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What does the Iran nuclear deal mean for Iraq? By: Mohammad Ali Musawi *

Dubbed as “historic” and “a game-changer”, the Iranian nuclear deal has prompted a wide range of reactions around the world, with increased speculation about what it could mean for the conflict-ridden Middle East.

Perhaps nowhere is the speculation more rife than in Iran’s western neighbour, Iraq, where Iranian influence has steadily grown since the US-led invasion in 2003, and where Iran has become an important ally and partner on multiple fronts, most importantly in the war against the Islamic State group.

Iraq played a leading role in laying the groundwork for Iran’s deal with the world powers. In 2007 it hosted the first high-level face-to-face meeting between US and Iranian diplomats in 30 years; it later hosted a round of nuclear talks in 2013.

Iraqi Finance Minister Hoshiyar Zebari, formerly the foreign minister, told Reuters: “We have a vested interest in this deal because we believe it will reduce tensions. Basically, we don’t want Iraq to be a score-settling ground between the United States and Iran.” Zebari also revealed that Iraq had pushed for the accord and relayed messages between Tehran, New York and Washington.

Luay Al-Khatteeb, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre, told al-Araby al-Jadeed: “The Iran deal is way beyond the nuclear issue. It’s about everything else in the region that matters more than the nuclear portfolio.”

The fight against IS

Currently, what matters most in Iraq is the fight against IS, which for the past year has been hampered by regional and international disagreements that have led to delays in arming Iraqi forces and the periodic suspension of military operations. Those disagreements have largely revolved around the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs), a force drawn largely from the majority Shia community, and formed in the aftermath of the fall of Mosul in June 2014. It is seen as pro-Iranian in an environment charged with sectarian tension.

Despite the PMUs proving more effective than the Iraqi army in countering the IS advance, the US refused to deliver arms purchased by Iraq in the fear that they would end up in the hands of the “pro-Iranian” PMUs instead of the army.

But it seems that, as the Iranian nuclear accord came closer to completion, and the threat of IS grew ever stronger, the PMUs gained additional legitimacy, allowing the Iraqi government to call on them more freely.

“In the 24 hours prior to the announcement of the nuclear deal, while the negotiating parties were finalising the fine points, the Anbar operation was launched and F16 fighters were released to Iraq [by the US] after a year of delay,” said Khatteeb.

With the joint support of the US and Iran – who have finally begun to see eye-to-eye, although they are still a long way from coordinating on the battlefield – Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi can now utilise the PMUs to their full fighting potential.

This is especially important in a context where the army has been seen to suffer deep structural problems that have decreased its effectiveness. “Iraq does not have an army underpinned by military doctrine, and you cannot run security forces when their loyalties are in question,” said Khatteeb.

“While the PMUs are mostly composed of Shias, they are diverse enough to have incorporated at least 20,000 Sunni Arab tribesmen, as well as Christian and Yazidi fighters, whose loyalties are unquestionably to Iraq.”

Regional fears

Saudi Arabia is the regional power most concerned about the implications of the Iranian nuclear deal. It fears the deal will boost the position of its arch-rival, and embolden Shia populations across the region, including the sizeable Saudi Shia community. As such, the Saudis view Iraq’s Shias as an extension of Iranian influence, and have therefore dealt with them with a high degree of suspicion.

Conversely, given the lack of support from their Arab neighbours, many Iraqi Shias feel that they have been pushed into the arms of Iran in order to find solutions to their country’s many problems, especially in fighting IS.

However, the Iran deal is being seen as an opportunity for a new beginning, with the regional balances being redrawn. “This is an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to embrace the Arabs of Iraq, regardless of their cultural or religious background – although it comes twelve years too late,” commented Khatteeb. “Failure to do so will leave the Iraqis reliant on Iran, which doesn’t need to do any extra work to win them over. If Saudi misses this opportunity, it will not only lose more cash and military power but also incite more negative sentiments towards its legitimacy in the region.”

He concluded: “This is an opportunity for all GCC countries to team up with the Iraqi government to fight terrorism, otherwise the spillover is inevitable. Iraq is the GCC’s last line of defence against IS.”


(*)Mohammad Ali Musawi is a writer and translator based in New Mexico, USA. He has worked as a Middle East researcher for a number of political and academic organisations in the UK, prior to joining al-Araby al-Jadeed

Source: Al-Arabi al-jadid, Date of publication: 16 July, 2015


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