Creating new perspectives since 2009

Iraq banning ties with Israel, demonstrates only Iran-aligned Arab states oppose Zionism 

May 16, 2022 at 9:14 am

Protesters in support of Palestine in Baghdad, Iraq on 15 May 2021 [AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images]

On Wednesday the Iraqi Council of Representatives approved, in the first reading, a draft bill banning normalisation of ties with Israel. If passed, it will make Iraq the first Arab state to formally criminalise normalisation with the occupation state.

The legislation, which will also apply to the autonomous Kurdistan Region (KRI), entitled “Banning Normalisation and Establishment of Relations with the Zionist Entity” was submitted by the Sadrist bloc, the largest bloc in the Iraqi parliament, led by the influential Shia cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr who announced his intention to introduce the bill last month.

Invoking populist rhetoric at the time, Al-Sadr stated on Twitter that the “issue of normalisation and Israeli ambitions to dominate our beloved Iraq” was one of the core reasons why the Sadrist Movement took part in the electoral process again. The Sadrist coalition emerged as having won the most seats in the country’s parliamentary elections in October, which have failed to lead to the formation of a new government.

Amid further political gridlock, Al-Sadr announced yesterday that as his bloc failed to form a majority government, the Sadrists will instead become the opposition for a period, making way for other blocs to form a government.

The bill, which threatens the death penalty or life imprisonment, will not only criminalise normalisation of relations with Israel, but also ban “the establishment of diplomatic, political, military, economic, and cultural relations and any other sort of relations with the invading Zionist entity.”

Iraq, which has never had diplomatic ties with Israel, isn’t the first Arab state to have anti-normalisation laws. Among the earliest were those adopted by Lebanon with the 1955 Boycott Law which prohibits the Lebanese from engaging in commercial ties with Israel, however Iraq’s law arguably delves deeper, more so than its own Baathist-era penal code which once carried the death penalty over promoting, or associating with Zionist principles and organisations.

It is still too early to comment on whether the bill will be formally approved, as one Iraqi lawmaker explained to the New Arab that it “needs to pass several stages in order to become a law, currently it has been addressed to the parliament’s legal committee, where many changes would be made and then the parliament’s other committees would have their say on the bill.”

OPINION: We can expect stronger Algeria-Iran ties as Israel plans to establish a base in Morocco

Nevertheless, the legal development is certainly timely, following the enhanced relations between certain Arab states with Israel, namely the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco and to a lesser extent Sudan courtesy of the 2020 Abraham Accords. It also comes amid recent escalating tensions in occupied-Palestine, with resistance movement Hamas praising the Iraqi parliament over proposed law. Hamas recognised the “well-known” stance of the Iraqi people towards the Palestinian cause while also calling on “all parliaments in the Arab and Islamic world” to follow suit.

Around the time of the US-brokered normalisation agreements two years ago, I opined that it had become evident that it was only Arab states aligned with Iran which were opposed to Zionism. This still holds true today with divisions in the Arab world between the Western-backed ‘Axis of Normalisation’ consisting of “moderate Sunni-Arab states” and those loosely-defined Shia-led governments and non-state groups supported by Iran forming the ‘Axis of Resistance’ (including the Alawite-dominated Syrian state and the Zaydi-ruled de-facto government in Yemen’s Sanaa).

These fault-lines will only become more apparent as remaining Arab states take a clear position on whether or not to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. There are some states which straddle the middle, maintaining important ties with both the US and Iran, such as Kuwait and Qatar who have voiced opposition to normalisation with Israel before Palestinian statehood. Yet other noteworthy regional developments has seen Saudi Arabia’s sovereign-wealth fund invest $2 billion into two Israeli tech start-ups while wider afield, Turkey has recently reset relations with both Riyadh and Tel Aviv.

ANKARA, TURKIYE - MARCH 09: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) meets Israeli President Isaac Herzog (L) at President mansion in Ankara, Turkiye on March 09, 2022. ( Murat Kula - Anadolu Agency )

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) meets Israeli President Isaac Herzog (L) at President mansion in Ankara, Turkiye on March 09, 2022 [Murat Kula – Anadolu Agency]

In North Africa there are Tunisia and Algeria which also have cordial ties with Iran. Tunisia has previously mulled criminalising normalisation, while Algeria may find itself gravitating closer to Iran amidst increased military co-operation between neighbouring Morocco and Israel and subsequent tensions between Algiers and Rabat, particularly over the Western Sahara issue.

OPINION: The last time Iraq was free of foreign interference was during the Abbasids—even then it was short lived

This isn’t to say Baghdad hasn’t been under pressure to normalise with Israel – it has, not just externally but within, namely from the Kurdistan region, whose political elites have warm, yet well-established links with Israel. Last year, at a conference organised by a US think-tank held in Erbil, over 300 tribal leaders called for normalisation with Israel. However, this was swiftly condemned by Baghdad and arrests warrants were issued, it was also branded an “illegal meeting” by the federal government.

Conversely, Iraq is arguably under pressure from Iran too to clamp down on the growing Israeli presence and Kurdish Iranian opposition cells in the KRI. In March Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) claimed to have carried out a ballistic missile attack against alleged Mossad targets in Erbil. It has been speculated that it was over plans to export Kurdistan’s gas to Turkey via a new pipeline involving Israel.

The draft proposal would extend to foreign businesses operating in Iraq which may have commercial ties to Israel and thus may effectively force them to leave the country. If passed, the law could therefore benefit Iranian companies based in Iraq.

Separately, on the same day of the draft bill’s first reading, the IRGC bombed the mountains in Erbil province where they have previously targeted “terrorist” groups.

Despite being portrayed as an Iraqi nationalist and sceptic of Iranian interference, Al-Sadr is somewhat of a political chameleon and it is difficult to tell which direction he is heading, as exemplified by yesterday’s announcement. Yet following Iran’s missile strikes even Al-Sadr called for a probe into possible Israeli sites in Kurdistan, although he was also stressed that Iraq must not be dragged into other countries’ conflicts.

Whatever the reasons behind the introduction of the new legislation, it will have far-reaching consequences and will align Iraq firmly with the resistance against normalisation camp. If approved, the new law will be a bold statement by Iraq in defiance against the creeping tide of normalisation in the region. It will also cement the notion that it is only those Arab states aligned with Iran that oppose Zionism.

OPINION: Only Arab states aligned with Iran will oppose Zionism

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.