Ever since Iraq restored a measure of self-government after the illegal 2003 invasion and occupation of the country which saw US and UK troops overthrow the Ba’ath party of former President Saddam Hussein, one witnessed the seemingly odd spectre of a government that came to power on the shoulders of an American war, adopt openly pro-Iranian positions on matters of intelligence sharing, economic cooperation, cultural cooperation and later, military cooperation.
The United States has not had formal diplomatic relations with Iran since 1980 and almost every US President from Reagan to Trump has made various threats against Iran. For all of the anti-Saddam Hussein fervour in the west dating from 1990 to the posthumous narrative that the west promotes about the former Iraqi President, throughout the 1980s, Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a close ally of the west with Iran as a mutual enemy.
The west actively armed Iraq when Saddam Hussein waged war on Iran throughout the 1980s, this included the provision of western made chemical weapons which Iraq used on Iran during the war.
Now though, the situation has turned 180 degrees. Whereas Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a sworn enemy of Iran and had very poor relations with Syria stemming from the Ba’ath Party split of 1966, today Iraq is an ally of both while America loathes Iran and has been trying to overthrow the Syrian government ever since 2011.
The overall effect is that there are now two technical allies of the United States, both with a large number of US bases on their soil that have good relations with America’s number one Middle East foe, Iran. There is Qatar which is developing a pragmatic relationship with Iran while earning the wrath of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt in the process and then there is Iraq.
Days ago, Iraqi Vice President Nouri al-Maliki said that he does not want US bases in his country and that it was Iraq forces and Shi’a militas who beat ISIS rather than the United States Air Force.
Today, Iraqi Defence Minister Major General Erfan al-Hiyali meet with his Iranian counterpart in Tehran, Brigadier General Hossein Dehqan and signed a memorandum of agreement on future military cooperation.
IRNA news agency reports that the content of the memorandum includes,
“The expansion of cooperation and sharing experiences in the fields of fight against terrorism and extremism, border security, training, logistics, technical and military supports were included”.
Iran helped to train Iraqi fighters and volunteers and provide on the ground assistance during much of Iraq’s fight against ISIS and continues to do so. Yet the US Air force also worked with Iraq, even though the leading Iraqi politicians have tended to downplay America’s role in the operation.
Iran due to its spiritual ties to the Shi’a leadership currently in Baghdad and its geographical proximity to Iraq is just about the only major country that could hope to bring stability back to Iraq. It is becoming increasingly clear that the Iraqi government seeks a deep and wide partnership with Tehran for the foreseeable future. Even Iraq’s recent overtures to Russia are symptomatic of Baghdad’s desire to have ever closer relations with Iran. This is the case because Russia-Iran relations are currently at an historical high and unlike America, Russia is a super-power that has no problem with an Iraqi partnership with Iran or with Syria for that matter. In this sense, when it comes to relations with a super-power, Russia is more amenable to Iraq’s current geo-strategic position vis-a-vis the United States.
For Iraq, the message is becoming increasingly clear. The future that the Baghdad government wants is one where America and Turkey vacate the country, where Kurds refrain from declaring independence, where Iran is Iraq’s major regional partner and Syria is a close second and moreover, it is a future where the closest super-power to Iraq is not the US but Russia.
But where does this leave the United States?
The following map shows current US bases inside Iraq, with many of them very close to the Iranian border.
In a sane world the ties that both Washington and Tehran have with Iraq could be a means of de-escalating tensions between America and Iran, but due to the prevailing political climate in both Washington and Tel Aviv, this rational option is something of an impossibility.
Some political leaders in the United States display something that can be defined as ‘Iraq Fatigue’. Knowing that the 2003 invasion turned out to be disastrous and that subsequent actions against ISIS have been far more taxing than expected, some in the US would rather the ‘Iraq issue’ simply go away. During the campaign Donald Trump seemed to display this ‘Iraq Fatigue’. In many speeches he was deeply critical of the 2003 war in Iraq and the money the US subsequently spent during the occupation.
However, due to the sheer amounts of money spent by the United States on its continued presence in Iraq and due to the fact that detente with Iran is if anything a more distant possibility under Donald Trump than order Barack Obama, there is a grave danger that America will seek to prolong its presence in Iraq, thus provoking Iran and retarding Baghdad’s progress as an independent nation that wants good relations with its neighbour to the east. In this sense Donald Trump’s statements on the region offer more confusion than clarity in this respect.
All of this of course could have been avoided if the United States did not illegally remove the anti-Iranian Saddam Hussein from power, but of course that is no longer an option.
If the US did as most Iraqis want and left the country, it would in many ways be America’s most dramatic exit from a country since the infamous vacating of South Vietnam in 1975.
Thus far, nothing in Iraq has gone according to the official plans of the United States. Even the unofficial, yet prima facie plan of dividing and conquering Iraq has backfired as it has led to the formation of a government which openly cooperates with Iran.
Was this incredibly short-sighted strategy from the United States or was it part of a longer plan to draw Iran into a a conflict in Iraq where US military personnel are sitting around ready for a would be fight with Iran?
This question which continues to haunt many Iraqis will be answered in time. One can only hope that America realises that in Iraq they are unwanted by the pro-Iranian government as much as they were by the anti-Iranian Ba’athist Government in 2003.
HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES