Iraq finds its place in the regional system


Global Look Press

In mid-April, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani visited the United States, where he held very intense talks with President Joe Biden and members of his administration. And then, already in Baghdad, he received the head of the Turkish state Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with whom a number of important documents were signed. It seems that these two events help to clarify the «main mystery of the Arab world» — the future of Iraq.

The «Development Road» project proposed by Ankara occupies a central place. This is a new multimodal transportation corridor running from the Iraqi Gulf coast (Grand Faw Port) to Turkey, its Mediterranean and Black Sea ports. It could become an alternative to the Suez Canal and partly to the North-South project (promoted by Russia and Iran), and could complement either China’s OBOR («One Belt, One Road») or the U.S.-backed competing project from India through the Gulf to Europe.

The documents on the «Development Road» were signed during Erdogan’s visit to Baghdad, with signatures not only from Turkey and Iraq, but also from Qatar and the UAE. Thus, the project received real support from the Arabs.

American support is not to be doubted either. And not only because the «Development Road» is connected with the «Indian» route. But also because opportunities are opening up for America to reshape its presence in the region.

Of course, these are new contracts for American companies, which will be paid for by the oil monarchies. It is also another step in line with Trump’s «Middle East deal of the century»: Middle East peace through common business. The logic is obvious: by investing many billions in this project, its participants will have a vested interest in finding compromises among themselves and avoiding conflicts that could destroy the project. And as the project progresses, seeing the opportunity to make money together, more and more participants from the countries of the region will join the project.

And here we need to pay attention to the next important problem. We are talking about the need to change the role of the United States and, accordingly, the transfer of U.S.-Iraqi relations into a new quality. Al-Sudani spoke about this with Biden in Washington: the current security cooperation should be replaced by a strategic partnership in economy, finance, education, etc., not forgetting defense and military-technical field.

This issue was raised by Baghdad at the beginning of the year: the termination of the international coalition’s mission to fight ISIS (a terrorist organization banned in Russia) and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi territory. In fact, it is unlikely to expect a complete withdrawal of the U.S. military and the closure of local U.S. bases. After all, this will entail their withdrawal from Syria (where it is impossible for them to stay without supplies through Iraq). If this happens, the risk of a military clash between Iran and Israel (between which there will be no safety cushion in the form of U.S. bases) will increase dramatically. No one wants such a scenario. However, at the same time, it is obvious that under the new conditions the format of the American military presence in Iraq needs to be changed.

The fact is that the «Development Road» will need to be secured. But it is hard to imagine that the Americans will agree to take this function on their shoulders. It is much more likely that the Turks — the initiators of the project, which gives them the opportunity to extend their power (both economic and military) to the Gulf region, where Turkey has already established itself: it has a military base in Qatar.

Thus, it is logical to imagine that a new coalition with Turkey’s backing, supported by the US, could be formed to ensure security in Iraq. A new partnership between the Gulf Arab states and Europe could become a complement: the first regional security forum between the GCC and the EU has just taken place.

Against this background, a question of fundamental importance remains open: how does Iran view all this? First of all, the postulate of antagonism between Tehran and Washington is self-evident. And secondly, it has become commonplace to say that Baghdad is under the strongest Iranian influence, and the Al-Sudani government is almost the most pro-Iranian in recent years. The combination of these two factors seems enough to completely nullify any prospects for a «Development Road».

There is no doubt that Al-Sudani (and his predecessors as well) are very careful in their relations with Tehran. They simply have no other choice. However, it is not quite correct to say that Baghdad is a puppet in the hands of the Iranians. Rather, it plays the role of an intermediary, which the Iranians trust. We should not forget that it was in Baghdad that Iranian-Saudi contacts began, which ended with the restoration of relations between Tehran and Riyadh

It seems that today Baghdad fulfills similar functions in relations between Iran and the United States, Iran and Turkey. The very strategic partnership about which Al-Sudani and Biden were talking is probably not planned as some kind of anti-Iranian conspiracy: Iraq is certainly not interested in becoming an arena of confrontation between Washington and Tehran. On the contrary, it is much more favorable for it to become a place of interaction between these «irreconcilable antagonists». Some experience is already available: for example, the Americans allowed the Iraqis to start paying debts for Iranian gas supplies. And the movement in this direction will continue.

Thus, Iraq’s place and role in the emerging regional structure is becoming clearer. It is seen as a platform for harmonizing the interests of the leading regional players around the «Development Road» megaproject. The main contours of such a structure look quite logical and solid. However, many things remain outside its framework. For example, the interests and positions of important external parties, such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Israel, are unclear.

But perhaps the most important thing is the sustainability of Iraq itself. After all, no one has so far canceled the «mosaic» nature of Iraqi society: the division into Shiites/Sunnis, Arabs/Kurds, those and others among themselves… Will such a patchwork state be able to withstand the stresses that geopolitical games and geo-economic projects of regional and global powers promise it?