Main Image Credit Nuanced approach: Iraq's new Prime Minister Mohammad Shia al-Sudani has sought to build good relations with a variety of regional actors. Image: Tasnim News / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0
The new Iraqi prime minister, Mohammad Shia al-Sudani, has been signalling his intention to adopt a nuanced approach towards Tehran and to implement a balanced foreign policy, debunking some initial concerns about his potential alliance with Tehran. His success will largely depend on whether Iran and its allied militias will enable him to pursue this trajectory or whether, instead, Iraq will be dragged deeper into the confrontation between Tehran and its adversaries.
After a year of stalemate over the formation of the new government and the drastic escalation of intra-Shia political violence, Mohammad Shia al-Sudani was finally elected in late October as the new Iraqi prime minister. The relief in many Western capitals at the end of the year-long impasse was matched by concerns over the potential closeness of the new government to Tehran and the risks associated with it.
The main factor triggering such concerns was that Sudani’s nomination was supported by the Coordination Framework, an alliance of pro-Iran Shia groups which retained a majority in the Iraqi parliament following the withdrawal of Muqtada al-Sadr; he also served in several prominent roles in the government of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who held close ties with Tehran. Concerns were heightened when, just days into the job, Sudani appointed two government figures widely seen as pro-Iranian: Minister of Higher Education Naim al-Aboudi and the head of his press office, Rabee Nader, both of whom have connections with the Iran-backed militias Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah. In mid-November, Sudani met the commander of Iran’s Qods Force, Esmail Qaani, in Baghdad, and two weeks later he travelled to Tehran, where he met President Ebrahim Raisi and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and highlighted the importance of sustaining bilateral relations between the two countries in various fields.
Regardless of these meetings and Sudani’s background, early in his term he adopted a nuanced approach towards Tehran. For instance, he strongly condemned the Iranian (and Turkish) bombing of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region as ‘being launched without taking Iraq’s permission’. Iran has intensified its deadly cross-border airstrikes in northern Iraq in the aftermath of the anti-government protests triggered by the killing of Mahsa Amini, accusing Kurdish separatist groups of fuelling demonstrations, and this has caused significant tensions between Iran and Iraqi officials. More recently, Sudani sent elite counterterrorism forces to shut down dealers smuggling dollars to Iran – a move driven by the potential fines encountered if Iraq fails to comply with the US’s new restrictions, as well as a desire to counter the plunge of Iraq’s dinar.
Despite Western concerns about Sudani’s background, early in his term he adopted a nuanced approach towards Tehran
The nuanced approach towards Tehran has so far been matched by a balanced regional foreign policy. His first trip abroad as prime minister, for instance, was to Jordan, where he reaffirmed the ties and agreements established with the country by the previous administration, as well as ensuring the continuity of the Iraq–Jordan–Egypt trilateral cooperation which has been developing since March 2019. The trip was followed by a visit to Kuwait, where Sudani stressed his government's willingness to establish a ‘true partnership’ with the Kuwaiti government.
Sudani also met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on the side-lines of the Arab-China Summit in Riyadh, and he expressed a readiness to develop bilateral relations, especially in the field of the economy and investment, including conversations about connecting Iraq to Saudi Arabia’s electrical grid – a move which is viewed as a way to decrease Baghdad’s reliance on energy imports from Iran.
In addition, Sudani made it clear that he intends to continue hosting talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia, a dialogue which was initiated by his predecessor, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, but has been stalled since April 2022.
What has generated the most surprise so far, however, is Sudani’s stance towards the US. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal on 13 January, he defended the presence of US troops and provided no timeline for their withdrawal or that of NATO forces, arguing that the ‘Elimination of ISIS needs some more time’, particularly when it comes to the threat from the cells still operating across the border in Syria. Sudani is planning to send a delegation to Washington in February, and in mid-January he met Brett McGurk, President Joe Biden’s top Middle East adviser, to discuss security cooperation between the two countries. In the interview with the Wall Street Journal, he claimed that it is not ‘an impossible matter to see Iraq have a good relationship with Iran and the US’.
Tehran will carefully watch the new government’s steps and seek to counter any moves that come at the expense of Iran’s interests and influence in Iraq
Sudani’s balanced approach towards Iran, the US and countries in the region is likely mainly driven by the desire to attract more aid and investment while ensuring the Iraqi economy is stabilised and protected from US censure and pressure. But his plan is likely to face significant challenges. Tehran, for starters, will carefully watch the new government’s steps and seek to counter any moves that come at the expense of Iran’s interests and influence in Iraq. Iran-backed groups – Kata’ib Hezbollah in particular – might also break ranks and reprise their attacks against US interests and personnel still stationed in the country. The secretary-general of the Huqouq Movement, the political wing of Kata’ib Hezbollah, criticised Sudani's support for the US military presence in Iraq, and asked him to commit to the Iraqi parliament's resolution on the expulsion of foreign forces from the country.
With these challenges ahead, it remains to be seen whether Sudani will succeed in implementing his balanced agenda and bring all actors involved onboard, or whether, instead, Tehran and its proxy militias will hijack his plan, increasing the risks of Iraq once again becoming a theatre of confrontation and escalation.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi