August 16, 2018 | Policy Brief

Iran’s Allies in Iraq Vow to Help Tehran Skirt U.S. Sanctions

August 16, 2018 | Policy Brief

Iran’s Allies in Iraq Vow to Help Tehran Skirt U.S. Sanctions

Under pressure from pro-Iranian factions, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is backing away from his initial commitment to comply with U.S. sanctions on Iran. Abadi’s reversal illustrates both the weakness of Abadi’s caretaker government and the depth of Tehran’s influence in Iraq.  

Abadi remains in office as a caretaker since no governing coalition has emerged in the aftermath of the May 12 national elections. Whereas Abadi’s al-Nasr bloc disappointed with a third place showing and 42 seats, the Iranian-aligned al-Fath coalition outdid expectations by claiming second place and 48 seats.

Although Abadi condemned U.S. sanctions on Iran as a “strategic error” on August 7, he said, “We will abide by them to protect the interests of our people.” A week later, he insisted, “I did not say we abide by the sanctions, I said we abide by not using dollars in transactions” with Iran. During that one-week gap, Iranian allies and proxies in Iraq rushed to defend Iran while branding Abadi as an American lackey.

In a statement released on August 8, Abu Ala’ al-Wala’i, the secretary general of Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, an Iraqi Shiite militia with close ties to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, rejected the U.S. sanctions against the Islamic Republic, saying “we are working to break the blockade.” The militia also vowed to “use all available means to prevent the starvation of our Muslim brothers in Iran.”

Similarly, the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militia, whose Sadiqun bloc belongs to the al-Fath coalition, released a statement blasting Abadi for failing to protect Iraq’s sovereignty from the “reckless” Trump administration. “Maintaining the neutrality of Iraq by not being part of the Iranian axis does not mean pushing it to be part of the American axis and following its unilateral decisions,” the group said. “This position is not binding on the next government.”

Another Iran-backed group, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, criticized Baghdad for standing against Tehran. “Since when were we, the nation of Iraq, part of the project to sanction other nations … What response are you giving the Iranian nation who came to our aid?” said the group’s official spokesman Hashim al-Mousawi.

More high-profile members of Iran’s militia network in Iraq, such as Kata’ib Hezbollah, designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 2009, have also weighed in. Jasim al-Jaza’iri, a prominent leader, framed Abadi’s decision to comply with U.S. sanctions as politically driven. “The prime minister has courted the United States to ensure a second term in office and form the next government, and never paid attention to the common interests linking Iraq with the Iranian people,” said al-Jaza’iri.

Iran-aligned political parties also joined in the criticism. The Islamic Dawa Party urged all nations not to abide by the “unjust” sanctions, while former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a member of Dawa, met with Iran’s ambassador to Iraq and vented his frustration with the renewed sanctions on Iran.

Even Iranian officials have turned up the heat on Abadi. Some Iranian lawmakers have renewed demands for reparations owed by Baghdad due to the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War.

Washington cannot afford to sit on the sidelines as Tehran continues to build a pro-Iran government in Baghdad. The U.S. should make clear to Abadi that it expects him to enforce all sanctions, as he initially pledged.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a research fellow focusing on Iran at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Romany Shaker is an Arabic-language research analyst. Follow Romany on Twitter @RomanySh.

Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and follow FDD’s Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance @FDD_CSIF. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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