U.S. and Iraqi officials began a series of talks on June 11 as part of a “strategic dialogue” on military, trade and economic cooperation between the two countries. Baghdad will probably prioritize its worsening economic situation, while Washington will likely focus on the prospect of reducing U.S. troops in the region.
The talks, which are expected to last months, will be held virtually due to coronavirus restrictions. Iraq has recently witnessed a surge in cases, increasing its total number of infections to more than 16,000.
The dialogue comes against a backdrop of escalating tensions in the wake of a series of fatal rocket attacks last year on American troops. Bilateral ties were also strained in January following the U.S. airstrike that killed top Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani on Iraqi soil.
But tensions have eased considerably since Mustafa al-Kadhimi, former director of Iraq’s National Intelligence Service, was sworn in last month as prime minister. Following his appointment, Washington immediately granted another 120-day waiver to Baghdad to maintain importing gas and electricity from Iran “as a display of our desire to help provide the right conditions for success,” according to the U.S. State Department.
Kadhimi has been vocal in expressing his disapproval of non-state actors intervening in Iraqi affairs. Particularly, the prime minister has cracked down on Iranian-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). Although the PMU played a role in the fight against ISIS at the onset of the conflict, they have become a violent force in Iraq, contributing to the brutality against civilian protesters in late 2019. These vehemently anti-American militias are critical to Iran’s terror export enterprise. Unsurprisingly, the PMU is attempting to secure a spot in these talks, according to Hezbollah-linked social-media accounts.
Tehran has been straining to insert itself into the U.S.-Iraq conversation. Iran’s new parliament speaker, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf—former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)—publicly denounced the prospect such talks as “futile.”
Iranian officials have also verbalized their desire to expel American troops from both Iraq and Syria for years. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared “the Americans won’t stay in Iraq and Syria and will be expelled,” in a speech to students just last month. These remarks, along with Iranian media coverage of the U.S.-Iraq meetings, are part of a renewed pressure campaign on Baghdad’s government to cut off ties with the United States.
Days before talks were set to commence, a rocket landed inside Baghdad Airport close to where U.S. forces are based. This latest round of rocket fire marks the 29th attack against American troops or diplomats since October. Although there was not an immediate claim of responsibility, similar attacks have been carried out by pro-Iranian militias in the past.
As leaders from Iraq and the United States discuss the future of bilateral ties over the course of strategic dialogue, Iran will attempt to influence the outcome. Regardless, the aftermath of these talks will impact not only Iraq, but the entirety of the Middle East for years to come.
Maya Carlin is an analyst at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C. She is also an M.A. candidate in Counter-Terrorism and Homeland Security at IDC Herzliya’s Lauder School of Government in Israel.