Small Wars Journal

Iraq in the Middle Part VII: Joost Hiltermann on Iraq’s Relations with Israel

Thu, 10/04/2012 - 5:30am

Iraq and Israel have sour relations. Following the fighting in Gaza in 2008/09, al- Maliki called on Arab states to cut ties with Israel and end all "secret and public talks" with the country. Even Iraq’s highly influential cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a quietist known for his political restraint, has called for a tougher line against Israel, saying that "supporting our brothers only with words is meaningless, considering the big tragedy they are facing." Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is almost certainly referring here to actions such as the fatwa boycotting Israeli goods and calling for demonstrations, (as opposed to violence) but there are other influential figures within Iraq who feel much more strongly.

Both on the Iraqi street and at the top political level, Israel is either snubbed or condemned, while in the IDF Iraq is now seen as a potential strategic threat. It would probably not be an exaggeration to say that as long as the US and EU are seen to support Israel, any progress made in efforts to bring Iraq back into the community of democratic nations depends on relations between Iraq and Israel, at least for the foreseeable future.

RT: What kind of political pressure would Nouri al-Maliki be under in the advent of Israeli planes flying over Iraq to attack Iran?

JH: Maliki would come under tremendous pressure in that particular scenario, both internally and externally. Inside Iraq, the majority of both the population and political class would oppose an Israeli strike on Iran - for whatever reason, including its nuclear program. Sunnis might support an attack on Iran, but not by Israel. The Kurds might be somewhat sympathetic to Israel vis-a-vis Maliki, but would not want to sound supportive of Israel, as they have their own relationship with Iran to protect. Externally, many Arab states, supported by their publics and regardless of their leaderships' concerns about Iran's nuclear program, would probably put pressure on Maliki to block Israeli overflights. There might be some exceptions: Saudi Arabia springs to mind.

RT: Do Iraqi perceptions of Israel mean that Iraq's relationship with the US will always be difficult?

JH: Iraqi perceptions of Israel are shaped by Israel's relentless military occupation, settlement, and conduct in Palestinian land. As long as this continues and Israel, in Arab eyes, makes no serious move toward ending the occupation, and as long as the US continues to largely support the Israeli side in this conflict, yes, Iraq's relationship with the US will remain very difficult. One should add to this the Maliki government's desire not to alienate its neighbor Iran at a time when the US and Iran are enemies. It is a difficult balancing act for Maliki, as it would be for almost any Iraqi prime minister.

RT: How vulnerable are US DoS personnel in Iraq in the advent of Israel- Iran hostilities, and does al- Maliki have any obligation to protect them?

JH: In case of an Israel-Iran war, and therefore a US-Iran war, US personnel in Iraq, and possibly other Westerners as well, would certainly be at risk, despite the Iraqi government's clear obligation under international law to protect diplomatic missions and personnel, just as it expects its own facilities and personnel abroad to be protected by the host governments.

A Nightmare Scenario

RT: Let’s imagine Israel decides to "go it alone" against Iranian nuclear facilities, and Iran calls on its paramilitary connections in Iraq to attack US personnel (or business interests.) Perhaps Asaib al-Haq would be the first to attack the US embassy. Qais al-Qazali won't need much provocation to attack, having already said that the recent "Innocence of Muslims" movie "will put all the American interests Iraq in danger. We will not forgive that." Even if al-Sadr resisted Iranian pressure to attack US interests in Iraq, he would either struggle to contain his movement, or at the very least make inflammatory statements. Perhaps only Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani would call for calm, but he would be in a tough position.

The end result is potentially an onslaught of indirect fire aimed at the US embassy. For al- Maliki to stop such attacks the ISF would presumably have to clear areas where they come from, putting Maliki in direct conflict with the interests of Iran and groups that he wants in the political process. Considering DoS in Iraq has accused the ISF of being a hindrance and even detaining staff, I imagine the ISF might be a little slow or indecisive in this mission. If remaining neutral (or siding with the US and Israel) in such a crisis proves political suicide for Maliki, then unilateral Israeli action could serve Iran's goal of putting Iraq into the "axis of resistance."

Based on the scenario above, do you think war could spell the end of US and EU efforts to bring Iraq into the democratic international community?

JH: An Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities will lead to all-out war between Iran and the US/Israel, and so the threat to the US embassy would not be limited to the immediate aftermath of the initial Israeli strike. If it were the latter, I would be less concerned about groups such as Asaeb Ahl al-Haq [the group's correct name; without Ahl the name makes no sense in Islamic history], because the embassy is located in the Green Zone, a contained area that is fully controlled by Maliki's troops. However, AAH and also the Sadrists might launch rockets at the embassy from areas they control. But if the strike and its fallout were limited, Maliki would have no interest in letting such groups operate with impunity, as in the final analysis, they would pose a direct threat to him.

The problem, however, is that an Israeli strike will trigger a broader conflict that Maliki would find it very difficult to resist being sucked into. He would almost inevitably end up on the Iranian side in that case (he is not now). And he would face internal strife he could not control. Iraq would be a mess.

RT: Should the US be selling so many arms to al-Maliki, considering Israeli fears they may end up in the wrong hands?

JH: I'm not clear as to what Israeli leaders would mean with "the wrong hands." It's hard to pass on Abrams tanks or F-16 fighter jets. The US is selling arms to Iraq in order to build it up against Iranian influence, as part of a broader regional alliance. If that is the aim, it is easy to justify the method, even if the region is already dangerously over-militarized. If the US were not to sell arms to Maliki, Maliki, flush in cash from oil sales, would swiftly find sellers elsewhere. As long as Iraq is dependent on the US for its major weapon systems, the US can exercise some degree of control over how and against whom these weapons are used.

Categories: Israel - Iraq - Iran

About the Author(s)

Since 2002, Joost Hiltermann has managed a team of analysts based in the Middle East and North Africa to conduct research and write policy-focused reports on factors that increase the risk of and drive armed conflict. The crisis in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran – both internal situation and nuclear question – are Crisis Group’s three priorities in the region, but research is conducted as well in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.

Robert Tollast is an occasional contributor to The Small Wars Journal. He writes Mesopotamia Monthly, a monthly Iraq update for the Global Politics journal, as well as having written for the Defence Management Journal. He lives and works in London.



Sat, 10/06/2012 - 11:29pm

In reply to by Mark Pyruz


Think you read/speak Arabic?

It's a very tough call from this faraway armchair, of a nonreader/speaker, but it often appears that PM Maliki has a plan that a number of patrons have assisted with, or perhaps it's the other way around, or perhaps it's a fluid situation that varies from moment to moment and issue to issue?

The compare contrast exercise among opinions from Charles Tripp, Joost Hiltermann, Reidar Visser, Joel Wing, and others is interesting...perhaps you have some more recommendations?

The Struggle to Succeed Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, A Letter From Najaf, By Paul McGeough, May 23, 2012, Foreign Affairs,…


Sat, 10/06/2012 - 7:53pm

In reply to by Mark Pyruz


Mark Pyruz

Fri, 10/05/2012 - 2:26pm

I'd be interested in hearing more from Mr. Hiltermann in regards to his view that Maliki is "not on Iran's side". That's a very general statement and certainly in some respects appears belied by a number of actions taken on Maliki's part as well as Iran's.

With regards to those US arms sales--AFVs and Strike Aircraft--most of Iraq's recent defense concerns are to the west and northwest, not east. The Iranians are certainly aware of this, and that's why in my view they are privately hoping for vastly more capable weapons systems manufactured by the U.S. to be added to their "resistance bloc". It can even be suggested by recent Iranian manufactured MBT developments that Iraqi sources have provided Iran with technical resources resulting from American sponsored Iraqi Army AFV assistance.