The Iraqi Dilemma: Between Geography and Diplomacy

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Over the past forty years Iraq has had military conflicts with both Iran and the US, and those wars have brought nothing but political instability, economic crisis and death to Iraq.

Iraq – Iran war: On September 22, 1980, Iraq invaded Iran and started a devastating war that would last eight years, involved several countries and created instability in the Middle East for decades to come.

US invasion of Iraq: In 2003, the US invaded Iraq and, after a couple months, US forces overthrew the government and captured and later executed Iraq’s president Saddam Hussein. The US’s occupation of Iraq proved to be a disaster. The Iraqi government put in place by Washington was too weak to control its own territory, leaving a vacuum of power in the country that was soon filled by violent militias and extremist groups, including the newly created ISIS.

Despite its difficult situation, over the past years, Iraq has managed to regain control of its major cities, push back ISIS, rebuild its oil industry ,and has been taking steps to solidify its newly formed democratic institutions. However, the Iraqi government has had to deal with a very complicated geopolitical scenario.

It has had to struggle to maintain its sovereignty, to improve its relationship with Iran (its most important neighbor) and to manage its military and economic relationship with the US. This dilemma has shaped Iraqi diplomacy and, today, Iraq’s diplomatic efforts are of utmost importance in order to avoid another conflict which the country will probably not be able to endure. As stated by Iraqi president Barham Salih  “The United States is our ally. Iran is our neighbor”.

Nevertheless,  the assassination of Qassem Suleimani -a pillar in Iran’s foreign policy- has made Iraq the main stage in the conflict between the US and Iran. The US drone attack that killed Suleimani was conducted without the knowledge of the Iraqi government, violating its sovereignty and leaving the country in a very delicate situation. Iraq cannot afford to take sides in the dispute without jeopardizing its survival and overall the regional stability.

Politically, the government has to manage a divided parliament between Shiite – majority and close to Iran – and Sunni – minority and opposed to Iran – as well as pressure from both sides to limit each other’s influence in the country.

If Iran and the US keep escalating their war games and refuse to sit down at the negotiating table, the regional consequences would be disastrous for the Middle East and Iraq. Among other, the scenarios could go from  an US intervention in order to protect its regional interests to competition for regional supremacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran creating more proxy wars in the region and an increase in the intensity of Israel’s conflict against Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine both militia groups backed by Iran.

Iraq must at all cost avoid alienating either the US or Iran. Baghdad will have to push for a a diplomatic solution in order to deescalate the conflict, because war will be unbearable for both Iraq and the region.

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