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enemies in common
diplomacy from iran and west heals political rift in iraq

Haider Najm
Western nations and Iran are at loggerheads. However when it comes to the political crisis in Iraq, they have a common goal. Behind the scenes, foreign diplomats had much to do with solving the recent parliamentary…
15.02.2012  |  Baghdad

Iran and several nations in the west are facing off on various issues. But it seems that the Persian nation and their opponents do have one thing in common: everyone wants to bridge the political rift that has emerged in Iraq, the rift that has been widening ever since Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki approved of an arrest warrant for one of Iraq’s Vice Presidents Tariq al-Hashimi.

This common aim – one shared by Tehran, Ankara, Washington, London and Paris – has led to heated diplomacy. Ambassadors from the various nations have been paying visits to Iraqi leaders – both from inside the government and the opposition parties – since the crisis, which could impact on their own countries too, began at the end of last year.

During the last two months the US ambassador to Iraq, James Jeffrey, his British counterpart, Michael Aron, and French ambassador to Iraq, Denys Gauer, have been meeting with Iraqi leaders. In some cases, they have met with senior Iraqi officials, like Parliament’s Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, more than once.

Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Danaifar, has also met with Ayed Allawi, the head of the Iraqiya list, the main opposition to Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc and also the bloc to which the beleaguered Vice President al-Hashimi belongs. Unlike some of the other high profile meetings, the details of this one were kept private.

Danaifar also met with Jalal al-Talabani, the President of Iraq, a senior Kurdish leader – the politicians of the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan have also been playing something of a mediator role in this crisis. Danaifar also met with senior Shiite Muslim politicians such as Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Ammar al-Hakim, head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

The Turkish ambassador to Baghdad, Younis Demirar, also visited the same individuals.

According to official statements, in all of the meetings between the various ambassadors and the local politicians, the topic of conversation was the political crisis and how tensions could be eased.

“And you cannot rule out the possibility of an implicit agreement between Tehran and the West,” independent Kurdish MP, Mahmoud Othman, who was familiar with what went on inside the meetings, told NIQASH. “An agreement like that would serve the interests of all of the parties involved,” he explained – because those interests in Iraq, and indeed throughout the whole region, have grown.

"Although it’s unplanned, this kind of diplomacy could be seen as a tacit agreement between international and regional players to try to end this political crisis, which,” he added, “has become a battle of insults and offensive statements.”

The situation that evolved after the troubled 2010 elections in Iraq drew similar diplomatic efforts. Then it appeared that Western nations and Iran seemed to agree that al-Maliki should head the new Iraqi government, despite an electoral stalematethat saw his bloc and the opposition Iraqiya bloc end up with an almost equal amount of seats in Parliament.

There is a hidden issue back grounding all the meetings aimed at crisis resolution though and that is economics. Investments made by all of the nations involved will be compromised if Iraqi politics continue to devolve – this is something that neither the involved nations nor the Iraqis really want, or can afford.

“Economic issues were the core of discussions held between the ambassadors and the Iraqi leaders,” an Iraqi diplomat who was called in to translate for a European ambassador at several of the meetings, confirmed to NIQASH. “During three of these meetings, the ambassador expressed his country’s concern about the impact of the political crisis on the conditions in Iraq, and his country’s investments in Iraq. He urged the Iraqi leaders he met with to find a quick solution because of this.”

It’s no secret that some of the countries involved are Iraq’s top trading partners. An oft-quoted report, released in early 2011 by US-based Dunia Frontier Consultants, which specializes in business analysis of emerging markets like Iraq, indicates that the most foreign commercial activity in 2010 came out of Turkey, which invested around US$15 billion. This was followed by France and the USA, with Italy and South Korea also at the top of the list of investors due to several major billion dollar contracts signed by companies from those two countries. Much of the investment by the US is in the oil and gas sector while other countries are also investing in other areas.

As respected British business daily the Financial Times reported late last year: “Turkey, Iran, China, South Korea and Arab states have already invested billions in Iraq, far outpacing their US and UK counterparts in every non-oil sector from transport and telecoms to housing and construction.”

Iran is also a major investor in Iraq – however as the Dunia report suggests, it is more difficult to get accurate statistics on how much trade there is. “The number of reported deals by Iranian firms is totally contrary to what any reasonable observer would expect given the high levels of cross border trade as well as the close political ties between the two countries,” the report notes.

"Political and economic interests are behind the moves made by Western countries\' ambassadors and by the ambassadors from Ankara and Tehran,” Iraqiya bloc MP, Mohammed al-Khalidi, said. “They were especially concerned about Iraq’s oil sector.”

And it seems that those diplomatic efforts eventually bore fruit. After the arrest warrant was issued for their member, al-Hashimi, the Iraqiya list announced plans to boycott the Iraqi parliament. This made the day-to-day business of parliament almost impossible as there were not enough MPs in the house to make any binding decisions. However in late January, the Iraqiya list ended that boycott.

In media statements members of the Iraqiya bloc made it clear that international pressure had had something to do with their return to work. Rumour had it that Turkish interests also played a role in convincing Speaker al-Nujaifi that it was important that the Iraqiya participate in government.

Observers say that the US exerted the biggest diplomatic effort, with Ambassador Jeffrey returning from holiday at the start of the political crisis. Jeffrey met with many Iraqi leaders in both Baghdad and in Iraqi Kurdistan.

"The US played an important role in the return of the Iraqiya MPs and ministers,” MP al-Khalidi confirmed. “It drew Iraqiya’s attention to the fact that boycotting these sessions was not the right way to protest this situation. They told Iraqiya that protesting in this way was a threat to the whole political process in Iraq.”

Al-Khalidi, who attended a number of meetings attended by al-Nujaifi and Western ambassadors, said the tactics used were a combination of advice, cajoling and intimidation. While promising to continue to assist in resolving the various political issues, the various ambassadors also warned of the consequences of the political process collapsing in Iraq and firmly suggested compromise.

According to observers, the US used tactics similar to ones they had utilized previously, when it came to suggesting compromise. That is, threatening to withdraw support from those parties who opposed compromise as well as suggesting that the US influence Kurdish politicians, who hold a balance of power in the Iraqi parliament and who are more closely allied to the Americans.

Al-Khalidi also noted that “the Iranian ambassador expressed more concern over the deterioration of the political process than many Iraqis did themselves. As a neighbouring country Iran would certainly be affected by any ongoing crisis in Iraq.”

So for the time being, with the return of parliament, things appear to be settling down. Observers say there’s no doubt that foreign diplomats helped things return to relative normality. However, whether that state continues, and whether the longer lasting crisis and the general tensions between political stakeholders in Iraq will ever be settled, remains in question.