Iraq’s Anti-Israel Law Has More To Do With Iran Than The Jews

Persistent meddling of Tehran in internal affairs and the high presence of pro-Iranian militias across the country have been strangling Baghdad for long

Revolutionary Guards Colonel Hassan Sayyad Khodaei had just left home in his car when bike-borne assailants pumped five bullets into him on Tehran’s high-security Mohahedin-e Eslam Street. Iran quickly attributed the brazen attack to “global arrogance”, which it perceives is the hallmark of Israel and the US. 

Less than a week into the May 22 incident, Iran’s neighbor Iraq passed a legislation banning its citizens, media, government entities, private firms, and even foreign companies, from fostering ties – both business and personal – with Israeli companies and citizens. Visiting Israel was also made a crime carrying penalties that include life imprisonment or death sentence.    

Both incidents may be coincidental, but Iran’s perpetual despise for Israel and Iraq’s helplessness are entrenched in their respective histories. When Lebanon was embroiled in a grisly civil war, Iran’s post-1979 revolutionary leadership made a carefully calibrated move to address the Lebanese Shiite Muslim minority. The Shiite underclass, who were rather bound to the country’s south, had faced constant alienation at the hands of Sunni-Maronite elite for long. To make matters worse, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had found southern Lebanon to be a perfect launchpad for striking Israel. Result: the Shiite peasants became the unsuspecting victims of Israeli counterattacks and also its 20-plus years of brutal occupation. 

Disillusioned by the Zionist invasion, the Western coalition that stepped in to evacuate PLO from the country, the Lebanese factions that fought each other, and the proxy wars that played out in the region, there was little doubt that Iran’s Hezbollah project would be an astounding success among the Shiites in the country. The Revolutionary Guards established weapons training camps for them and used its money and muscle power to groom the underdogs into an influential entity of today that would not hesitate to take up arms to have its way. From hostage-taking to suicide strikes, everything came easily for Hezbollah, which bolstered the Iranian mullahs’ position as Zionist haters.

If Iran would ultimately want a dissolution of the Jewish state – its first supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had declared Iran to be the legitimate nation of Islam and had sought its replication in other countries in the Middle East – Iraq is a step ahead. Baghdad has not even recognized Israel as a legitimate state since its establishment in 1948. However, notwithstanding the absence of formal diplomatic ties, some Kurdish factions in Iraq have been making noises in favor of Israel. 

Last September, a conference with over 300 civil society leaders in attendance was held in the Kurdish capital Erbil in northern Iraq, where the normalization of ties with Israel was the main point of discussion. The events that followed the conference were more prolific though. The Baghdad court issued arrest warrants against many attendees, while some Iran-backed Iraqi militias threatened attacks on them. Iraqi security forces also engaged in a confrontation with the Kurdish government demanding that the organizers of the event be handed over to them. 

The Kurdish-Israeli bonhomie dates back to the 1950s when several Kurdish Jews left Iraq to settle in the newly-formed Israel state. Following the 2003 war, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) had made good use of the autonomy guaranteed by Iraq’s federal government to raise its economic prospects. Despite Baghdad’s threats of legal action, it had clandestinely supplied crude oil to Israel. Vice versa, Israel had backed the 2017 Kurdish referendum for independence, an issue that had caused much heartburn to Iraq which could not afford to lose ground, especially in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk. Iran, Turkey, and Syria were also jittery about the vote, considering that the ultimate mission of the Kurds is to form an independent state carved out from these four countries where it has a considerable presence. 

Tehran is particularly perturbed by the Kurdish restiveness and has left no stone unturned in launching missile strikes in Erbil at will, claiming the presence of Israeli intelligence service Mossad’s bases. At the same time, the gains from its ‘ring of fire’ policy of encircling Israel using non-Iranian proxy militias in countries adjacent to it – Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, Shiite militias in Syria and Iraq – are being reversed by new associations evolving in the region.

The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have already normalized ties with Israel as part of the Abraham Accords, while talks are on to get Saudi Arabia on board. Iran’s western neighbor Turkey is also mending fences with Israel, which heightens its security threat. On the northern front, Azerbaijan’s security cooperation with Israel has kept it on tenterhooks. With Israel’s increased capability to stop Iran’s regional expansionism on its tracks, more countries in the Middle East are opening up to the idea of friendship with the Jewish regime. And that explains Iran’s saber-rattling to a great extent.

Tehran has been allegedly meddling in the domestic affairs of Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon to such a degree that even the non-state actors that the Islamic republic backs now threaten its rivals elsewhere in the Middle East. For instance, Iran-backed Houthis have increasingly pounded missiles on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, exposing the chinks in their armor. Furthering its idea of an ‘axis of resistance’, Tehran has showered its unflinching support on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which helped him save his chair during the tumultuous phase of the devastating war.  

Protracted wars have created several failed states in the Middle East, and Iraq is no different. The majority Shiite population of the country is more concerned about water, electricity, unemployment, corruption, and basic necessities today than a law targeting Israel. But a strong Iraqi state dominated by nationalist forces is a potential threat to Iran’s strategic interests in the region, more so as the country allows secure land connectivity to its allies Syria and Lebanon. That also explains why the pro-Iranian Shiite parties with links to Hashed al-Shaabi have formed a blocking third despite registering substantial losses in last year’s Iraq elections. The stalemate has finally forced the Sadrists to resign en masse from Parliament

Beyond the political tug-of-war, Iraq’s geography has also ensured that it remains entirely at the mercy of its neighbors Syria and Turkey to meet its water needs. Its major freshwater sources, the Tigris and Euphrates, originate in Turkey. While multiple tributaries in Iran feed the Tigris, the Euphrates flows through Syria before entering Iraq. Unfortunately, no water is added anywhere to the river after it enters Iraq. To sum up, over 80 percent of Iraq’s water needs are met by outside sources. Consequently, water has become the new weapon to destabilize Iraq as the construction of dams by the Turkish, Syrian, and Iranian governments has considerably reduced the water flow to the region.

To sum up, the new law may neither be an impromptu measure to burnish the country’s long-drawn position on Israel nor a fitting reply to the Kurds fraternizing with the enemy. It is a timely reminder that breaking the shackles of Iranian retribution is the need of the hour rather than revisiting the vestiges of the olden days.

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