Where Will U.S.-Iran Tensions Play Out? An Interview with Iraq’s President


The U.S. assassination of Qassem Suleimani, the mastermind of Tehran’s foreign military operations, in Baghdad last week, suddenly made Iraq the front line in tensions between the United States and Iran. Barham Salih, a British-educated Kurd who spent years representing his party in Washington, was elected President of Iraq in 2018.

 Salih has been increasingly concerned about Iraq’s vulnerability since the Trump Administration blamed Iran for an air strike that damaged more than a dozen strategic oil installations in Saudi Arabia, in September. I’ve known Salih for more than a quarter century, including when he was in Washington and later when he became the Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq. We began a conversation in September, at the U.N. General Assembly, about the danger that Iraq will become a war zone—again—only this time between the United States and Iran. I checked in with him again on Sunday to update our conversation.


Iraq has struggled to balance ties with both Washington and Tehran since the U.S. invasion, in 2003. “The United States is our ally. Iran is our neighbor,” Salih told me. The U.S. attack on Suleimani—which was carried out without informing the government in Baghdad—challenged Iraqi sovereignty and triggered unprecedented political fury at the United States within the country. On Sunday, the parliament of Iraq voted to require the government to “end any foreign presence on Iraqi soil and prevent the use of Iraqi airspace, soil and water for any reason” by foreign troops. The United States has more than five thousand troops in Iraq; it leads a multinational coalition that is still fighting ISIS and training the Iraqi military. The vote in the parliament, which has three hundred and twenty-eight seats, was 170–0. It was carried largely by Shiite lawmakers; many Sunnis and Kurds did not vote. The measure will not go into force until signed by Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, but Mahdi drafted its language. And, in any case, he has been only a caretaker of the government since he resigned, in November, after weeks of protests.


Over the weekend, Iran vowed major retaliation for Suleimani’s death, which led the United States to suspend diplomatic and military operations in Iraq. On Sunday, the U.S.-led coalition announced that it was at least temporarily halting operations against ISIS. The U.S. Embassy also suspended consular operations. The State Department urged all Americans to leave Iraq. The interview with Salih about current dangers has been edited for length and clarity.


How worried are you about a conflict—openly or covertly—between Iran and the United States after the death of Qassem Suleimani?


The dynamics are dangerous—and I have to be deeply concerned that Iraq will be embroiled in yet another cycle of conflict. Iraq and its hard-won stability in the aftermath of the war on ISIS could unravel. This would have terrible consequences for Iraq and the region at large. We must do all that is possible to assert restraint and walk back from the brink. When we spoke in September, our focus was economic regeneration, job creation, and governance reforms. Then, in October, protests swept the country demanding reforms, justice, and affirming the sovereignty of Iraq. Now we are talking about the challenge of averting war and conflict. In this context, and out of these dangerous dynamics, Iraq’s sovereignty and stability should become the common interest upon which the regional and international actors agree on a way forward.


What lessons did Iraq learn from its own eight-year war with Iran?


War is devastating. There is absolutely no winner in a war. The human cost has been monumental for Iraq. Certainly, for Iran, too. But, also, the lesson is never start a war because you never know how it ends. And one other important lesson: Iraq should never serve as a gate for others. And Iraq should not fight a war, paid for by Iraqi resources and Iraqi lives, for others.


What specific lessons did you learn about fighting Iran particularly? If you were looking back on it now, thinking about the current crisis in the Gulf, what were the lessons?


The last thing the Middle East needs is a terrible war, especially as the last war, against ISIS, is yet to be definitively over. Starting a war may be the easiest of decisions, but the region cannot afford, cannot tolerate, another conflict. Too much is at stake.


You know that eight-year conflict intimately, and you know what fighting Iran is like. They don’t give up easily.


The Middle East has gone through cycles of violence, has literally not known peace and security for a very, very long time. The onset of the Iraq-Iran War was the end of the regional order in the Middle East. For the last forty years, Iraq has been a main domain of conflicts across the Middle East. Everyone had a proxy to fight this war on Iraqi soil, essentially using Iraqi resources and Iraqi lives. I do not want to see my country embroiled in yet another conflict, and I do not want to see another war undermining the hard-won stability that Iraq has achieved. The success in Iraq is real but very fragile. I fear that it cannot survive another conflict in the Middle East.


Barham Salih, the President of Iraq, addressing the United Nations General Assembly, in New York City, in September, 2019.Photograph by Drew Angerer / Getty


You keep going back to the Iran-Iraq War. What did you learn about the Iranians, though?


I mean, I can tell you that Iran is a major geopolitical actor. Iran is a culture of thousands of years of civilization. If I go back, I would say the following: one can say the Iraq-Iran War marked the collapse of the regional order.


Iraq is at the heart of this region. Iraq’s stability, in my view, is a common interest of its neighbors. They should not be able to afford another destabilization of Iraq. They should not be able to afford another terrorist wave sweeping across the region. Instead, we should be focussed on what is vitally important to our societies: creating job opportunities for our children, reforming our education system, and moving on. And, again, to take things in context, this is the last remaining major region that is broken. The region cannot afford it.


What might a war look like now? Would it be different from the war between Iran and Iraq forty years ago?


I think it would be very different. The scale will be different. The regional implications would be different. Iran is my neighbor. We have fourteen hundred kilometres of borders with Iran. We can’t ignore Iran. I want to remind you that the security of Iraq is vital for the security of the neighborhood. People should not think that they can have another conflict, essentially undermining Iraq’s stability, and think that they can be immune from it. If you don’t respect Iraq’s stability and preserve it and protect it, this regional order will not come about.


Look at the geopolitics of Iraq. This is where, every time, Arabia, for millennia—Persia, Anatolia—collided. From Alexander the Great, this is where the regional order is defined, when the British came in the twentieth century, when the Americans came in the twenty-first century. Iraq-Mesopotamia is important geopolitically. We need to preserve this stability in order to create any regional order. But war is not the way. Saddam Hussein tried it and failed miserably. And we paid dearly for it in Iraq. The neighborhood has paid dearly for it. The Iranians have paid dearly for it.


Iraq’s interests, national interests, is to have very good neighborly relations with Iran. Never again a war with Iran. We do not want to be in a state of conflict with our neighbor, with any of our neighbors.


What if Iran was responsible for the attack on Saudi Arabia in September? What does that tell us about Iran’s intentions?


The Iranians have been very clear to all. If you prevent me from selling my oil and acquiring the revenues needed, I’m not going to let others do it. Sanctions are a dubious tool, to say the least. I’m worried about their consequences for the people of Iran, as a neighbor. They’re my neighbors; I have to be concerned for their well-being.


At the end of the day, we need all the key players to sit at a damn table and really discuss it. . . . Aggression and attacks are not things that I would condone. Military action, from wherever it comes—I would not condone it. Again, we have seen too many conflicts and we have seen too many military interventions that meant nothing but destruction to our neighborhood.


Some Americans want to equate it, as if, when Iran says something, Iraq will say, “Yes, sir.” It’s not. Wallah, it’s not. It’s a bit more complicated. And the Americans should learn from their own history in Iraq, when they were telling the Iraqis to do this and that. Did they do it? No. Is that a fair point? Is that a fair point? People have their minds, and there are realities you can look at.


The best line is that the United States is our ally. Iran is our neighbor.

Robin Wright


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