Why Iran-backed leaders in Iraq will be quietly welcoming Al Sudani's US visit

The are several reasons, chief among which is the Biden administration's willingness to engage with Tehran

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani is scheduled to visit Washington in the middle of April. AFP
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Senior Republican Party leaders have criticised the Biden administration’s decision to host Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani in Washington in the coming weeks.

Leaders such as Senator Tom Cotton have deemed the visit untimely, suggesting that hosting Mr Al Sudani sends a message of appeasement to Iraq’s neighbour Iran at a time when the Biden administration should be squarely behind Israel in its war on Gaza. The White House has clarified that discussions with Mr Al Sudani will cover the US military’s role in Iraq and their shared commitment to defeat ISIS.

The Biden administration fully realises the extent of Iranian influence in Iraq and Tehran’s use of Iraqi militias, as well as militias elsewhere, to strike at American interests in the Middle East. It also understands that Mr Al Sudani is trying to balance Baghdad’s relations with the US, Iran and Turkey.

The recent Moscow terror attack, claimed by ISIS-K, has prompted the Biden administration to emphasise the continuing threat that terror poses in Iraq. US ambassador to Iraq Alina Romanowski said in a statement that the Moscow attack underscores the need for Washington to continue its “military alliance” with Baghdad.

Iraq officially says that ISIS no longer poses a threat to it. But while Iranian-backed factions within the so-called Co-ordination Framework did not initially comment on Ms Romanowski’s statement, some leaders adopted striking and contrasting positions. They departed from the escalation rhetoric, echoing what former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki said about Iraq’s need for continued US intelligence co-operation as well as training and support.

There is speculation that Mr Al Sudani’s visit to Washington will set the context for members of the Framework to press for sanctions relief on Iraqi individuals and banks, in exchange for a truce with US interests in the country.

The recent Moscow terror attack has prompted the Biden administration to emphasise the continuing threat that terror poses in Iraq

Some Republicans have voiced objections to the Biden administration’s willingness to engage with both Iraq and Iran, viewing this as a form of appeasement towards Tehran. They are worried about the implications for Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the Iran-Israel relationship, and the consequences of US rapprochement with Iran amid a notable rift between the Biden administration and the Israeli government.

However, these concerns don’t diminish the seriousness of the threat that ISIS poses.

There are mounting fears particularly regarding the terror group’s technological advancements and its ability to launch cyberattacks. And as organisations such as ISIS-K might attempt to exploit the tragedy in Gaza to reassert themselves on the global stage, they could draw inspiration from the Houthis’ success in disrupting navigation in the Red Sea.

Of course, the Houthis are backed by Iranian technology and intelligence even though Tehran denies playing a role in the Yemeni group’s attacks. This isn’t surprising as ambiguity is a part of the Iranian regime’s strategy, especially as it prefers to maintain channels of communication with the Biden administration.

Tehran, it needs mentioning, would most likely prefer a second term for US President Joe Biden than the return of his predecessor, Donald Trump, next year. With just seven months left before the US presidential election, Tehran is wary of provoking Washington into military action against it or falling into an Israeli trap of provocation, which could lead it into war through Hezbollah in Lebanon.

For now, the regime aims to maintain its influence in Iraq without resorting to overt bargaining, but through implicit understandings. While it claims to prioritise the Palestinian cause in its calculations, it has made it clear that it isn’t prepared to align with Hamas’s agenda. It awaits the outcome of ongoing negotiations mediated by Arab powers with the group, refraining from direct intervention to either support or hinder them. It is also closely monitoring the shifting US-Israeli dynamic.

The Biden administration is focused on ending the Gaza war, particularly as it has become a detrimental factor in its electoral considerations. The Democratic Party’s rank and file is incensed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s open defiance towards Mr Biden as well as his determination to invade Rafah regardless of the human cost. The Gaza war also opens the door for Republicans to accuse Mr Biden of showing weakness against groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis – and, by extension, the Iranian regime.

The possibility of Mr Biden’s first term ending with two open-ended conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine will provide ammunition for Mr Trump’s presidential campaign. Additionally, Mr Netanyahu will not hesitate to crush Hamas and its military infrastructure if the Biden administration fails to provide viable alternatives to his government’s Rafah invasion plan, which is advocated by Israel’s military establishment and enjoys popular support in that country.

As the US presidential election campaigns progresses, the Iranian regime will seek to maintain an air of mystery even as it figures more prominently as a regional actor. Mr Al Sudani’s visit to Washington, and all that the Iraqi Prime Minister’s negotiations with the Biden White House entail, are likely then to shed even greater light on Tehran’s intentions across the region.

Likewise, if the conflict in Gaza escalates, Iran will be in the spotlight. It has, therefore, worked hard to persuade Hezbollah to scale back its military activities, which could invite Israeli retaliations that would not only be costly for Lebanon but also for Hezbollah and Tehran itself.

The resurgence of ISIS is not merely a passing concern. However, the group is not the sole actor currently asserting itself on the international stage and influencing US policies. The Iranian leadership and its various proxies remain significant players, too.

Published: March 31, 2024, 2:00 PM