Stuck in the Middle With Iran

Under Pressure, Baghdad Might Not Choose the United States

Iraq's President Barham Salih walks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during a welcome ceremony in Baghdad, Iraq, March 2019 Thaier al-Sudani / Reuters

In late May, Saudi Arabia hosted three separate summit meetings in Mecca, in the hope of securing the region’s unequivocal condemnation of Iranian activities in the Middle East. But whether at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the Arab League, or the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Saudis, to their disappointment, found that not everyone shared their frame of mind about Iran.

One dissent particularly stood out. At the Arab League meeting, Iraqi President Barham Salih implored the region’s leaders to help sustain Iran’s stability. Should the United States and its allies go to war with Iran, he maintained, the conflict would have dangerous ramifications for Iraq and the entire Middle East. 

Salih’s statement was a reminder not just to the Saudis but also to the United States that Baghdad is uniquely vulnerable when it comes to Iranian pressure. And make no mistake: Iran has big plans for Iraq. Although relations between the neighbors have had their ups and downs, Tehran has invested deeply in Iraq, both politically and economically, and these investments will only multiply in the short term. After all, U.S. sanctions on Iran have made Iraq an essential link in Iran’s potential chain of commerce. How such plans play out will put the Iranians, the Iraqis, and the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump to the test.


The sanctions the Trump administration imposed on Iran in late 2018 are the most severe the country has ever experienced. By all accounts, Tehran was not only surprised but caught flatfooted without a backup plan. The Iranians had banked on their European and Asian economic partners saving them from President Trump’s wrath by keeping trade channels open under the framework of the 2015 nuclear deal that Tehran signed with the United States and five other world powers.

Instead, country after country opted to play it safe and avoid defying U.S. sanctions. The impact was swift and severe: Iran’s trade with the 28 European Union member states

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