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The Making of Foreign Policy in Iraq: Political Factions and the Ruling Elite

March 2, 2021 at 4:01 pm

The Making of Foreign Policy in Iraq: Political Factions and the Ruling Elite
  • Book Author(s): Zana Gulmohamad
  • Published Date: January 2021
  • Publisher: I.B. Tauris 
  • Hardback: 216 pages
  • ISBN-13: 9781838604981

Zana Gulmohamad‘s new book, The Making of Foreign Policy in Iraq: Political Factions and the Ruling Elite, takes on the mammoth task of exploring and explaining how Iraq has formulated its foreign relations since the 2003 US-led invasion and occupation. Iraqi politics are often quite difficult for outside observers to make sense of; foreign policy is no different. As Gulmohamad makes clear, Iraq has no single foreign policy; the ruling elite in both Baghdad and Erbil have multiple foreign policies. Through interviews with diplomats, ambassadors and politicians, the author, who teaches politics and international relations at Sheffield University, has put together an important insight into how the country’s foreign relations are determined.

Gulmohamad identifies three levels to Iraqi foreign policy and quotes lawmaker Dhafer Al-A’ni in explaining them: “There are multiple or numerous levels of Iraqi foreign policy… Firstly it is based on ethnic or sectarian foreign policies; Shiite, Sunnis, and Kurdish foreign policies… Secondly, there are different foreign policies from decision makers’ level, such as the President, Prime Minister, and Minister of Foreign Affairs where each has their own perspective and they are not compatible… Thirdly, there are foreign policies that emanate from various political parties, which are different from each other; for example, the external relations of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan are different from those of the Kurdistan Democratic Party.” Thus we ask not only what Iraq’s foreign policy is, but also whose foreign policy is it? Or as the author puts it, “Various political factions via their ethnic, religious, political, ideological and personal differences and their competition for resources and power have contributed to an incoherent foreign policy.”

The Making of Foreign Policy in Iraq… proceeds to take us through different political factions, actors, movements, and institutions and explores how each one forms its own foreign policy and how they interact with one another. “The Iraqi state’s weaknesses and the post-2003 political system, including the quota al-Muhasasa and the electoral system (proportional representation), have contributed to the rise of emerging political figures and parties,” writes Gulmohamad. “While al-Muhasasa has contributed to the divided foreign policy, the principle of inclusion of all three major ethno-sectarian political factions (Shia, Arab Sunni, and Kurd) has prevented a complete fallout of the state’s system and given every main political component a stake in Iraq. The interests and external ties of the political factions do not necessarily translate to benefit the public.” This is a critical point because the political factions are constantly trying to undermine one another, and at the same time, the inclusion of these different factions stops the state from collapsing entirely. However, the Iraqi people do not actually benefit a great deal from the preservation of this political system.

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Whilst the book discusses the ethnic and sectarian composition of power in Iraq, it does not fall into lazy thinking by treating these identity markers as having homogeneous attitudes in foreign policy thinking. “There are clear differences between the Shia elites and factions in terms of how they view regional and international powers. Thus, not all Shia elites and factions are pro-Iran, and both [Grand Ayatollah Ali] al-Sistani and Muqtada [Al-Sadr] seek to limit Iranian leverage while maintaining a competitive relationship with Iran. Muqtada and [former Prime Minister Haider] al-Abadi’s supporters, unlike the pro-Iran factions, are more willing to restore ties with, for instance, the KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia].”

The Islamic Da’wa Party, a Shia political movement which has given Iraq three prime ministers, tends to take a harder sectarian approach to foreign policy, although there are degrees to this depending on which prime minister you examine. Nouri Al-Maliki, who was prime minister of Iraq between 2006 and 2014, gravitated the country’s foreign policy towards complete alignment with Iran on both domestic and regional issues. According to Gulmohamad, Al-Maliki had two faces when it came to foreign policy; he held the principle that Iraq would never meddle in the affairs of other countries, but he turned a blind eye to and facilitated Iran’s recruitment of Iraqi Shia to fight in Syria in defence of dictator Bashar Al-Assad. While Al-Maliki held that Iraq should be sovereign, his entrenchment with Tehran and hostility towards Iran’s regional rivals harmed the country’s sovereignty.

Not everyone in the Da’wa Party agreed with Al-Maliki’s style of government and internal factionalism played out in foreign policy, as the author tells us: “A few days before Prime Minister al-Maliki’s resignation, a number of Da’wa Party members visited Iran to persuade Iranian decision-makers not to support al-Maliki.” The prime minister’s decision to step down was also influenced by the United States refusing to help Iraq against Daesh unless he resigned.

This is a useful study that will equip readers with the tools to understand how post-2003 Iraq makes foreign policy decisions. It also provides a mirror into domestic politics within the country and explores the dynamics of different movements. It does not deal very much with the United States and claims that Washington has had very little influence over how Iraq makes its foreign policy since the 2005 parliamentary elections. Many would argue that this demonstrates America’s disinterest in governing Iraq post-invasion and more studies examining this question would be welcome. Iraqis benefit very little from this arrangement, as Zana Gulmohamad tells us repeatedly throughout the book.

While The Making of Foreign Policy in Iraq… offers an insight into that country, it might also help us to look at other countries in a similar situation, including neighbouring Syria. This is, without doubt, a spirited and welcome book that contributes to our understanding of political dynamics in post-invasion Iraq.

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