It has been a month since four oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates were attacked in an operation the UAE last week told the Security Council was a “sophisticated and coordinated operation.” Speaking at a closed session in New York, the UAE stopped short of blaming any particular country, saying only that a “state actor” was behind it – although both Saudi Arabia and the United States have been more overt in linking the attacks to Iran.
The attacks enormously exacerbated tensions in the region, sparked by a decision by Washington to send warships to the Gulf. The tensions were particularly acute for Iraq, which has found itself caught in the middle.
The country has offered itself as a mediator multiple times, most publicly in the Iraqi president’s speech to an emergency Arab summit in Saudi Arabia, and sent delegations to Washington and Tehran to ease tensions. But Iraqi mediation isn’t only a matter of diplomacy. It’s a matter of survival.
Iraq has repeatedly found itself in a precarious position since the 2003 invasion. It was the US and its allies that launched a war against the country but it was also the US that provided money and soldiers to defend the fledgling government. Iraq, a former regional power that under Saddam Hussein found itself at odds with most of its neighbors, now seeks a middle way between Iran and the Gulf states. At the meeting in Saudi Arabia at the end of May, Iraq declined to endorse the final communique that condemned Iran’s interference in the region.
The country’s offer of mediation can be read as an attempt to regain some of its former influence. But it is also purely pragmatic: Iraq’s pivotal position means it cannot set itself at odds with Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey or Syria, with all of whom it shares long, porous borders. This balancing act is also immensely popular with the Iraqi electorate, thousands of whom took to the streets of the capital last month to remind politicians to stay out of regional conflicts. With a new government in place and a country finally free of ISIS and beginning to rebuild, Iraqis are in no mood for a new conflict.
Politically, the country may not be able to survive any such conflict. Coming so soon after a devastating invasion and the destruction of ISIS, a war next door could shatter Iraq’s fragile political consensus, reignite now-dormant sectarianism and even turn the country into a proxy battlefield between the US and Iran.
Iraq’s political path toward a renewed nationalism has not been smooth and the country has only recently turned that corner. Among the Shia community, the aftermath of the 2003 invasion brought a renewed triumphalism that manifested itself in widespread violence against Sunni populations. Sunnis, feeling victimized by the sudden loss of prestige that accompanied the fall of the Saddam regime, too easily welcomed extremists into their midst.
Both had to deal with the aftermath of extremism. It was the Sunni “awakening” of 2007 that finally curbed Al Qaeda in the country, and it was Shia militias that led the fight against ISIS in Mosul.
Politically, too, both groups have had to reckon with the aftermath of Nouri Al Maliki’s sectarian policies as prime minister, something that initially benefited the Shia community but ultimately damaged the whole country. It is the reason why even Muqtada Al Sadr, the powerful Shia cleric who once defied the US, has reinvented himself as a nationalist. In a country like Iraq, where sects are so tightly woven together, sectarianism can be devastating.
A war in Iran could revive those sentiments, marginalizing the voices calling for national unity and exhorting sectarian identity; the majority of Iraqis, after all, are Shia Muslims, as are Iranians.
In such an event, persuading politicians to put national interests first and not take sides would be particularly difficult because of the close links between Shia militias in Iraq and Tehran. Many of the Iran-backed militias that make up the Popular Mobilization Units continue to maintain separate identities, even though they have been nominally absorbed into the main Iraqi army. There is little love lost between them and the US: Harakat Hezbollah Al Nujaba publicly threatened the US last month after it was added to a State Department list of terror organizations.
Yet, its role – and those of other militias in the PMU – would be crucial in any conflict. Any attacks by these militias on the more than 5,000 US troops inside Iraq, or on Iraqi groups whose politics they oppose, could spark off a round of retaliation, as has happened repeatedly in the post-invasion period. In the event of such a conflict, since it would almost certainly not be the policy of the Baghdad government to attack US troops in the country, any failure by politicians to rein in these militia groups would further damage elected leaders. It is easy to see how even a small escalation could snowball with disastrous consequences.
All of which has concentrated minds in Baghdad on quickly de-escalating any US-Iranian tensions. A long war in Iran would almost certainly be more devastating to Iraq than the long Syrian civil war has been, even taking into account the brutal ISIS occupation of major towns and cities.
Having already had one war cross its borders from the west, Iraq can ill-afford a second war blowing in from the east.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.