Caught In The Middle: How US-Iran Tensions Threaten Iraq's Sovereignty

 /  March 1, 2020, 3:47 p.m.

Iraqi President Barham Salih meets with US President Donald Trump

US-Iran tensions have thrown Iraq’s tenuous stability into jeopardy. In Switzerland, on January 24, Iraqi President Barham Salih met with President Donald Trump and agreed to maintaining the current American troop presence in Iraq. This decision, signaling Iraq’s continued dependence on foreign powers for its own security, angered many and triggered widespread protests

Last month, a US airstrike killed Iranian Major General Qassim Suleimani, which led to retaliatory strikes from Iran. Iraqis, some of whom sympathize with the Iranian people, were quick to express outrage, and as a result, Iraq’s parliament voted to expel US forces from the country. Critically, both airstrikes happened in Iraq, casting further doubt onto the strength of the country’s claim to sovereignty and power relative to that of Iran and the United States. However, now that the antagonism between the United States and Iran has become less overt, Iraq is presented with a rare opportunity to negotiate and reclaim a degree of independence.  

Iraq has been involved in proxy wars for decades. Since the United States invaded the country in 2003 to oust Saddam Hussein, there has been a sustained American troop presence in Iraq. In the midst of heightened US-Iran tensions, Iraq is poised to become entangled in the interests of the two powers. Though Iraq seeks neutrality, it is highly unlikely that it will be able to completely extricate itself from a potential conflict. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has stated that the United States would not obey Iraq’s request to withdraw troops but that the United States would be “happy to continue the conversation with the Iraqis about what the right structure is.” Even so, it is possible that Iraq can negotiate the removal of some American troops and thus gain a measure of independence. Negotiation is Iraq’s most viable way forward, as the country does not have the resources to assert its dominance militarily, and would allow for a path toward establishing its sovereignty.

Salih addressed the concern that Iraq has become trapped between the two powers in an interview, saying, “The United States is our ally. Iran is our neighbor.” Given that Iraq shares a border with Iran and diplomatic ties with the United States, it is highly likely that Iraqi sovereignty will be challenged by one of these countries, if not both. 

Challenges to Iraq’s Stability and Sovereignty

Iran and the United States. have sought to grow their influence in the Middle East for decades. However, since the 1953 CIA-orchestrated overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected prime minister and the Iranian Revolution of the 1970s, the United States and Iran have only grown more apart. In 2002, then-President George W. Bush denounced Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil,” cementing the enmity between the two powers. Since then, the United States and Iran have engaged in low-level antagonism, including nuclear competition and sanctions. However, the recent escalation of tensions threatens to generate further conflict that would likely spill over into Iraq. 

After the US airstrikes and Iranian retaliation, Trump claimed that he would bring back “big stick” deterrence, meaning that international negotiations would be backed by a show of force, echoing Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy. Iran has taken a similarly antagonistic stance, motivated by a desire to maintain power in the face of rising internal unrest over corruption and US economic sanctions. The Iranian regime essentially is hoping to reassert its dominance, which was threatened internally by riots last December and internationally by US aggression. Further US-Iran antagonism could spell disaster for Iraq, a comparatively weak state with a fairly new government and still reeling from past sectarian conflict. 

The United States and Iran initiate conflict on Iraqi soil for two reasons. Both powers want to control Iraq, a strategically critical territory in the Middle East. Furthermore, fighting on foreign turf decreases the risks posed to both Iranian and US citizens. Iraq does not have the means to throw off the yokes of either Iran or the United States, indicating its status as a future war zone and as a bargaining piece in the US-Iran power struggle.

In Salih’s words, the Middle East is broken. In the past, US troops have fought alongside Iraqi soldiers against ISIS. ISIS is still a very real threat in the region, but now US forces are focused more on addressing the mounting tensions with Iran, likely at the expense of Iraq’s stability and sovereignty. 

Currently Iraqi popular sentiment is divided on the issue, but anti-Iran and anti-US factions have the common goal of ridding the country of foreign influence. Popular anger towards the United States and Iran has also crystallized into growing resentment, culminating in recent anti-government demonstrations, towards the Iraqi government for its handling of the situation. 

However, the respective interests of the United States and Iran in determining the fate of Iraq remain as opposed as ever. Though Trump advocated for removing troops from Iraq during his 2016 campaign, he has recently stated that the United States would impose “very big sanctions” on Iraq if it pushes to expel American troops. US sanctions could cut Iraq off from its oil funds in the New York Federal Reserve Bank and force electrical shortages. Conversely, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has underscored his aim to rid the region of US troops. Iraq and Iran’s economies are closely connected, and many Iraqi Shiites support Tehran. However, one anti-Iran protester argued, “Baghdad doesn’t react when it comes to Iran, because it belongs to Tehran,” revealing the stark division in Iraqi sentiment towards Iran. Regardless of how Iraq responds, it risks alienating a world power.

“Iraq is at the heart of this region. Iraq’s stability, in my view, is a common interest of its neighbors,” says Salih. Though the president may be right, Iraqi stability does not seem to be a priority for either Iran or the United States. Both countries are focused on protecting their own interests and maintaining power rather than achieving and consolidating a stable regional order. 

Negotiating Iraq’s Claim to Sovereignty

Iraq has little power to assert its sovereignty against the interests of the United States and Iran. It is a relatively small, unstable country with a history of strife. It cannot hope to expel troops without facing brutal US sanctions or overt force. As such, Iraq’s security council has recommended negotiations with the Americans, potentially allowing some American and coalition forces to stay without completely relinquishing its own sovereignty. 

Although it can be argued that Iraq’s aim should be to distance itself from both the United States and Iran without inciting conflict, Iraq seems to have tied its fate to the United States, as can be deduced from Salih’s recent meeting with Trump. It remains to be seen whether Iraq’s continued reliance on foreign powers to protect its own interests will prove more beneficial than costly. 

Though further negotiations will inevitably be imperfect and will not fully remove the presence of foreign interests, they are the only viable way forward for Iraq. However, given the recent meeting between Salih and Trump, it seems that Iraq has foregone this option. The popular reaction to this decision was exemplified by the subsequent waves of turmoil, indicating the possibility of insurrection. 

Iraq should attempt to maintain its agency. Removing US troops from Iraq would decrease the likelihood of overt US-Iran conflict on Iraqi soil. A US military presence invites conflict rather than security. Iraq must strive to act as a sovereign power rather than a pawn. However, powerful foreign interests still hold sway over the country in the form of a military presence, geographic proximity, and even the sympathies of the Iraqi people. These influences are in tension with Iraq’s aim to make decisions that reflect the common good of its people. It is unclear whether Iraq will be able to rid itself of outside influence and work towards a greater degree of autonomy. Iraq’s sovereignty, not to mention the security and interests of its people, hang in the balance.

The photo featured in this article is in the public domain and is not subject to copyright law. The original photo was taken by the White House and can be found here.

Katherine Leahy

Katherine Leahy is a second-year Political Science major who spent the summer working as an AmeriCorps volunteer in the Rocky Mountains. On campus, she sings in the University Chorus, serves as a Chicago Swing Dance Society board member, and works as a research assistant. In her free time, she enjoys fiction, hiking in places with real elevation, mediocre coffee, and exploring Chicago with her friends.


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