Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, is a diplomat who is savvy and accustomed to donning kid gloves to tempt those he deals with. This has been to his advantage, allowing him to achieve or obtain what he wants on most occasions, especially in negotiations and dialogue with friends and opponents alike. For this he is favoured by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has backed him in response to attacks from his rivals within the regime who sought to remove him from his position. However, Khamenei’s support has made Zarif proud, according to some who are close to him and describe him as the “Tariq Aziz of Iran”, a reference to his similarities with the late Iraqi Foreign Minister.
However, Zarif’s latest visit to Baghdad was not a success. He returned empty handed, as Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi did not like what he had to offer and viewed the situation very differently. The point in question was about asking Baghdad to work towards removing the Americans from the country, to which Al-Kadhimi replied that Iraq has its own view on this issue, which he will present in his upcoming talks with Washington, and that he refuses to accept any interference in Iraq’s internal affairs. In other words, Al-Kadhimi wanted Tehran to know that its control and influence over Iraqi decision-making has diminished, and that Baghdad wants a “US presence” in a form agreed upon with Washington. Iraq regards such a presence as an embodiment of the balance to which it aspires in its relationships with the US and Iran.
Moreover, Zarif was not happy with Al-Kadhimi’s statement during their meeting about seeking to create multiple economic partnerships and an openness to all parties in order to diversify investment opportunities in his country. This was a diplomatic response to Tehran’s demand that it has the largest share of the economic relationship with Baghdad, at the expense of other countries. Al-Kadhimi’s plan for Iraq’s openness to other countries, especially in the Arab world, may deprive Tehran of many gains, including those related to the oil and electricity sectors. By calculating profits and losses, the new economic policy that Al-Kadhimi wants to pursue will mean a loss for Tehran, which is interested in obtaining the dollar, through the Iraqi portal, on which Tehran has relied for the past few years in order to free itself to some degree from the restrictions imposed by US sanctions. It will not be able to breathe relatively easily without Iraqi support. If Iraq succeeds in ridding itself of Iranian dominance over its decisions — and this may not be achieved with the stroke of a pen — the Iranian project in the region will be killed. Hence, Iran will press with all means necessary to prevent it from happening.
Zarif also took note of the position of ordinary Iraqis, which has been more or less dictated by militias and parties loyal to Tehran in recent years, but has changed since the start of the protests across Iraq last October. The Iraqis view Zarif’s visit, in the current circumstances, to be an expression of Iran’s insistence on continuing its dominance and influence and sabotaging any Iraqi effort to deviate from this, albeit to a limited extent. This was evident to the Foreign Minister from the demonstrators objecting to his visit who greeted him at the doors of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Zarif, you are not welcome in Iraq,” they shouted, which increased his resentment and frustration.
The incident that drew attention during the visit was the launching of missiles by the “Katyusha cells” on the Green Zone, immediately after Zarif left. It is as if they were a message to Al-Kadhimi’s government that they could resolve the situation in their favour if they wanted and that they still hold all the cards. It was reported that Zarif was unhappy with this behaviour and during his meeting with Hadi Al-Amiri, the head of an Iraqi Shia organisation sponsored by Iran and so regarded as one of Tehran’s main “agents”, he reiterated the need to show restraint and wait before escalating the confrontation until after Al-Kadhimi’s planned visit to the Iranian capital, which may carry with it many surprises. Indeed, what is happening in Baghdad and Tehran, and even in Washington, may represent the birth pangs of a new era.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 22 July 2020
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.