The following is an excerpt from "Iraq's Tangled Foreign Interests and Relations," written by MEI Vice President Paul Salem and published by the Carnegie Middle East Center on December 24, 2013.   to view the full report.

A decade after Saddam Hussein’s fall, Iraq still lacks a centralized foreign policy that advances its national interests. Internal divisions, such as those between the Shia-dominated regime in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil, have given rise to alternative power centers with their own policy priorities. Iraqi foreign policy will remain disjointed and incoherent until Baghdad resolves the issues polarizing the country.

Key Themes

  • Iraq’s national interests in building military capacity, reviving the energy sector, meeting domestic water and energy demand, and increasing trade and investment have prompted Baghdad to rebuild relations with regional and global partners.
  • Iraq’s rapidly growing economy is emerging as an engine of growth in the Middle East and a key player in international energy markets.
  • Counterterrorism cooperation with Washington and multibillion-dollar arms deals with Russia and the United States have become cornerstones of Iraq’s international security posture.
  • Contracts with Western, Chinese, and Russian energy companies have revitalized its oil sector, and Baghdad has built relations with Iran, Turkey, several Gulf countries, Jordan, and Syria to help meet its energy-transport, water, and electricity needs.
  • Erbil and many Sunni Arab opposition leaders have pursued their own foreign relations and international priorities that often conflict with Baghdad’s official foreign policies.
  • Baghdad has moderately supported the Syrian regime while Erbil and Iraqi Sunnis have sided with the rebels in the ongoing civil war. This has exacerbated Iraq’s fragmentation by pushing Baghdad closer to Iran, another Damascus supporter, while driving Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis closer to Turkey and the Gulf countries backing the Syrian opposition.

A Splintered Foreign Policy

Iraq lies along many key fault lines—Kurdish-Arab, Sunni-Shia, Arab-Persian—and it also holds one of the world’s largest oil reserves. As a central country in the resource-rich and volatile heart of the Middle East, Iraq has the potential to be either a force for regional accommodation and stability and an engine for economic growth or a crucible for ethnic and sectarian conflict. As a result, its foreign policy matters for Iraqis, for countries of the region, and for the world. However, Iraq will not have a coherent foreign policy until it resolves deep and lingering internal differences over matters such as power sharing, territory, and energy.

Iraq has a complex set of foreign interests that relate to building military capacity; encouraging investment and economic growth, especially in the energy sector; and securing access to water and electricity. The incoherence in the country’s current foreign policy stems from the fractured, polarized nature of its domestic politics and the lingering influences of competing outside powers in both Iraq and its volatile regional neighborhood—especially with the war next door in Syria. Iraq’s national interests would best be served by pursuing a centrist foreign policy and building good relations with a wide array of regional and international partners, and there are some forces in the country that appear to be pursuing just such a policy. 

So far, these attempts have been unsuccessful. Iraqi foreign policy has been neither effectively centralized nor institutionalized. The central government in Baghdad, currently under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, holds the lion’s share of power. It receives large oil revenues, controls the budget, commands the national army, and enjoys the constitutional authority of setting foreign policy. Within the Baghdad government, the foreign ministry has been led by the Kurdish politician Hoshyar Zebari, but all important government foreign policy decisions have been effectively made by the prime minister’s office. This arrangement reflects Maliki’s efforts to concentrate power in his hands, a goal he has been pursuing since he first took office in 2006.

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