Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is in Washington this week for meetings with Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and President Barack Obama. We sat down with MEI’s Vice President for Policy and Research, Paul Salem, to discuss the topics on the table, what each side hopes to accomplish, and how the United States should approach Iraq.

What is Maliki looking to accomplish?

The visit is mainly to pursue Iraq’s military relationship with the United States. It is important to note that the United States is by far Iraq’s largest defense partner, with contracts for U.S.-made equipment such as jets, helicopters, and tanks for $17-18 billion. The second level of defense contracts for Iraq is with Russia for around $4 billion, so you can see the United States and Iraq have a major partnership.

How do counterterrorism and al-Qa`ida relate to these arms deals? 

The U.S.-Iraq military relationship has become more urgent over the issue of al-Qa`ida, which is resurgent in Iraq and is partly linked to the conflict in Syria. Maliki is currently interested in weaponry that will help the Iraqi Army fight al-Qa`ida. The Foreign Minister of Iraq, Hoshyar Zebari, met with Secretary John Kerry and others in Washington in August, and he spoke about counterterrorism cooperation, asking for U.S. help and support and even the possibility of the U.S. deployment of drones in Iraq to fight al-Qa`ida.

This puts the United States in a delicate position. Maliki has used the Army to further his own leadership and to strengthen his hold over the country. He has centralized power, and has done so with high levels of corruption and sectarianism, alienating the Sunni community and leading to a revival of civil conflict. Within that context, saying that he wants arms for counterterrorism is problematic, because these arms can be used against domestic opponents. That will be part of the difficult conversation Obama and Maliki will have.

On the other hand, al-Qa`ida’s resurgence in Iraq is certainly now very high on the United States’ list of priorities in the Levant region. Two years ago, it was all about Assad. Now, it’s about how to deal with this emerging threat. In any realistic scenario going forward, one would imagine that Baghdad will have a role to play in the pushback against al-Qa`ida, particularly as the United States is no longer there to enact its own strategies as it did in 2006 and in 2007. It’s troubling to deal with Maliki, with all his internal difficulties, but at the same time al-Qa`ida is a huge issue. If the United States doesn’t want to do things itself—in other words, if a drone campaign is not something that the United States opts for—then it is going to have to deal more directly with local players to address this problem.

What does Maliki get out of these meetings politically?

While the military goals are paramount, at another level it is politically important for Maliki to maintain and build good relations with the United States, for both domestic and external reasons. Domestically, his Kurdish opponents or competitors have long had very strong relations with the United States, and his Sunni Arab opponents have strong links with the GCC, which in turn have historic relations with Washington. So Maliki doesn’t want to be cornered or left out and have his opponents monopolize Washington. But Maliki knows that since the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, his actions—particularly his persecution of Sunni politicians as well as tensions with the Kurdish community—have left him in poor standing with the United States. He may be here to shore up his own image as well.

And externally?

There is no doubt that Baghdad has been pushed closer to Iran since the eruption of conflict in Syria, and Baghdad-Tehran relations are strong, but Maliki knows that Iraq’s economic, political, and security interests are complex and require a more diverse and open set of foreign relations.  He also wants to keep his options open and maintain his independence. Fostering strategic defense relations with the United States while also pursuing deep economic interests with China and India is part of the logic of pursuing Iraq’s needs, but also helps keep him powerful and shores up his independence and options.

Iraqi sources have reported that Maliki would like to offer himself as a kind of mediator between Iran and the United States.

I think he’s hinting that he could be marginally helpful, but he’s overstating the case. Currently, there are effectively direct Iranian-American s, and President Rouhani is reaching out directly to the West and does not need help. Maliki—and Iran—could both be helpful in addressing the Syrian conflict and helping to make the proposed Geneva II conference more of a success. 

What does the United States hope to accomplish through the meetings?

First, there is the obvious question of how much influence the United States actually has. The United States has been clear about its opposition to Maliki’s actions since the U.S. withdrawal, but it is also clear that the United States has very little influence over Iraq. The United States’ arms deals with Iraq may give it some kind of leverage, but it is quite limited. 

To my mind, in order to approach Iraq more productively, the administration needs to look at Iraq as part of a splintered Balkanized region that includes Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon and that has led to extreme sectarian and ethnic tensions that remain unresolved. The United States must consider Iraq as a divided, complicated country that is barely a state at this point and that falls between the Iranian-Western and the Iranian-Arab Cold War, as it were; it also abuts the Syrian proxy war and is part of the broader Kurdish issue. Those bigger issues need to be addressed before one can see an Iraq that calms down and approaches normal politics. While Maliki is partly responsible for part of the negative dynamics, Iraq itself is currently in a fairly impossible national situation; it is very difficult to imagine things proceeding calmly in Iraq while everything around it is on fire.

The Obama administration would also do well to realize that talks with Iran and the Geneva II peace talks are the goals that should be the highest priority in terms of stabilizing the region, including Iraq.

How will Obama likely leave things with Maliki?

The Obama administration will likely say, “We’ll move forward gradually on some of these counterterrorism and defense contract issues, but you, Maliki, need to pull back from campaigns against Sunni politicians and tension with the Kurds, return to a more inclusive and power sharing form of politics, and be more helpful in the Syrian crisis.” Essentially, the United States will not close the door on its relationship with Iraq, including the arms deals and the opportunity of future military markets, but will ask or pressure Maliki to make domestic changes and to help with the situation in Syria and Iran. There will be no break, but there will still be many stones along the path.