iran.”
Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein at a press availability with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on August 19: “Iran is a neighboring country to Iraq, and as a result, there are ties pertaining to geography, history, culture, economy, and the Iraqi policy, or Iraq’s foreign policy, is based out of Iraq’s national interest. We want to have good relations with our neighbors, provided that nobody interferes in Iraq’s affairs and the Iraqi decision will be made by the Iraqis, and we want to protect our alliances and relations with others, including the United States of America.”
Finance Minister Ali Allawi at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council on August 21:
Question: “Does Iraq intend to substitute Iranian energy imports given the U.S. sanctions against Iran? If so, what is the source and timeline? Did the Iraqi delegation discuss its plans to cooperate with Saudi Arabia in the energy sector with the U.S. during this visit? How is the U.S. supporting the Iraqi-Saudi projects?”
Allawi: “Relating to Iranian gas: this has been going on for several years now, and the U.S. has been giving exemptions and extensions for enforcement both for Iranian electricity and Iran gas. It is unlikely that we can find a short-term substitute, but the medium-term effort can be done by linking the Iraqi grid to the Gulf grid. There are two points of entry which we can make either in Saudi Arabia, or in Kuwait... I assume the dependence on Iranian gas and electricity imports will begin to trail down significantly sometime next year.”