Abadi’s stance against Iran is no small feat

The significance of Abadi’s defiance is that it reflects a popular undercurrent in Iraq refusing Iran’s hegemony there.

The Iranian regime is not happy with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi — and that’s to the man’s credit.

It is very likely that Abadi’s political future has become contingent on the extent of Iran’s influence in Iraq. His position regarding the US sanctions on Iran argues in his favour even though he belongs to Dawa, an Islamic sectarian political party that can be considered a Shia version of the Muslim Brotherhood.

During the time of his opposition to Saddam Hussein’s regime, Abadi did not live in Iran. This, too, must be added to his credit.

Abadi was brave enough to openly declare that Iraq will abide by the US sanctions against Iran. He had many reservations about the sanctions and called them “tyrannical” and a “strategic blunder.” Still, the man had enough patriotism to safeguard his country’s interests when he announced that Iraq was committed to the sanctions.

Abadi had enough common sense to know that the United States may decide to kiss and make up with Iran tomorrow. There may be another honeymoon between both countries just like in the days preceding the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 or during the eight years of Barack Obama’s administration.

Therefore, is it fair for Iran to have the best relations with the United States and, at the same time, blackmail it daily either in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon or Yemen and deny to Iraq the right to look after its own national interests?

Iraq’s recent past is full of injustices of this type. Former US President George W. Bush delivered Iraq to Iran on a silver platter but it was Obama who completed the operation in 2010. Why should it be that Iran has the right to coordinate everything in Iraq with the Americans and even decide on who should be prime minister while Iraq is denied that right?

Abadi’s position regarding the US sanctions shows that Iraq refuses to completely surrender to Iran. The Iraqi prime minister justified his position in plain words. He said he didn’t want “to place Iraqis in harm’s way” and that Iraq can’t afford to oppose “the international system.”

With years of experience under his belt, Abadi knows the significance of the US sanctions on Iran as well as America’s role internationally. It doesn’t pay to resist the top economic power in the world.

Abadi’s act was no small feat. Tehran reacted to his announcement by scrapping his visit to Iran. When Abadi chose to defy Iran on as a delicate issue as the subject of US sanctions, he must have known that he was embarking on a sink-or-swim battle with the Iranian regime.

To confirm that, look at the aggressive reaction of Mujtaba al-Husseini, representative of Iran’s supreme leader in Iraq. Speaking from Najaf, Husseini accused Abadi of “being subservient to America in its plot against Iran, which is Iraq’s neighbour and shares with the Iraqi people the same religion and the same positions.”

By qualifying the Iraqis and the Iranians as belonging to the same nation, Husseini’s words recall the words of the late Syrian President Hafez Assad when he justified Syria’s control over Lebanon by qualifying the Syrians and Lebanese as being part of “the same nation in two countries.”

Abadi’s position reflects the seriousness of the US sanctions against Iran and the Trump administration’s determination to go very far in implementing them. Surely, the man has his own agenda as he continues to battle for another term as prime minister. Still, the question that will pop up sooner or later is “how will Iran use Iraq to manoeuvre around the US sanctions, which are bound to become harsher in November.”

Obviously, the Iranian regime will do its utmost to put in place in Iraq a pro-Iranian government. This means it will try to get rid of Abadi as soon as possible. If it chooses to do battle with the sanctions, there won’t be many options available to it.

In addition to forming a pro-Iranian government in Iraq, the Iranian regime will push for a pro-Iranian government in Lebanon. This is the only way we can explain the vicious attack on Abadi in Iraq and the stubborn refusal of the option of a “consensus government” with Saad Hariri as prime minister in Lebanon.

In any case, the significance of Abadi’s defiance is that it reflects a popular undercurrent in Iraq refusing Iran’s hegemony there. What is unknown, though, is the US administration’s position with respect to Abadi in particular and Iraq in general. Will it stand by him and push for his reinstatement as prime minister for another term? After all, the man has proven that he was a patriot even though he belongs to the Dawa party.

For the next few months, the US administration is likely to focus much effort on the Iranian situation. I believe that the Americans will keep the offer of a no-holds-barred dialogue with Tehran open as long as possible. Iran, on the other hand, is going to be testing the earnestness of US President Donald Trump and his team. It will try to impress on them that it holds more than one playing card in the region, especially in Iraq where it controls the pro-Iran sectarian militias known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces.

As for Abadi, he is going to be in hot water for quite some time unless the United States decides for once to stand by its allies.

Khairallah Khairallah is a Lebanese writer.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.