The US-Iran Scramble for post-Abadi Iraq: How Will Turkey be Affected?

October 8, 2018

What will be Trump’s forthcoming strategy to contain Iran’s expansionist policy in the Middle East? If Trump’s policy is to make Iraq the theater for the first attempt to restrain Iran, as some policy analysts have suggested, then confrontation will be more probable.
Iraq's newly elected President Barham Salih (L) takes the office from Fuad Masum (R), in a formal handover ceremony at al-Salam Presidential Palace in Baghdad, Iraq on October 03, 2018. Anadolu Agency

After two years of stormy relations with Turkey, Haider al-Abadi, the former Prime Minister of Iraq, managed to establish workable relations with Turkey. Had he won the election, he would have continued to work with Turkey on several strategically important issues such as the establishment of a second pipeline for oil export from Iraq to Turkey, and joint efforts in order to eradicate the PKK presence in the Qandil mountains. Both countries were also planning to expand the size of commercial trade.

Adel Abdul Mahdi has been chosen as Iraq’s new prime minister-designate, and Barham Salih as the new president. Now, Turkey needs to be prepared for a post-Abadi era. This piece is about the intensified rivalry taking place between pro-Iranian and pro-American Iraqi political groups, which both seek to form a government, and reflect on how the probable result of this rivalry will affect Turkey-Iraq relations.

U.S. and Iran scramble for the cake

All these depend on the larger scene: What will be Trump’s forthcoming strategy to contain Iran’s expansionist policy in the Middle East? If Trump’s policy is to make Iraq the theater for the first attempt to restrain Iran, as some policy analysts have suggested, then confrontation will be more probable. It is clear that the U.S. and Russia have reached a tacit agreement, agreeing that Syria is in the interest of Russia, and thus leaving the job of containing Iran’s influence in the country to both Tel Aviv and Moscow.

During the last two months, both Brett McGurk, the U.S. Special Envoy on War against Daesh, and Qasim Soleimani, the commander of the Quds revolutionary guard and the person in charge of Iraq’s file, made numerous visits to Baghdad and Erbil to rally support for the groups that they have influence on in order to form the “biggest election bloc” – the largest political alliance in parliament. The U.S. supports the bloc of al-Islah (Reform) headed by Abadi, and Iran favors the bloc of al-Bina (Reconstruction) founded by Nouri-al Maliki. The later has an edge and it has managed to elect Mohammed Halbusi, who is a pro-Iranian Sunni leader, as speaker of Parliament.

Why did Abadi lose his bid for power?

Towards the end of September, many of Abadi’s allies began to desert his camp, and this seriously weakened his chance to be re-elected. Abadi proved too tactless and has been alienated by many in his own camp. On the other hand, al-Maliki has exhibited considerable diplomatic skills and made compromises with both the Sunni Arabs and Kurds. According to unconfirmed reports, he conceded to the Kurds and the right of the Kurdish peshmerga to return to the disputed territories. Abadi has apparently refused to do what forced Masoud Barzani to side with al-Maliki.

In addition, al-Maliki has made deals with Sunni leaders to withdraw popular mobilization forces (Hashd al-Shaabi) from their cities. This irritated Abadi who considered these actions as illegal and being done without his prior knowledge – behind his back. Consequently, he sacked Falih Fayyad, his National Security Advisor, whom he accused of betrayal and inefficiency. The loss of Fayyad, a prominent Dawa leader and the son of a powerful Shiite tribal leader, accompanied by the use of excessive force against demonstrators in Basra, put Abadi’s statesmanship into serious question.

It was probably this state of affairs that convinced Muqtada Sadr, the powerful cleric and leader of the winning Sairoon bloc, to desert Abadi and reconcile with Hadi Ameri, the head of the powerful Badr militia. More, Abadi’s hasty and not so well-calculated statement to implement U.S. sanctions against Iran, has delivered a serious blow to his ability to present himself as a leader of Iraq. A statement in the pro-government daily Erem in Tehran on August 16, 2018, described Abadi as a “governor of Iraq who has been appointed by an Iranian general and who will face the same fate as Saddam.”

However, the final blow to Abad’s bid for a second term came with the statement of Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most influential Shiite cleric in the country, banning those who have been in office before to take the post again.

Turkey’s stand in Iraqi politics

Turkey should take the existing tension between Iran and the U.S. into consideration as it will not diminish and may even end in direct confrontation in Abdul Mehdi’s era. Turkey should also be prepared for a possible inter-Shiite military confrontation in a proxy war. The burning of the Iranian consulate in Basra, and subsequent unknown missile launches on U.S. interests again in Basra and the Green zone in Baghdad, are clear indications that the U.S.-Iranian confrontation in Iraq has entered an alarming stage.

The Iraqi government accused ex-Baathist elements as being behind the events in Basra, and pro-Iranian groups in Iraq attributed the events to the U.S. and its Arab allies in the region. It can be argued that the events were in general spontaneous and triggered by Iran’s decision to cut off power to Basra due to the economic crisis in Iran. The people in Basra have repeatedly taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest against the lack of government services, and water contamination that left thousands in hospitals.

Besides, both Soleimani and Ameri have already threatened to attack U.S. interests in Iraq if they were excluded from forming a government. Qais Al-Khazali, the leader of the powerful Asaeb al-Haq militia, made similar threats.

In case of a diplomatic rupture between Iraq and Turkey, Turkey’s national interest and security might be jeopardized. First of all, the PKK can avail itself from the chaos by extending its influence on the KRG. There is a boiling situation in the unsettled province of Kirkuk. The rapture may cause a clash there and the Turkmen may suffer in consequence. Besides, Turkey’s 11 billion worth of trade with Iraq can be seriously affected. Therefore, Turkey needs to develop and put in place contingent plans for such eventuality. Thus, Ankara cannot afford to be a bystander as things take a confrontational posture in the relations between Iran and the U.S. in Iraq.

Since the new prime minister is, to a large extent, a man of compromise between the U.S. and Iran, if he manages to form the government he will most probably try to pursue Abadi’s foreign policy objectives. Although he has stated that he wants a full mandate to form the government, he cannot afford to ignore Muqtada Sadr’s (his main patron) pressure with regard to further distancing Iraq from both Iran and the U.S.

Aware of his close ties with the Kurdish leadership in Iraq, he will probably try to open up to the KRG and come to close terms with them in regards to the sale of oil through the existing oil pipeline in the KRG. This means that he will try to please Barzani and most probably ignore or postpone the second pipeline that Abadi and the Turkish government agreed upon – an agreement to the displeasure of KRG leaders.

Being an economist and supporter of the market economy, Abdul Mehdi will try to expand commercial ties with Turkey and will try to avoid any political tension with Ankara. However, his foreign policy towards Turkey will not be free from Iranian and the U.S. influence. Abdul Mehdi’s anticipated foreign policy will in general be a continuation of the Abadi era, and Turkey-Iraq ties will continue on its current course of commercial growth and normalization.

Dr. Othman Ali is a Professor of Modern History of Kurds at Salahaddin University in Erbil. He is currently a research fellow at the Middle East Institute of Sakarya University.