Although Iraq is not a foreign policy priority for President-elect Joe Biden, his aim will be to use his experience and contacts in Iraq to address the country’s deep-seated problems, elevate the rule of law, and rein in the wayward militias.
The most pressing Iraqi issue facing Biden is the presence of US troops in the country, stationed there as part of the US-led coalition’s war against ISIS. Biden will likely maintain a small counterterrorism force with intelligence assets, according to the Atlantic Council. At this point, no major changes on US policy are expected.
Iran’s leverage in Iraq, achieved partly through is support for various militias, is a more thorny issue. Biden has pledged to combat Iranian influence in Iraq, saying in September 2020, “We will continue to push back against Iran’s destabilizing activities, which threatened our friends and partners in the region.”
However, Biden differs from the Trump administration in his broader approach to Iran. While Trump pulled the US out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Biden is expected to reengage with the deal and attempt to engage with Tehran through diplomacy, rather than the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign. If the US and Iran do engage in dialogue, Iraq’s pro-Iran militias and their destabilizing activities are likely to be on the table.
There are many reasons why Biden’s strategy of engaging with Iran might not succeed.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has commented that “I said from the first day don’t trust America.” Khamenei and conservatives in Iran are more likely to rebuff the deal – unless Iran’s expensive and exorbitant demands, such as compensation, are met – and the Iranian presidential elections in 2021 might result in selecting a conservative and hardliner who “may not be willing to simply reactivate the pact,” according to the Washington Post.
If Biden does fail to deal with the issue of Iranian influence over Iraq, he risks jeopardizing US-Iraqi relations at a time when protesters continue to demand an end to corruption and foreign influence. Pro-Iran Iraqi militias have been accused of shooting and killing hundreds of protesters since demonstrations began in October last year.
Biden’s Iraq experience
While the risks are high, Biden can draw upon experience from his long political career.
Before serving as Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden was a senator for over 40 years and chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee between 2001 and 2003 and again from 2007 to 2009.
During the era of Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein (1979 to 2003), Biden backed the US Senate’s bill for the Prevention of Genocide Act of 1988 to impose sanctions on Saddam’s regime because it used chemical weapons against the Kurds in Halabja, but the bill was blocked by the incumbent Regan administration.
In the 1990s, Biden met with Iraqi Kurdish leaders in Washington DC. Biden is considered sympathetic to the Kurds, however it doesn’t mean that he would encourage the split of the Kurdistan Region from Iraq, according to a report by the National Interest.
Biden voted for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, “a decision he came to regret,” according to Evan Osnos’s book “Joe Biden: American dreamer.”
There hasn’t been a thorough debate in Iraq about Biden’s voting record. Rather, Iraqis focus on Biden’s political positions and policies in regard to Iraq that would affect them, as well as his previous views about decentralizing Iraq.
In 2006, Biden and Leslie Gelb, a former diplomat and journalist, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times in which they advocated for the decentralization of Iraq. They proposed that Arab Sunnis, Shia and Kurds run their own regions, while Baghdad would become a federal zone. Biden supports the status of the constitutionally recognized Kurdistan Region of Iraq, but many observers believe that Biden has abandoned the old proposal.
Throughout Obama’s administration, Biden was responsible for Iraq’s file, engaged in key issues regarding the country. He visited Iraq 24 times as the vice president.
In 2010 Biden supported the government led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who had sectarian and authoritarian tendencies – these tendencies materialized more prominently in al-Maliki’s second term from 2010-2014 – Biden asked al-Maliki’s competitor Ayad Allawi to drop his bid for prime minister and accept another position according to the New Yorker.
US Ambassador James Jeffery said that Biden often had “a rocky relationship with al-Maliki,” while “he had a warm relationship with the Kurds,” but at that time Jeffery and Biden believed that they couldn’t find an alternative to al-Maliki. Thereafter, most US policy circles acknowledged that al-Maliki was not the right person to support, and the Obama administration later withdrew its support from al-Maliki in 2014 amid the rise of ISIS.
Perspectives from Iraq
The Iraqi political class are divided on Biden’s administration. According to al-Hadath’s report and poll the Arabs are more divided between those who are welcoming, those who are worried that Iran backed militias might be further emboldened, and others who don’t mind working with either Biden or Trump.
Most Iraqi Kurds are optimistic for Biden’s administration because of his previous sympathies, a poll conducted by al-Hadath asserted this fragmentation.
Even if Biden doesn’t have full popular support in Iraq, both states need to acknowledge the rise of the many militias that would destabilize Iraq and the consequences this would have if allowed to roam free.
According to experts, including the Chairman of the Iraqi Advisory Council Farhad Alaaldin, Biden will likely let the US state and defense departments, as well as other agencies specialized in the Middle East, deal with Iraq at least for the first year.
Barbara Leaf at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy argued that Biden’s administration would support Iraq to get international financial assistance and encourage Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to continue to engage and deepen their connection with Baghdad.
Economic and financial collapse is looming in Iraq, which could threaten the state’s critical pillars including security, and Baghdad and Riyadh’s rapprochement is vital for Iraq’s stability.
However, Iran-backed militias in Iraq could challenge the US, Saudi Arabia, and the Iraqi government’s entente. The US can play a role in consolidating and backing the rapprochements and support Iraqi Prime Minister al-Kadhimi in his efforts.
It is expected that Biden would recalibrate his approach toward Iraq as part of the region’s security system where he might be cautious in the administration’s engagement in Iraq. Biden’s experience with Iraqi politics can give him an edge to shape US foreign policy towards Iraq avoiding previous missteps.