Iran-Iraq agreement about more than borders
Iran warns Iraq of US ‘hard work’
Ali Shamkhanisecretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), continued his diplomatic upsurge in recent weeks, signing a border security agreement in Baghdad on March 19.
The memorandum of understanding commits Iraq to deal with Iranian Kurdish opposition groups that operate from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. It is a message to Baghdad, but also to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Iran has accused Iranian Kurdish armed groups of coordinating with Israel and launching attacks against Iran from Iraqi territory to support protests after Iran’s death. Mahsa Aminia young Iranian-Kurdish woman who died in the custody of the morality police in September 2022.
Iran has repeatedly launched missile and drone attacks on Iraqi Kurdish sites, which it says have been used by Israel and anti-Iranian-Kurdish armed groups.
Prime Minister of Iraq Mohammed Shia in Sudan again committed to Iraq not being used as a “launch pad” for attacks on its neighbour. In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor, the President of the Kurdistan Democratic Party Masoud Barzani he called any suggestion that the KRG was involved in attacks on Iran “baseless” adding that “Iran is a neighbour…we are not part of the whistleblowers or settling scores [with Iran].”
Iraq has stationed an additional 6,000 troops along its borders in Iran and Turkey this year to try to ease the concerns of its neighbors. Iraq also signed a border agreement with Saudi Arabia this month.
Shamkhani made it clear that Baghdad and Erbil were, in a way, on notice, saying that the interests of Iran and Iraq “must be sacrificed for the misfortune of America and its terrorist mercenaries,” as reported by Amwaj.
Shamkhani is one of two personal representatives of the President Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the SNSC. He was also involved in the rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia made by China and he visited the United Arab Emirates before arriving in Baghdad.
Iraq is Iran’s top national security priority and Tehran has never had it better in Iraq. The ruling political alliance in Iraq, the Coordination Framework (CF), includes all the main Shiite parties aligned with Iran, as well as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which also goes east.
There is both calm and unrest in Iraq, ultimately because of Iran. The quiet is a relief for the Iraqis. Security has improved throughout the country under Sudan, EDS supports the US military training and support mission in Iraq. Iranian-backed militias are not targeting the Americans in Iraq, as they are in Syria (see below). Sudan maintained trust and goodwill with Erbil regarding a draft budget law and in quiet talks towards an oil agreement.
The unrest is also about Iran. A case in point is the negotiations for a potentially $27 billion oil deal between Iraq and Washington-backed TotalEnergies, which is still mired in negotiations over terms. Total Chief Executive Patrick Pouyanne said this week, “If we don’t get it, to be honest, I can’t put a company at risk of a combination of risks. Iraq is not the easiest place to invest with all the risks.”
Simply put, any major deal with a Western oil company in Iraq is unlikely to happen without a nod from Tehran. Washington is also urging its Arab Gulf partners to invest in Iraq, but progress has been slow so far, a wait-and-see approach, on what will ultimately be business terms, and the level risk, because of the interests and influence of the neighbor.
Iran settles regional accounts amid nuclear uncertainty, Syrian escalation
Iran is seeking to settle regional accounts amid uncertainty over the fate of Iran’s nuclear talks, and increased discussion of military options by the United States and Israel if diplomacy breaks down and Iran continues to increase uranium enrichment.
Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmanknown as MBS, has also charted a more independent diplomatic posture in the region, complementing Iran’s own initiatives.
Less tension in the region allows Iran to focus on matters at home, and on strategy towards the United States, Israel and the West regarding its nuclear program.
Iran’s regional policies these days are about containment and security on its side. The deal with Saudi Arabia reduces tension in the Gulf; Iraq, in the west, is considered a safe space; Hezbollah, in Lebanon, has refrained from escalating border tensions with Israel, and Iran signed the Israel-Lebanon maritime border agreement last year, allowing offshore gas exploration; and in the West Bank and Gaza, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both backed by Iran, have so far avoided escalating violence recently between Israeli security forces and Palestinian resistance groups.
Iran’s tendency towards diplomacy and restraint is a sign of the times, which means it is vulnerable and could change quickly with events, as we see this week in Syria.
Saudi Arabia and Syria are said to be close to re-establishing diplomatic ties, thanks to Russian intervention. So far Iran has publicly blessed an Arab rapprochement with Syria, a key regional ally. This trend could be bitter for Tehran which, together with Russia, has been the lock on Syria since even before the Syrian uprising in 2011. Not to mention that the reintegration of Syrian Arabs is being sold in the region and in the West as a means of influence against Iran in Syria.
“The Assad regime’s pumping of aid money into shaky Syria is a reminder that cash-strapped Iran can do little in that regard,” writes Gilles Kepel. “Bringing Syria back into the Arab fold is a way to weaken Iran’s ‘Shia Crescent policy’, which stretches from Tehran to Beirut via Baghdad and Damascus.”
On Thursday, US military airstrikes struck Iranian forces in Syria after a US contractor was killed by a drone attack in Syria, with five US service members and another US contractor injured, as Adam Lucente reports. The Pentagon reported another drone attack on coalition forces today. Israel also struck Iranian targets near Aleppo airport this week. Palestinian Islamic Jihad blamed Israel for killing a PIJ commander stationed in Syria last week, as Beatrice Farhat reports.
The escalation in Syria comes as the United States and Israel increase talk of military options if nuclear diplomacy fails.
US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, Testifying before the House Appropriations Committee last week, said that Iran could produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon in less than two weeks, and that it would take several more months to develop a nuclear weapon, and referred to “multiple” military options if Iran continues on this path.
Israeli officials are raising warnings that Iran’s continued enrichment of over 60% could trigger a military strike.
Diplomacy may have a pulse, however weak. Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Ali Baqeri-Kani they met with political leaders from the E3 (Britain, France and Germany) for a so-called “brainstorming” session on the next steps in the nuclear talks, according to Amwaj.
Talks between Iraq and Turkey focus on oil and water
President of Turkey Tayyip Erdogan was accepted It agreed last week to increase the flow of water from the Tigris River into Iraq, a “softening compromise” on an issue of vital importance to Iraq, as Ezgi Akin reports.
Sudan, which met Erdogan on a state visit to Ankara last week, expressed its gratitude for the gesture, albeit a small step towards a more comprehensive solution to Iraq’s water crisis.
Iraq’s prime minister now has an oil card when dealing with Turkey. On Friday, the International Court of Arbitration of the International Chamber of Commerce in Paris ruled in favor of Iraq in a dispute with Turkey regarding the export of Iraqi Kurdish oil resources through Turkey. With the decision, Baghdad must now approve exports from the region through Turkey. Turkey has said it will abide by the court’s decision, which could also affect Baghdad and Ankara’s dealings with the KRG regarding oil exports from the region.
Erdogan appeared unmoved by Sudan’s appeal to respect Iraq’s sovereignty and withdraw its outposts from Iraq and cease cross-border operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the United States considers the Turkey and other Western countries that it is a terrorist organization.
“Our expectation from our brothers in Iraq is to recognize the PKK as a terrorist organization and clear these terrorists from their land,” Erdogan said.