Persistent Reconciliation: Warming relations between Iraq and Iran highlight the potential for successful conflict resolution

By Mustafa Abid

Looking back on the 20th and 21st century, conflict resolution often seems to have been more a theory than a practical reality. Many conflicts remain unresolved, still struggling to shake war economies, spoilers, and other detriments to the peace process. A quick scan of international news illuminates a lengthy list of such persistent conflicts, but many sources fail to note those conflicts that have been reconciled. The continuing peace and increasing cooperation between Iran and Iraq should not be ignored. In fact, events over the past several years demonstrate the ability of cultural exchange and economic incentives to trump spoilers and shifting geopolitical realities. While many point to ISIS as the existential threat uniting the two nations, peace will be difficult to sustain after such unifying threats are removed. To those hoping for a sustainable peace, the past decade of Iraqi-Iranian interactions have been heartening, but as two powerful nations in a highly volatile region, forced to share limited natural resources, both with histories and ambitions of seeking regional power, frictions between Iran and Iraq are inevitable. Building on a durable, peaceful relationship will prevent these disagreements from pulling the countries into violence again.

Image Source: Wilson Center

Beginning in 1980 with the Iraqi invasion of Iranian territory, the Iran-Iraq war consisted of an endless cycle of attack and counterattack, leaving over 1 million civilian and military war dead, garnering notoriety as the longest conventional war of the 20th century. The wounds created by the war run deep; innumerable families on both sides lost relatives to the fighting, and nor were civilians exempt. Tens of thousands of victims remain missing. Saddam’s repeated use of chemical weapons (aided by the United States) against Iranian military and civilian targets, along with the destruction of numerous metropolitan areas, would assumedly leave lasting scars on the collective memories of the Iranian people.


Memories of the conflict abound in both countries. After such a brutal conflict, it would be fair to assume that even after U.S. forces deposed one of the key spoilers of the peace and instigator of the Iran-Iraq war, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, effective reconciliation would remain elusive. Yet the sides seem to be pursuing exactly that reconciliation.

At first, many viewed this reconciliation simply as Iran expanding its sphere of influence into Iraq. Even before the new Iraqi government came to power and began appointing pro-Iranian ministers, analysts speculated, concurred, and diverged over exactly how much influence the Iranian government had in Iraq. Yet it becomes increasingly clear that instead of hegemonic influence over the Iraqi political process, a sort of balance of powers is forming in which the Iraqi government is more than a vassal state of Iran. The Iraqi elite’s ability to remove Nouri al-Malaki, a long-time Iranian favorite, from power despite Qassem Suleimani’s long-time support of the PM demonstrates Iraq’s political autonomy from Iran. This equal relationship in power is crucial, because the autonomy it grants Iraq forestalls Iran from an overly influential position in Iraqi politics that could lead to lasting resentment and conflict. Yet this autonomy does not preclude s strong diplomatic relations, which will prove crucial in future conflict deterrents. The relationship should be able to withstand political transitions, and to this point, several months into Prime Minister Abadi’s rule, it seems to have done so.

The reconciliation between the peoples of Iraq and Iran stretchs to the Kurdish region as well, as marked by Massoud Barzani’s gratitude for the Iranian support of Iraqi Kurds against ISIS. While the relationship between Iranian Kurds and Tehran may be tenuous, Iraqi Kurds, like the Shiite, were forces to be counted against Saddam and therefor within Iranian interests to court. It seems that this relationship is destined to continue for the near future.

One potential source of reconciliation lies in the religious congruities of the two nations- both are majority Shiite Muslim countries, and so the populations share many religious beliefs, often make pilgrimages to holy sites in each other’s nations (most notably Najaf and Karbala in Iraq during the remembrance of Ashura). Millions of Shiites from around the world will gather in Iraq to commemorate the death of the Prophet’s grandson, Hussein, in an event where nationalities become secondary to religious affiliation. Ashura also demonstrates the potency of Shiite unity over nationalist tendencies, especially in their willingness to face certain violence from extremes its. In the post-Saddam era and its upswing in Iranian pilgrimages to Iraq, has helped to dispel cultural misconceptions that were hardened wartime propaganda are being dispelled by meaningful human.

Undoubtedly, lingering animosity remains, as between any two distinctly different cultures in direct contact, but these pilgrimages demonstrate that other, non-cultural commonalities can overcome such animosity. The question, then, is whether such a relationship means anything on the political stage. Reviewing the pre-war history demonstrates that rich cultural, economic and religious exchanges that would assumedly protect the peace are diluted by continuous political struggle over border control. While the causative agents of the Iran-Iraq war were many, popular demand for the war (something difficult to determine considering the danger risked by dissenters against Saddam’s policies) would seem to be a byproduct of the war itself, not a cause. As such, and as I believe these religious pilgrimages demonstrate, removing the war environment, relationships between peoples can re-normalize. Unfortunately, these relationships, historically, do not seem to have acted as a barrier to conflict, and so little substantive hope for durable peace can be drawn from the Iranian pilgrimages to the south.

While religion may bring the citizens of Iran and Iraq together, the credit for lasting peace must recognize how the equilibrium of political and economic power between Iraq and Iran incentivizes peaceful relations. They built this equilibrium on firm economic foundations that complement the political goals of both governments (specifically regarding the Kurds and the Syrian government). Examples of expanding ties are numerous, and are indicative of the influence economics and regional power goals can have on resolving localized disputes. Trade between Iraq and Iran has now reached over $12 billion annually, a number expected to rise as both countries continue to solidify economic ties. Due to increasing sanctions against Tehran, Iraq has become the primary export market for the country, and arguably the line securing the Iranian economy from teetering over the edge. Iran has begun exporting natural gas to Iraq, to the tune of 25 million cubic meters a year for revenues of over $3.7 billion dollars. This deal represents a deepening of economic ties and $3.7 billion of additional trade incentive to avoid violence. In addition to the tourism and related development boom from the Iranian pilgrims visiting the Shiite shrines in Najaf and Karbala, Iraq, the financial ties between the two countries have never been stronger. The mix of government and private economic interests between the two countries may ensure that the trade economy remains desired over land grabs or a war economy.

These ties will need to be strengthened if both countries want to avert the immanent threats facing their bilateral cooperation. Of special note, the growing water conflict between Iraq and Iran poses a serious risk to cooperation. A majority of the major waterways to Iran flow in a cross-boundary pattern, giving rise to competing claims over water rights, especially considering the brutal drought that struck Iraq in 2007 until 2009. Further drought events seem imminent, and pressure to control water supplies will increase concurrently. During one flare up of this conflict in 2012, Iraq went so far as to threaten the cancellation an upcoming trade agreement with Iran, if its water demands weren’t met. This scenario exemplifies the fragility of current relations, however encouraging their growth has been; for as long as there exists problems that both governments deem more important than the benefits of their current, positive relations. In order to avoid renewed conflict, current relations must be increased to invest both parties in peaceful disagreement resolution, and mechanisms for resolving border and water resource conflicts must be clearly established.

Image Source: Green Prophet

Other, similar bilateral conflicts should be analyzed with respect to the case of Iraq and Iran. In the goal of reconciliation between peoples, few adjoining nations lack similarities in religion or culture. These similarities should be harnessed to build commonalities between peoples in conflict, even at the cost of eroding their national identity in the process. This requires countries to cede some of their nationalist propaganda or goals, but can result in much better long term relations. Further, creating official trade between countries post-conflict proved crucial to keeping Iraqi and Iranian peace afloat. Increases in financial incentive can, in many cases, defang the financial incentives or grievances leading to conflict. Most importantly, both of these peace-building venues are rooted in incentives that do not rely on the whims of national leaders, but instead on the large swathes of the population who benefit either religiously or economically from positive Iraqi-Iranian relations. While under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein no consideration was given to the preferences of the populace or much of the business community, in the marginal democracies of Iraq and Iran, the governments must pay some attention to public whim, and significant attention to the whims of the business community, as they consider foreign policy.

The lucrative benefits of a peacetime economy and increased travel between Iraq and Iran seem to have facilitated rapprochement and moderately equal ties between these two geopolitical mammoths. What the future of these two countries will hold, in a ‘post ISIS’ era where unifying existential threats no longer necessitate immediate political cooperation, will be influenced by innumerable factors, namely water access, something which will come to define the entire middle east’s political geography in next several decades.

Image Source: Taste of Culture/UK

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