Unforeseen Consequences

Iraq’s prime minister may become an early victim of Trump’s sanctions on Iran

By Abdel Bari Atwan

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi could end up being one of the most prominent victims of the Trump administration’s latest sanctions against Iran, after he officially announced his government would abide by them and ordered a halt to imports of Iranian-made cars.

Most of Iraq’s Shia political parties, including the Daawa Party which put Abadi in power, condemn these sanctions and oppose complying with them. His critics accuse Abadi of having relinquished Iraq’s national sovereignty and shown humiliating subservience to the US, which invaded and occupied their country after subjecting it to a suffocating embargo for 12 years.

This makes it difficult if not impossible for Abadi to survive in power. His al-Nasr bloc’s hopes of forming the new government in coalition with other groups are on the brink of collapsing, if they have not done so already. Most – though not all – of his prospective coalition partners take a strong stand against the sanctions not just out of solidarity with Iran but also because that is what their popular base demands.

Abadi’s position is made doubly embarrassing by the fact that Iraq’s neighbours Turkey and Syria have sided with Iran over the sanctions issue, as have other states such as China and India and the European Union. The only countries supporting the sanctions are Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states slated to join the ‘Arab Nato’ which the US wants to form in order to fight Iran militarily, economically and politically, along with that alliance’s undeclared member Israel.

Iraq’s shaky economy also stands to be damaged by compliance with the sanctions. Its trade with Iran is worth six billion dollars per month and it is heavily reliant on inexpensive Iranian imports. Moreover, four million Iranians visit Iraq annually, mostly to visit the Shia shrines at Najaf and Karbala, and they each pay $40 merely for their visitors’ permits and spend an average of $1,000 in the country. These are losses the Iraqi economy can scarcely afford at a time of growing public anger and popular protests, especially in the south, at the deterioration of basic services such as water and electricity and rising rates of poverty and unemployment.

The Iranians have decided to bow before the sanctions storm and try to absorb the initial damage. They feel that other countries, great and small, sympathise with them – not least due to their dislike of the current US administration which has excelled at provoking the entire world with the arrogance and high-handedness of its president and his aides. But this bowing may prove to be temporary, as a far harsher package of sanctions aimed at halting all its oil exports will start taking effect in November. These would be similar to the sanctions that were imposed on Iraq immediately after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and the effect could be devastating.

It is true that the Iranians have over 30 years’ experience of coping with sanctions. They also have powerful, well-trained and loyal security and armed forces which are capable of confronting any foreign invasion or internal disturbances. But it is also true that they do not want war or domestic turmoil. They will not hesitate to enter into negotiations if the opportunity arises in order to gain time and see out the remaining two years of Trump’s presidency.

It may be to Abadi’s credit that he was at least frank and open when he announced he would yield to the US’ dictates immediately after tge sanctions came into effect. Other Arab countries, especially in the Gulf, have remained silent about the matter. They include Qatar, which shares the giant Pars offshore gas field with Iran and is reliant on the country to break the blockade imposed on it by its four Arab detractors (Saudi Arabia. the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt). Also the UAE, with which Iran does $8 billion worth of trade annually, mostly with the emirate of Dubai.

There is little chance of the US sanctions succeeding in bringing down the Iranian regime in the foreseeable future, at least during the first phase. Iran can look to the example of Syria, whose regime proved impossible to change and stood fast for seven years in the face of American-led efforts to depose it. But it is quite possible the sanctions will have unforeseen and counterproductive consequences, leading to the change of regimes allied to the US. The Iraqi government may be top of the list. But others in the Gulf region could follow, due to either external or internal factors, as a consequence of going along with the US’ scheme.

By ordering these sanctions Trump may be shooting himself and his allies in the region in the foot. He has lit the fuse of political and economic chaos as a prelude to unleashing military chaos, but nobody can tell when or where the first sparks will fly.