The government formation in Iraq under the new Prime Minister after two failed attempts is surely a welcome development amidst the pandemic crisis for requisite response of the violence-torn country. The new Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi is said to be a compromised candidate of both US and Iran. It is in the domain of public perception that the new Prime Minister has a unique pragmatic personality with a vision to work with all the players and stake holders in Iraq. He enjoys the US confidence and has earned the Iranian backing with policy vision and future political course of Iraq. Now the question arises that how it is going to affect the Iran-US tensions in the region and the security syndrome in the Gulf?
Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of State welcomed the formation of government in Iraq and congratulated the new Prime Minister. But the most notable part is the extending of 120 days waiver on Iraq to buy electricity from Iran “as a display of our desire to help provide the right conditions for success” said Pompeo in a statement. This is a marked manifestation of an arrangement between Iran and US which can be a part of a larger de-escalation in the Gulf with no sign of Iran falling with the policy of “Maximum Pressure” and Iranian desperation to break the grip of the sanctions and isolation in the face of mounting domestic discontent and pandemic crisis.
Iran’s Quds Force Commander, Ismail Qaani visited Baghdad few days before the nomination of Mustafa al-Kadhimi is the evidence of Iran’s stake and influence in Iraq. The Iranian ambassador to Iraq has held the development as a positive one which the Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif referred as “the right decision at the right time” while welcoming the new Prime Minister of Iraq. This Iranian stand is in contrast with that of Abu Ali al-Askari, the pro-Iranian commander of ‘Khataib Hezbollah militia (Iraq), who referred the candidacy of Mustafa al-Kadhimi as a “declaration of war on the Iraqi people” whom the group accused of involved in the killing of Qasem Soleimani in January, 2020. Then what led to the change and Iranian support for the new Prime Minister?
There is said to be a deal between the two arch enemy Iran and US in which Iran will bend its stand to support the new US-backed Prime Minister in return of the US relief for Iran to avail its frozen assets from European banks to help resuscitate its crippling economy under US sanction and pandemic crisis. In April last, a Luxembourg court ruled against the US request to transfer $1.6 billion Iranian money with Clearstream, a Luxembourg based financial company owned by Deutsche Boerse to the victims of 9/11attack. The Iranian President has hailed it as a victory for Iranian position and said that “we succeeded some days ago and freed this money from the American grasp”. Thus it appears apparent that the US managed to get its man in Iraq and Iran the much needed money at this juncture. This pattern of interaction and engagement between the two hold a prospect for easing tension in the Gulf region.
There is total denial both in Tehran and Washington about such reciprocal arrangement between the two but reports suggest and confirm the pattern. Even the recent US drawdown are said to be the part of the process. The withdrawal of the Patriot missile system and related US personnel which had been placed last year after the attack by Houthi, allegedly backed by the Iranian regime, on oil facilities of Saudi Arabia. The “Maximum Pressure” remains in place despite expected US relent in the face of the global pandemic towards Iran, one of the worst-hit country.
The new Prime Minister of Iraq is said to be close to the Saudi Arabia as well especially the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. But the reports of gradual interactions and engagement of the US with Iran is a strategic push-down for the kingdom already under severe financial squeeze and strain due to oil price crash and pandemic lockdown. The way Patriot anti-missile covers have been removed and there is talk of reduction of US naval presence in the Gulf in the future is not only a strategic loss of Saudi Arabia but also a huge reverse of perception. The growing uncertainty of the US commitment to the security has pushed the kingdom into a realm of strategic and security dilemma. The most suitable option is to reduce the tension in the Gulf with strategic reduction of hostility towards Iran.
Given the pattern and US partnership with Qatar, these may be a signal to the kingdom to bring to an end the blockade of Qatar. The process seems to have started with Kuwait’s mediation mission to Qatar. Besides, three GCC members, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman are the proponents of an inclusive regional security which includes Iran as well. The recent humanitarian supply of medicine and related materials by UAE to the worst-hit Iran has left the kingdom alone and strategically weak in the region. Its growing strategic confluence with Israeli vison in West Asia against Iran is domestically very unsustainable. The Middle East Peace Plan and impending Israel’s plan of annexation of part of West Bank have made this strategic position completely untenable.
The wind is favourable for a possible ease of tension, hostility and conflict in the Gulf. In an election year, President Donald Trump may be looking for a credible foreign policy success to sail through its domestic crisis under the debilitating pandemic consequences in the country. Thus Iraq syndrome has the potential to keep US and Iran engaged with a possible US deal with Iran which the President can capitalise as a success with domestic audience to score over his democratic rival and fulfil his promise of not allowing US blood to shed any more in the far away foreign lands.
In a nutshell, the pattern has the potential of mitigating the sources of rivalry and tension in the Gulf. The pandemic has hit the backbone of the Gulf economies and are in a mood of earliest exit from the crisis. As every crisis holds fresh opportunities, the region may come out of the pandemic in a far better security course and possible regional security structure based on regional cooperation with multilateral support of the external powers.
*Dr Khushnam P N, Independent IR and Regional Security Researcher & Analyst, Bengaluru, India