Geopolitics in Iran and Iraq

In this series, the VISIONS blog will post excerpts from the Report on Engaging Sectarian De-Escalation based on the "Proceedings of the Symposium on Islam and Sectarian De-Escalation at the Harvard Kennedy School."

Sistani meeting with Rouhani and Zarif

Moderator: José Antonio Sabadell
Panelists: Heidi E. Lane, Muhamed H. Almaliky, Hassan Ahmadian, Lukman Faily


This panel, entitled Geopolitics in Iran and Iraq examines the evolution of the geopolitical relationship between Iran and Iraq in addition to the nature of the Middle East dialogue between the United States, Iran, and Iraq. Here, panelists question the impact of Iranian and U.S. policy towards Iraq in the context of the burgeoning demand for development, outreach, and democracy in the post-2003 era of governance. The comparative strategies of Iran and United States are analyzed reflecting on Iran’s deft ability to react to rapid developments triggered by the U.S. invasion and ability forge deep alliances with multiple actors, while reflection is provided on the factional and inconsistent nature of Iraqi foreign policy coupled with often misguided U.S. policies in post-2003 war relations. Furthermore, panelists examine the motives underlying Iran’s relationship with Iraq in order to better understand the United States’ role in this nexus given its past intervention in Iraq. Policy recommendations for the trilateral relations between Iran, Iraq, and the United States are also put forward.

José Antonio Sabadell

Allow us to zoom in on Iran and Iraq, which can be considered the “Ground Zero” of modern sectarianism. I have two premises to propose. Until now, we have studied the strategic issues and diverging interests underlying sectarian tensions in the region; that is to say, the rational part of the struggle as distinct from issues predicated on identity and religiosity, which is probably the most analytical way to scrutinize sectarianism. My first proposition is thus that we need to see how these factors interact in terms of state and non-state actors, to understand that this new sectarianism is not an essentialist phenomenon deriving from hundreds of years of history, but rather a result of political decisions and calculations taken in the last fifteen or forty years (from 2003 or 1979), depending on your perspective. My second proposition is that although we are trying to limit ourselves to Iran and Iraq in this session, we must also make reference to the rest of the region and the intersecting conflicts playing out as we speak. This intersectionality is addressed in a recent paper by the International Crisis Group that speaks of the need to address conflicts in the Middle East in clusters and concentric circles, rather than treating individual conflicts in a vacuum, which risks missing what really lies behind them. In any case, this is a very interesting time. We are continuing our project to defeat ISIS, not knowing whether it will be final or the threat will persist as a web-based insurgency. The situation in Syria is still developing in the last days and hours. Then there are the elections in Iraq on the 12th of May, the transformation of Hashd (PMF), and related political movements. There is the new relationship between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and the role that Moqtada al-Sadr can play in Iraqi politics given this new relationship. There is the weakness of the Kurds in the field of Independence, not to mention the situation in Kirkuk.

Heidi Lane

As a government employee, I have to caveat that this is all my own opinion, and I’m not saying anything this morning that is reflective of the views of the Navy or the Department of Defense. I’m going to spend a lot of time discussing my work with the Naval War College, because my interface with the subject of sectarianism has primarily been through the Naval War College. Firstly, let us begin with a few background notes on what the War College actually does, because people mostly react rather poorly to the name “The War College,” which is very understandable. To clarify, it is a Navy institution, and we train U.S. and international officers, and other government agents through a Master’s Degree in Strategic Studies. It is a part of a joint professional military education and emerges from an appreciation particularly characteristic of American military professionals that once you’re a member of the Armed Forces you ought to not stop thinking and writing critically throughout your career. My particular department at the Naval War College is an outgrowth of a problem that arose from not being able to sustain a discourse after the Vietnam War. That is to say, American officers were going through an education system without realizing that they were able to actually talk, speak, or write about Vietnam critically; not only because it was so divisive, but because they had all gone through the experience. And so the institution’s mission now is to specifically address the issues with which people are uncomfortable, stimulating them to write and think on a regular basis. That actually provides a very sound context for talking about sectarianism and the de-escalation of sectarian attitudes, which might prove problematic. Usually, about six hundred people come through the college as people either in their thirties, or early forties, and mid-career. They are not young undergraduates; rather, they have led forces and flown planes, and given the length of our engagement after 9/11 and the Iraq invasion in 2003, almost everybody in the cohort that I deal with was very new to the military when they first came in, meaning all they know is the post-9/11 and post-Operation Iraqi Freedom military. That alters the way we want to engage on the question of sectarianism and the de-escalation of concepts or narratives that are not particularly productive.

I want to contextualize my remarks in three ways. I want to say that there are both inhibitors and openings in this environment. That is, it is not the case that you can’t talk about things. Nor is it the case that these subjects are poorly treated. Rather, there are some predominantly institutional barriers to making this dialogue an enduring and comprehensive one. One of them constitutes time and capacity; when we have our officers come to the War College or whichever agency they are at, they are not there to be experts on Islam nor the Middle East. They are there to pursue whatever job they do in the military, while taking a break from it to obtain a Master’s degree. That limits the exposure I have as Director of the Middle East group there, and it poses for me a certain number of challenges on how I can bring to them what I believe to be the most important issues. I’m certainly not the only person who confronts this quandary in the system of joint professional military education. Time, and exposure to an environment when you’re not driving a ship or flying a plane is extremely tight. Institutional norms present another impediment, and this is something that, as an academic coming into this environment, I did not face until I was a government employee: no one talks about religious affiliation.

As Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi signs the guest book in the Roosevelt Room, President Trump leans over to read the note, Monday, March 20, 2017, at the White House. (Official White House photo by Benjamin Applebaum)

It is fundamentally against the norms of the institution in government service to go about the halls talking about who you are in a religious or political sense. In fact, it is expressly forbidden to go around talking about your political beliefs. This doesn’t mean that you can’t talk about them in private, but that while you’re in your uniform or suit at work, you’re not walking around talking about how much you dislike the latest activities undertaken by the U.S. government or any other actor. This policy makes it automatically an uncomfortable beginning to broaching sectarianism in anybody else’s context. If you’re not talking about your own religious affiliation, then you are by definition not really inclined to jump into the classroom and query about the difference between Shi’a and Sunni attitudes to the schools of law, or the disparity between religiously and politically embedded attitudes in Iran. That this is not a common conversation to have is a notion ingrained in most of the professionals with whom I work, so you have to intersperse this material carefully through curricular content; and this certainly extends to political issues, because if there’s anything true of government service, it is that you are there not to make policy, but to help think it through and then facilitate implementation.

The political imperative is guided by politicians, Congress, and the American people, and then you carry that out as a professional. For me as an academic, it is a little different. The third barrier, or perhaps opening, is the international exposure – and here in my microcosm I’m talking about the roughly sixty countries that come to the War College, typically sending naval officers. We really don’t receive many army officers like my colleague at the National Defense University, Hassan Abbas. We don’t really receive Air Force officers from other countries, just Navy officers. They are, however, very high-ranking Naval officers, and very often when they return to their home countries, within a couple years or more, many of them become Heads of Navies. That is particularly true of our officers from Middle Eastern countries. So, what is the interface there?

The limitation I see in that environment, and have experienced over fifteen years, is that most of our officers come from Middle Eastern countries which have two features. One is that their military in general has not been apolitical. In other words, it sometimes has a very political role in that state’s development, whether it’s through a coup, or perhaps through a certain ideological perspective that is not religious, with Turkey being a good example. They have an identity that is in some way formed on the basis of being either religiously, socially, or politically identified. And they therefore tend to reflect the norms of their institution. They are also very often Sunni countries at the moment – except for some of our Asian counterparts – because most of the Middle Eastern countries with whom we do business in a combined and multinational environment happen to also have a Sunni-dominant leadership at this point. That does not mean that some of our officers are not from Shi’a communities in their own home countries, but it does mean that their institutional environment is perhaps not conducive to going to the United States and claiming as an international officer, “Well I actually don’t reflect any part of my military. I want to talk to you about sectarianism.”

So that is an inhibitor. The plus about that cohort and the mixing in coalition environments is that our domestic and international students are constantly engaging on this issue informally. This is the aspect in which my job has sometimes been very interesting, and sometimes a little tense; that is, in encountering attitudes that someone has been exposed to as an officer from a Gulf country, and bearing witness to their explanation to U.S. officers of Sunni-Shi’a tensions from a very particular context. This is something that has to be untangled before you can access the actual meat of the sectarian issue. Thus institutionally, these are the three structural inhibitors. I also want to propose a couple of points about the way in which geopolitics interact in this environment. Over the past fifteen years, I’ve seen two very distinct trends play out. There was the first from 2007 to about the time that the Joint Agreement – “the Iran Agreement” – was solidified and signed, in what was a very tense time on this issue of sectarianism and Iranian politics. There was a lot of interest on the part of our officers, and there was subsequently a lot of education taking place on the matter. And there are numerous places in U.S. governmental circles, and elsewhere on the outside, where there exist swathes of information going back and forth. However that issue never was something that was disconnected from geopolitics in Iran with the United States and with the wider region.

The second period, which is perhaps even more interesting, and in a way overlaps very much with the period that was certainly bilateral with Iran, even in normative terms, was the period that we term the “Arab Spring.” Because during this time the officers who came from the Middle East were faced with representing their country in the same day that their country was falling apart. This is the experience across the board. Yemeni officers sitting in Newport were watching the breakdown of their militaries. Egyptian officers – one of whom was lecturing with me to some young surface- warfare officers about the Middle East – were here in the midst of the deposition of Mubarak. This places an enormous amount of pressure on these issues of discussion, and it also places a lot of pressure and expectation on these relationships. It can, however, be very good. Yesterday, a couple of people, for example, talked about the Amman message out of Jordan. The good news story here is that attitudes can sometimes travel, borne along by narratives – which some of you here don’t agree with – and pervading even military circles. The good news is that the officers are not like the senior officers of fifteen years ago. There is a new generation, just as there is a youth bulge in the Middle East in civil society, which has transferred into the demographic of the Armed Forces, and rendered them indistinct from the rest of society. I personally have found – for example in the Jordanian military – that in the last few years the officers have become much more willing to discuss very difficult political, social, and religious issues. Thus, the good news is that promising new trends find themselves coalescing with the more hardline kind of concerns you might expect of the military.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Iraqi PM Adel Abdel Mahdi

Muhamed Almaliky

In 1979, two political events bearing the scale of earthquakes occurred. One was the Iranian Revolution with Khomeini’s arrival to Tehran. Then there was Saddam Hussein’s ascension to power in July 1979. The Islamic revolution immediately constituted an existential threat for the Ba’ath regime in Iraq, and Saddam reacted by doing two things. One, he cracked down on the Shi’a political dissidence in Iraq, exemplified by a movement led by the religious scholar Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr, who started a political opposition party in 1959 called Hizb al-Dawa (the Dawa party). This party sought to organize the Shi’a community in Iraq both socially and politically. So, Saddam reacted to the possible collaboration and sympathy between the Shi’a groups of Iraq and Iran by executing Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr in April 1980. Five months later in September, he invaded Iran. I have a personal story to tell about the objective of the war. My brother joined the Iraqi Military Academy in 1978, and graduated in 1980. When he joined the academy, there was no Khomeini, nor was there an Islamic Revolution. Since he did not really have a good GPA in high school, that was the only school for which he could qualify. When he graduated, he was part of the Iraqi special forces, and was among the first units to be sent to Iran. The message from Saddam Hussein was that you’re going to go through Khuzistan and shoot all the way to Tehran, topple the regime, and return in one month.

As we now know, the war actually lasted eight years. It all started by Saddam capturing the Shatt al-Arab, most of Khuzistan, Abadan, and Khorramshahr, and Mehran in the middle, and then other Iranian cities which were weakly defended at that time in light of the Revolution. Every Friday there was a new bombing in Tehran, with Ayatollah Beheshti and Muhammad Ali Rajaee dying. The Iranians were really busy organizing their revolution, which offered a very opportune moment for Saddam to attack and weaken the regime. The Iranians were able to recapture most of the territories by 1982, and then ensued six more years of a war of attrition: the Iraqis would capture some lands, the Iranians would attack and reclaim it, and thus continued the same pattern until 1988, when the war ended. During the war, some of the captured Iraqi soldiers who were very unhappy with Saddam’s waging of the war formed a group in Iran and named themselves al-Tawwabun – the penitents, meaning those people who repented from fighting Iran, and now organized themselves in Iran by forming the Badr Brigade.

Some of its function was really to help the Iranian troops attack Iraq, and they were functioning under a political umbrella that was built by a man named Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim – the son of Seyed Muhsin al-Hakim, the Grand Ayatollah and Marja’ of the 1960s and 70s. Most of his family was executed by Saddam, and as one of the survivors he went to Iran and became an initial member of the Dawa party, before eventually establishing in Iran an umbrella-position party called the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. This party started swiftly expanding and rose to a few thousand members. Fast forward to 2003, when the American forces imposed themselves upon Iraq and toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. The new government were the opposition, so the Islamic Council in Iraq had now splintered and gone to Europe and Syria for some sort of dispute with the Iranian government, and henceforth it all devolved. So the Americans rallied this group together – the same group now – as an assortment of randompolitical groups which came to rule in Iraq from 2003 onwards, along with a remnant of the Sunni opposition and the Iraq-Islam party comprising of the Muslim Brotherhood and some tribal leaders. People came coursing from various parts of the world to form a government.

And that became the reality of our new world political class from 2003 onwards. That fragmentation led to a system we call al-muhasisa – a form of appropriation in which each group would control a portion of the government, receiving in the process a portion of its resources. This is what the political structure came to entail, and continued to be so from 2003 onwards, despite the effort invested in building political institutions. The overall picture is really this sort of fragmentation. As such, Iraqi foreign policy has become an image of the fragmented political picture within Iraq. We don’t have a political consensus inside Iraq, within the actors, and we thus don’t have coherent foreign policy. Iraq does not have foreign policy as much as it has a set of foreign relations; meaning the al-Sadr political group would have different political attitudes towards their neighbors and the world from the al-Maliki group, and Hizb al-Da’wa from the Sunni group and so on. There are different affiliations defined by their own sort of internal political and religious convictions, and by their external support base. Iran, which is the most important foreign policy actor in the region, became more proactive in response to the significant changes in Iraq in 2003. From the Iraqi perspective, the Iranians had four goals. First, they welcomed the change of the regime. Second, they defended the integrity and unity of Iraq. They did not want Iraq to disintegrate and fragment along Sunni-Kurdish-Shi’a fault lines. Third, they really wanted to empower the Shi’a of Iraq. As such, they worked with various parties, organizing and empowering them to maintain the predominance of Shi’a power within the new system in Iraq. Fourth, that somehow worked against the other three, was their hostility towards the U.S. presence. They essentially sought to undermine the U.S. presence in Iraq by working with the central government, or with other particular groups - by financing them, training them, some of which came to be known as militias.

And so, from the Iraqi perspective, Iranian foreign policy towards us entailed somewhat of a dual blessing. At some point, the Iraqis needed the U.S. support to maintain security and help with reconstruction – a goal for which the Iranian policy was a bit counterproductive. However, all other goals were sufficiently in alignment with the U.S. objectives, and they have managed to manipulate certain groups against the other because the focus wasn’t entirely the well-being of the Shi’a of Iraq, but the Iranians acted first to defend their national security interests and what would work for Iran. Even if the Shi’a of Iraq were somehow affected negatively, we are now witnessing a change - especially after Abadi took over. Maliki definitely did not really help the aforementioned cause, so thereby Abadi started reaching out to the Arabs to balance the Iranian effect and trying to bring the Americans back after they were alienated during the Maliki regime. And we might be witnessing an era where the Iraqi foreign policy is becoming a bit more clear and more assertive even though we remain sort of a lonely actor in the region where we don’t sort of typically belong to anywhere: we are Arabs so we belong to the majority Arab world, but we are Shi’as so we are counted alongside Iran. The majority Sunnis are very suspicious of the Shi’a of Iraq and they don’t understand us so there is a lot of work left to do to bridge these gaps.

Hassan Ahmadian

In this presentation, I won’t delve deeply into historical issues but will rather have a general look at Iran’s contemporary policy in Iraq. I’ll then make some specific points on the goals, the vision and finally the challenges facing Iran’s policy in Iraq. My first general thesis is that Iran, as it sees itself, is an isolated country. It is isolated religiously, as a Shi’a majority country. It is isolated linguistically, as a Persian speaking country among an Arabic-dominated region. Only parts of Afghanistan in Tajikistan currently speak Persian. This isolation is historical in Iran’s strategic thinking. Most important, however, is Iran’s strategic isolation, which came to the fore after the Islamic revolution of 1979. Iranians basically believe that the United States and its allies wanted Iran to be isolated strategically. The second perception was that they supposedly wanted Iran to seem like an abnormal country in the region.

There is a debate which I have read about in Western publications on Iran’s policy during the Iraq War. There are many people talking and publishing about the “Shi’a crescent;” but there is another debate in Iran that says they have tried to create a form of “Sunni circle” around Iran so as to isolate it. They basically point to the subversion by Saudi Arabia and the United States; and it is that debate which is missing in Arab and Western media publications. Around 2003, however, something very important happened. Iran discarded part of its strategic isolation policy by toppling the Afghanistan government and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and subsequently the Ba’ath regime in Iraq.

The United States having provided Iran with that opportunity, Iran relinquished much of its strategic isolation in the region. Iraq was and remains one of the most important scenes for Iran to surmount its isolation policy – historically and strategically – and to access a seat on the table with the United States and big powers. One of the first Iran-American debates or dialogues happened over Iraq in Baghdad. There were three rounds of Iran-U.S. discussions. So, Iraq played a key role in that regard. In general, Iran’s strategic outlook towards Iraq is that it has to work with everybody in order to maintain its position there. Iran saw that the Shi’a would be empowered in any case, and so extended a hand to everybody to make sure that Iraq would not be a hostile country towards Iran. So, the strategic calculus was that you have to work with everybody to have your vision crystalized in Iraq, and you don’t need to be a Shi’a to be included in Iran’s outreach, or to be perceived as a potential ally in Iraq. Iran’s establishment of broad Islamic relations has constituted a form of pattern in Iran’s outreach to Iraq.

Nevertheless, Iran’s main allies remain the Shi’a given the fact that they are the ones who go to Iran, who know Iran’s bureaucracy very well, who have leverage and contacts there, and thus have the capacity to do much in Tehran. Indeed, this cooptation of Iranian leverage has been positive. Needless to say, this is a mutually beneficial arrangement, in which Iran benefits from the complaints harbored by the Shi’a of Iraq. Saudi Arabia’s to acknowledge the new status quo following the overthrow of Hussein in Iraq gifted Iran with a mechanism through which they could harmonize the Shi’a of Iraq and legitimate their own political process. Equally, the ISIS advance in Iraq also united the Shi’a, from which Iran benefited immensely. These were unintended but ultimately extremely beneficial consequences from the Saudi and ISIS policy for Iran. So then, how are we to understand Iran’s own policy patterns, separate from how other states have created space for them? Here I argue that Iran’s policies are determined on three basic principles.

Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis

The first, from my understanding, is that Iran does not initiate anything in Iraq, but solely reacts. The second, is that it has coped with the swift developments of the Iraqi situation. The third component is that it only engages in what it does best; that is, working with people who accept its outreach. For example, when the Iraqi political process began in 2003, Iran was not the initiator of the invasion but reacted to it, tried to cope with it, came to terms with the United States and the new set of political elites in Iraq, and also did what it was best at; which is working with the people who basically constituted the opposition in Iran and elsewhere within the world. Similarly, when the United States reacted to ISIS, Iran also came to terms with the reality that the United States was a form of necessary political alliance. Without directly allying themselves to the United States, Iran contributed to the mutual project of defeating ISIS by crucially mobilizing parts of Iraqi PMFs. Another further example is one in which ISIS advanced, at which point Iran basically had three options. The first was to absolve themselves of responsibility for staving off ISIS; a logic which wilted as soon as ISIS approached within fifteen miles of Iran’s border. The second was to intervene militarily, an option which Iran didn’t really like because it required being an occupier in one way or another. The third was to organize Iraqis, the option upon which they eventually settled.

What remains constant, is that the intention of Iran’s intervention was to quell any hostility in Iraq, and perhaps to even find within them an ally. We must therefore differentiate between the inherent vision and value associated with Iraq, and the instrumental means to achieve that inherent end. The inherent end is simply a non-hostile Iraq as the minimum. For Iran, there is much instrumental value attached to Iraq, hence why Iran has taken steps beyond the immediate scope of its inherent vision. There are two challenges facing Iran’s policy in Iraq. The first is that Iran doesn’t really have public diplomacy in Iraq, or in the region in general. Iran’s public diplomacy in the region is a failure, for it has lost its soft power. It is very weak publicly. As a result, there is a huge disparity between Iran’s perception of itself in Iraq and the region at large, and its external perception. Iranians are not particularly engaged in rectifying or dealing with this challenge. The second challenge, which is a huge one, is that Iraqis, in some crucial cases, have been misusing Iran’s name and misappropriating their support; allying with it or working against it for their own internal debates in their own internal politics, elevating some people, bodies, parties or factions and attacking others under the auspices of Iran. That is, Iraq’s internal policy is now embedded in Iran’s policy in Iraq, and that’s a significant impediment for Iran that they ought tackle lest they face a multitude of challenges stemming from this.

Lukman Faily

On the matter of Iranian isolationism: if Iraq is a partner of Iran, which is the ultimate objective, and Iran keeps having diplomatic problems in reaching out to the world writ large, that subsumes Iraq in the same isolationism, which becomes a form of a curse for the Iraqi state. Geopolitically, it is worth noting that Iraq is the Achilles heel of Iran strategically, and has been for a while now. The ideas which transformed Iran primarily came from Iraq. Its ability to sustain its economy is primarily contingent on the Iraqi region, or at least regions proximate to Iraq. Here, I am referring to petroleum and other resources of value to Iran, so Iranian interest in Iraq was strategic pre-1979, and even more so afterwards – given the Shi’a orientation of the state, not to mention the fact that the ground zero of Shi’ism is Iraq. From a Shi’a perspective, the ground zero in Iraq has been Shi’ism for in excess of a thousand years. Najaf has been there for more than a thousand years. That historical dimension means that the interdependencies between the two states’ peoples and religious ideologies are crucial for us to understand.First of all, the most prominent problem regarding the region – which I would suggest that the United States in spite of its large institutions and the might of the Navy, has had particular difficulty with – has been managing the complexity of the region. One of the core problems of the U.S. paradigm has been the proclivity to pigeonhole everything into a neat, “MBA 2*2 Matrix” in an attempt to simplify what is realistically a complicated problem. That comes at the cost of much of the nuance and key characteristics underpinning the tensions. We want de-escalation, but to de-escalate you need to better understand the nuances of the problem, or otherwise not be associated with its resolution. If the United States doesn’t want to be a superpower or monolith, then good luck to them.

US Marine tank in Baghdad after 2003 Iraq War

But if they do want to be, then there exists that prerequisite of analytical rigor. Second – and this is in relation to Iraq – is the attempt to be democratic. The Iraqi people are not necessarily “visionary,” but they have a strong vision of striving towards a form of governance antithetical to the dictatorship of the past. So the embrace of democracy, multilateralism, and coexistence are what they are aspiring towards. Nevertheless, they haven’t had the mentorship for it. The United States wasn’t able to properly establish democracy, even with the formation of the Iraqi constitution and other similar projects. Nor is Iraq in an especially democratic region of the world. They are primarily Shi’a in a primarily Sunni region. To invoke Huntington, he talked about the Iranian viewpoint. He said it resembles the “Brazil and South America” perspective. That is to say, people in South America don’t view Brazil as “normal,” but rather perceive it as different. People in the Middle East still don’t view Iran in that manner. Post-2003, Iraqis were branded by their allegiance to Iran. With all of the legacy associated with Iranian geopolitics, we Iraqis have certainly not played the game particularly well. We have not developed the outreach of democracy, diplomacy, or any other facet necessary for broader integration. I believe Dr. Almaliky was right when he claimed that there is a lack of a foreign policy. Imagine me as an ambassador in Washington, with ISIS bearing upon us, trying to represent the foreign policy where there really is none. These challenges threaten to become intractable.

So why have these issues manifested? Firstly, despite our ambition for a democratic system, we still don’t have the body, nor the efficiency for it. On the one hand, from a geopolitical perspective, I agree with Dr. Ahmadian’s analysis. I would, however, disagree on one point. Iran has tried to be as efficient as possible, and so efficiency has become their key aptitude since they’re not rich enough to sustain anything else. They certainly are lacking in their resources and outreach, which has galvanized them to develop this efficiency. Part of that efficiency has been in striving to maximize the rewards from any mistakes made by conflicting actors. Here they have developed a risk assessment, or risk mitigation, plan. That has become their key theme, so far unparalleled by other actors. There has been talk about Mohammad bin Salman’s deficiencies in enabling understanding and comprehending problems, which the Iranians have maximized from. It’s difficult for me to comprehend that the Iranians were innocent in all of this, but I also know that at the end of the day, if mistakes are made by large bodies such as the United States, others will inevitably take advantage of it. That is a U.S. and not Iranian problem in my view. When I analyze the geopolitics of the region, there are certain expectations of Iraq, particularly in the light of their impending elections.

From a geopolitical perspective, there are four or five objectives which the Iraqi government needs to focus on. The first is for it to get its act together in relation the Baghdad-KRG (the Kurdish Regional Government) relationship. That is very important to the geopolitics of the region, in that it involves Turkey, Iran, United States, and other powerful actors. So that is one key obligation incumbent upon the next government. Secondly, we must resist corruption to fully be able to engage in the de-escalation perspective. And the corruption in Iraq is the deep state; it has nothing to do with Shi’ism, nor does it have anything to do with Iranian control. The deep state in Iraq is ridden with corruption. It has its own dynamics, perpetuating a form of corruption which extends beyond embezzlement and implicates the entire society; that is, in its failure to establish the right moral values and virtues, and to sustain itself and become a point of pride rather than our shameful status quo.

Thirdly, the problem of minority groups must be addressed, and diversity accommodated for. One of the key themes which I think is worth highlighting, is that the promotion of democracy and other methods for coexistence ought be at the center of the push for the de-escalation of the region. For us Iraqis, we need to still focus on that and continue to pursue understanding of it. Fourthly, in relation to our economic development from being a former rentier economy, is the matter of oil production. The hazard posed by the PMFs or militias remains problematic, because we still feel insecure and feel that we cannot completely depend on anyone. We cannot depend on the United States to back us up, because they didn’t when we needed them, primarily in summer of 2014. Nor did Iran. There’s a hefty price tag associated with any support we receive from the Iranians geopolitically as well as economically, which constitutes another aspect of it. So we, as Iraqis, still feel isolated; still feel like we do not have our act together; and yet we have this expansive vision for democracy and everything else. We still don’t know what it takes to be democratic.

The bigger, unnecessary legacy, however, is that of Saddam Hussein’s which entailed two decades of militarization, a culture of war, and other pernicious impacts from everybody else involved. We still have to pay five or six billion dollars of standing debt to Kuwait, not to mention the other debts formed in the wake of Saddam’s egregious mistakes. We still have not, ironically, established an agreement with Iran in relation to the borders – an issue which has remained unresolved since 1975, despite everybody’s speculation that we are still in the pocket of Iran. This lethargy indicates to you that there’s a big problem. Importantly, Iraq will remain a ground zero more than just for Iran because of its diversity and position as a gateway to Iran, to the region, and to the globe in some ways. I recently encountered an American diplomat and queried when we talked about Iraq about whether Iraq had become a “Checkpoint Charlie.” His response was a firm yes. Checkpoint Charlie refers to the East-Berlin, West-Berlin key points of contention in relation to the Cold War; as with North Korea’s 38th parallel. So Iraq is a Checkpoint Charlie, and will continue carrying on as a Checkpoint Charlie where everybody changes their spies, and everything else associated with Checkpoint Charlie continues to stay there for posterity.

That’s a big problem for us, in that we need to have the body, the mind, the institutions, and the societal cohesiveness to be able to deal with such an important expectation incumbent on us, albeit one dictated by our geography. We cannot run away from this fact. Iraqis want to be the Switzerland of the region. Unfortunately, we don’t produce chocolates, nor watches, and we are most certainly not a cool enough environment to be the Switzerland of the region. Even so, those are the expectations of the Iraqis. It’s important for us to understand the exigences imposed upon us in virtue of being a “ground zero.” My final point refers to the high hopes of the populace for the election. It still will not be transformative enough to fulfill the aspirations of the Iraqis. But is it in the right direction? Yes. Does it also require a lot of mentoring? Yes. In that way, the United States needs to have a more comprehensive view of Iraq and not simply view us as a pawn of the next Cold War battle against the Iranians. Unfortunately, that’s our ultimate sphere, in that we are devolving more into something resembling a Cold War – which is problematic, given how Washington dichotomized between sympathizers of the Soviets and people of the Free World at the height of the Cold War. The Iraqis do not want to be reduced to such a binary.

Biographies (as of April 2018)

José Antonio Sabadell has been a Spanish diplomat since 1993. He served as Ambassador and Head of the European Union Delegation to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania until August 2017. Prior to this post, he was Head of Division North Africa, Deputy Chief of Staff at the Cabinet of the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation and Technical Counsellor in the area of Arms Control. He has served in a number of other capacities including in Afghanistan, OSCE (in charge of politico-military affairs), Guatemala, Ecuador and Riyadh. Sabadell attained both his Bachelor’s Degree in Law and his Certificate for Legal Business Advising from Universidad Pontificia Comillas (ICADE) in June, 1991. He completed his Certificate of Advanced Studies on Political Science and Sociology in the Department of Social History and History of Political Thought from Universidad Nacional de Educacion a Distancia in November, 2002, with a paper on the Political Control of Military Actions. His current research focuses on Islamic Extremism, in particular the perception of the West by radical Islamic groups. He is also following issues related to Security, the Sahel and Migration. Follow him @jose_sabadell.

Dr. Heidi E. Lane is Associate Professor of Strategy and Policy and Director of the Greater Middle East Research Study Group at the Naval War College. She specializes in Comparative Politics and International Relations of the Middle East with a focus on security sector development, ethnic and religious nationalism, and rule of law in transitioning societies. Her co-edited book Building Rule of Law in the Arab World and Beyond was published in 2016. She holds an M.A and Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from the Center for Near Eastern Studies, University of California, Los Angeles and a B.A. from the University of Chicago and is trained in Arabic, Hebrew, and Persian and is proficient in German.

Dr. Hassan Ahmadian is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Iran Project, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Dr. Ahmadian is an Assistant Professor of Middle East and North Africa studies at the University of Tehran, and is also a Middle East security and politics fellow at the Center for Strategic Research, Tehran. He received his PhD in Area Studies from the University of Tehran. His research and teaching work is mainly focused on Iran’s foreign policy and relations, political change, civil-military relations and Islamist movements in the Middle East. His research and analyses have appeared in peer-reviewed journals as well as prestigious Persian, English and Arabic outlets. Follow him @hasanahmadian.

Dr. Muhamed H. Almaliky is Associate of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University and practicing physician in cardiology at the University of Pennsylvania Health System in Philadelphia. While at the Weatherhead, he researches post-2003 Iraq’s democratization: elections, political party formation, constitutional processes security, as well as Iraq’s foreign policy. He holds an MD degree from Basra University, Iraq; post-graduate medical training at Temple University, Philadelphia, in addition to MPH and MPA from Harvard University. Follow him @muhamed_maliky,

Lukman Faily served as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Iraq to the United States from 2013- 2016. In that capacity, he was a high-profile spokesperson for his government, engaging with members of Congress, academia and think tank communities. Ambassador Faily makes regular appearances on TV and radio news and is particularly active on social media. He frequently speaks at public events in Washington and across the United States and United Kingdom. He served previously as Iraq’s ambassador to Japan for three years @FailyLukman.