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Editor’s Note: When President Biden visits the Middle East from July 13 through July 16, Iran will be high on his priority list. Iraq is one important regional country that is not in the anti-Iran camp, even as it tries to maintain cordial relations with the United States and its Sunni Arab allies. My Georgetown colleague Katherine Harvey explains the Iraqi debate over Iran and why the regional confrontation with Tehran is so potentially risky for its Iraqi neighbor.
As President Biden prepares for his first presidential visit to the Middle East later this week, with stops in Israel and Saudi Arabia, speculation is rife that his administration is seeking to push the kingdom to join the Abraham Accords. Former President Trump’s signature Middle East initiative saw the normalization of relations between Israel and four Arab states: the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan. The Biden administration, in its first year, aimed to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, from which Trump withdrew in 2018, but with those efforts stalled, Biden is under increasing pressure to shift focus to expanding the Abraham Accords. Such a move would signal that Biden’s goal is now to build a regional coalition of U.S. allies to contain Iran. His trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as his slip to reporters last month that its purpose relates to security, suggest that this is now his intention.
While Saudi Arabia may take steps toward joining the accords, another Arab state, Iraq, recently made a move in the opposite direction. In late May, the Iraqi parliament passed a law criminalizing—by penalty of life imprisonment or death—interaction with Israel and any step that promotes normalization. The new law broadens a similar, preexisting one from 1969. The U.S. State Department denounced the new law, emphasizing that it “jeopardiz[es] freedom of expression and promot[es] an environment of antisemitism.” There is indeed no doubt that the new law is extreme and does much to demonize Israel. Yet the best way to understand it is as a response to efforts to expand the Abraham Accords—and as an Iraqi refusal to be part of an anti-Iran alliance.
The political bloc led by Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric-cum-politician, introduced the law in April, and it easily won approval in the Iraqi parliament. The Sadrists were the most winning bloc in Iraq’s October 2021 parliamentary elections. They looked set to form the next government, with Kurdish and Sunni Arab allies, but after months of prolonged stalemate, Sadr ordered the members of his bloc to resign their seats in June. Iraq’s political landscape is still adjusting to the Sadrists’ unexpected parliamentary withdrawal, and the implications for the government formation process remain unclear.
Sadr is an Iraqi nationalist who has had a complicated relationship with the United States. He spearheaded a Shiite insurgency against U.S. forces in Iraq after the 2003 invasion but indicated a willingness to cooperate with Washington after his recent electoral victory. Nevertheless, last October he demanded that the United States respect Iraqi sovereignty and stated his intention to remove Iraq completely from what he called the United States’ “regional conflicts.”
Sadr has also had a complicated relationship with Iran. He has openly criticized Iran’s interference in Iraq but has also at times worked with Tehran. The truth is that the Iraqi Shiites, in general, have a complicated relationship with their neighbor. Most Shiite political parties have long-standing connections to Iran, especially as many Shiite leaders spent considerable time there in exile during the Saddam Hussein years. Yet these same leaders frequently chafe at the pressure Iran applies to them, recognizing that Tehran pursues its own national interests, not theirs. Moreover, deep socio-religious connections exist between the two countries on a popular level. Millions of Iranian pilgrims visit the Shiite shrines in Iraq each year, and many Iraqis visit the shrines in Iran—reportedly as many as 30,000 Iraqi pilgrims traveled to Iran in October 2021 alone. Nevertheless, during Iraq’s protest movement in fall 2019, Iraqi protesters, chanting “Iran out of Iraq,” set fire to Iranian consulates in the shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala. Last October, Fatah, the Shiite political party composed of militia groups closest to Iran, fared poorly in the parliamentary elections, regarded as a reflection of most Iraqis’ dissatisfaction with Iranian interference in their country.
In short, while most Iraqi Shiites want to preserve a substantial degree of autonomy from Iran, it is not plausible, given the cultural, religious, and personal connections between the two countries, that a Shiite-led Iraq would turn its back on its neighbor.
Similarly, it has never been realistic that Sadr, despite his open criticism of Iran, would join a U.S.-led regional bloc against it. This spring, Sadrist lawmakers indicated that they felt compelled to clarify their stance on the Abraham Accords, given the ambiguous positions of their then-parliamentary allies—the Kurdish Democratic Party has historically maintained a relationship with Israel, while Sunni Arab Speaker of Parliament Mohammed al-Halbousi has ties to the UAE, the Arab country at the forefront of the accords. The Sadrists’ desire to distance Iraq from any U.S. confrontation with Iran was probably all the greater after Iraq came into the crosshairs in the ongoing Israel-Iran shadow war earlier this year. In March, Iran launched a strike on Iraqi Kurdistan in retaliation for an alleged Israeli strike, launched from Kurdistan, on a drone base in Iran.
There is additional context to explain why Sadr spearheaded the anti-normalization law this spring.
Last fall, Iraq went through a strange crisis related to the Abraham Accords. In September, the Center for Peace Communications, a New York-based organization that promotes Arab-Israeli dialogue, hosted a conference in Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, at which some 300 Iraqi attendees, including both Sunni and Shiite Arabs, called for Iraq to make peace with Israel. Sheikh Wissam al-Hardan, a tribal figure from Anbar province, headlined the conference. Hardan leads the Awakening Council, a tribal organization of mostly Sunni members, and many of his followers were also in attendance. Hardan made a statement in support of normalization at the conference, and an opinion piece under his name, calling for Iraq to join the Abraham Accords, appeared in the Wall Street Journal that same day. Statements were also made by Amer al-Juburi, a former Iraqi army general, and Sahar al-Ta’i, an employee of the Ministry of Culture who has since been fired. The conference received considerable attention in Washington and Israel. Then-Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett even issued a response, saying that “Israel extends its hand back in peace.”
The Erbil Conference turned into a snafu. Most Iraqis, particularly Arab Iraqis, profess support for the Palestinian cause, and there is little ostensible support for normalization. The conference was immediately denounced by virtually the entire Iraqi political spectrum: President Barham Salih, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Speaker Halbousi, as well as Sadr and others. An Iraqi court issued an arrest warrant based on the 1969 anti-normalization law for Hardan and Ta’i, as well as another Iraqi, Mithal al-Alusi, thought to be in attendance.
Facing arrest, Hardan recanted his participation and alleged he had been tricked into attending. More recently, he explained his side of the story to the Arabic newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi. Hardan claims he made a deal with somebody in the Iraqi government: Awakening members would receive four years of back pay if he attended the conference. He alleges he was told the conference aimed to promote religious reconciliation, not normalization with Israel. He says he was supplied with the statement he delivered at the conference, and that he did not read it closely before delivering it. In this interview and others this spring, Hardan has been at pains to express his support of the Palestinians in the face of what he calls the “Zionist occupation.”
However Hardan came to attend the conference, what is even stranger is the criminal history of the event’s organizer, Joseph Braude, the director of the Center for Peace Communications and an American of Iraqi Jewish descent. At New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport in June 2003, Braude was discovered to be in possession of 4,000-year-old Iraqi antiquities, stolen from the Iraqi National Museum. He pleaded guilty in U.S. federal court on smuggling charges a year later. An Iraqi acquaintance told me that many Iraqis consider Braude persona non grata.
The Erbil Conference never appeared to have much chance of success, and why it took place is not exactly clear. At least some Iraqis speculated—rightly or wrongly—that it constituted an attempt by the United States, Israel, and the UAE to pull Iraq into the Abraham Accords. Whatever the case, within hours of the conference, one Iraqi Shiite politician, Izzat al-Shabandar, called on parliament to enact a law to criminalize normalization. Eight months later, that’s what happened.
Iraq, given Shiite Iraqis’ ties to Iran and Arab Iraqis’ general affinity for the Palestinian cause, already seemed like an unlikely contender to join the Abraham Accords. The brouhaha over the Erbil Conference compelled Shiite leaders in particular to make their position on the accords clear.
Yet Iraq finds itself in a region where the accords, with U.S. backing, are gaining momentum. For the past year, Iraq has benefited from the regional détente with Iran. All of Iraq’s recent prime ministers—Haider al-Abadi, Adel Abdul Mahdi, and the current prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi—have signaled a desire for positive relationships with both Iran and their Arab neighbors, as well as the United States. Many Iraqis would like their country to serve as a bridge bringing the two sides together, as Kadhimi has tried to do, overseeing the Saudi-Iran dialogue of the past 15 months. Many Iraqis believe this is good not only for the region but also for Iraq, because it helps prevent a resurgence of sectarian tensions in their country.
Nevertheless, the Biden administration, having been unable to reach an agreement with Iran to restore the nuclear deal, appears poised to adopt a more confrontational policy toward Iran, possibly spelling the end of the brief period of détente between Tehran and its Arab rivals. In this case, Iraq would be left in a difficult position. Shiite parties have demonstrated that they will not join an anti-Iran coalition. Most of them, regardless of their ties to Iran, still desire positive relationships with their Arab neighbors and believe that their country has a rightful place in the Arab fold. But if a new regional polarization forces them to pick a side, between a U.S.-led regional coalition and Iran, it is hard to see how they would not align with the latter. In this scenario, Iraq’s Kurdish and Sunni Arab parties might defer to Iraq’s Shiite majority, as they essentially did with the anti-normalization law, or, perhaps more likely, they might find themselves increasingly at odds with the Shiites.
As he heads to the Middle East, Biden faces a dilemma: He originally wanted to reenter the Iran nuclear deal, but the much-diminished expectations surrounding that option are now pushing him toward containment. That path clearly has support in many quarters in Washington, as well as Saudi Arabia and, particularly, Israel. But a return to containment risks pulling Iraq’s communities in opposite directions. That could have terrible consequences for Iraq’s stability—and a destabilized Iraq bodes ill for the region. Biden, and the proponents of the Abraham Accords, would do well to keep this in mind.
Update: Joseph Braude has communicated with Lawfare, raising a number of objections to Dr. Harvey’s essay. In particular, he contends that there is considerable indigenous support in Iraq for peace with Israel, that the Erbil conference was an important step forward for normalization, and that there is substantial evidence that Sheikh Wisam al-Hardan explicitly supported normalization. Braude also notes in response to allegations against him personally in the piece that the U.S. government case against him was highly politicized, that the judge at his trial noted Braude’s history of “cooperating with law enforcement agencies in terrorist investigations,” and that the judge declined to issue a prison sentence despite what the statute would require.