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Iran-Iraq agreement about more than borders 

Tehran reinforces position in Iraq with border deal; Syria heats up despite Arab rapprochement; Iraq-Turkey manage differences on water, oil and PKK. 
In this handout photo released by Iraq's National Security press office, Iraq's National Security Advisor Qasim al-Araji (R) meets with the Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani (C) in Baghdad on March 19, 2023. (Photo by IRAQI SECURITY MEDIA CENTRE / AFP) / XGTY / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO /IRAQI NATIONAL SECURITY PRESS OFFICE" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS (Photo by -/IRAQI SECURITY MEDIA CENTRE/A

Iran warns Iraq of 'mischief' by US 

Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), continued his diplomatic surge of recent weeks, signing a border security agreement in Baghdad on March 19. 

The memorandum of understanding commits Iraq to cracking down on Iranian-Kurdish opposition groups operating from Iraq's Kurdistan Region. It is a message to Baghdad, but also to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Iran has accused Iranian-Kurdish armed groups of coordination with Israel and launching attacks against Iran from Iraqi territory to support protests following the death of Mahsa Amini, a young Iranian-Kurdish woman who died in the custody of the morality police in September 2022. 

Iran has on several occasions launched missile and drone attacks on sites in Iraqi Kurdistan it claims have been used by Israel and anti-Iranian-Kurdish armed groups. 

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani again committed Iraq to not being used as "a launch pad" for attacks against its neighbor. In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor, Kurdistan Democratic Party President Masoud Barzani called any suggestion that the KRG was complicit in attacks on Iran “baseless,” adding that “Iran is a neighbor. … We are not part of the skirmishes or settling scores [with Iran].”

Iraq has stationed an additional 6,000 troops along its Iranian and Turkish borders this year to try to alleviate concerns by its neighbors. Iraq also signed a border agreement with Saudi Arabia this month.

Shamkhani made clear that Baghdad and Erbil were, in a sense, on notice, saying that the interests of Iran and Iraq "must not be sacrificed for the mischief of America and its terrorist mercenaries," as Amwaj reported.

Shamkhani is one of two personal representatives of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini on the SNSC. He was also involved in the China-brokered Iran-Saudi Arabia rapprochement and had visited the United Arab Emirates before arriving in Baghdad. 

Iraq is Iran’s top national security priority and Tehran has never had it better in Iraq. The governing political alliance in Iraq — the Coordination Framework — includes all of the major Shiite parties aligned with Iran, as well as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which tilts east as well.

There is both quiet and disquiet in Iraq, both ultimately because of Iran. The quiet is a welcome relief for Iraqis. The security situation has improved throughout the country under Sudani, who backs the US military training and support mission in Iraq. Iran-backed militias are not targeting Americans in Iraq, as they are in Syria (see below). Sudani has fostered trust and goodwill with Erbil on a draft budget law and in quiet talks toward an oil deal.

The disquiet is also about Iran. A case in point is the negotiations over a potentially game changing $27 billion oil deal between Iraq and TotalEnergies, backed by Washington, which remains stuck in negotiations over terms. Total Chief Executive Patrick Pouyanne said this week, “If we don't get it, to be honest, I cannot expose a company to a mix of risks. Iraq is not the easiest place to invest with all risk."

Simply put, no major deal with a Western oil company will likely happen in Iraq without the nod from Tehran. Arab Gulf partners are also being urged by Washington to invest in Iraq, but the progress has so far been slow, a kind of wait-and-see approach, over what will ultimately be the terms of doing business, and the level of risk, given the interests and influence of the neighbor.

Iran settles regional accounts amid nuclear uncertainty, Syria escalation

Iran is seeking to settle regional accounts amid uncertainty over the fate of the Iran nuclear talks, and increased discussion of military options by the United States and Israel if diplomacy falters and Iran continues to increase uranium enrichment.

Saudi Arabia’s Prime Minister and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has also charted a more independent diplomatic posture in the region, complementing Iran’s own initiatives.  

Less tension in the region allows Iran to focus on matters at home, and on strategy toward the United States, Israel and the West over its nuclear program. 

Iran’s regional policies these days are all about restraint and security on its flanks. The deal with Saudi Arabia reduces tensions in the Gulf; Iraq, to the west, is considered a safe space; Hezbollah, in Lebanon, has refrained from escalating border tensions with Israel and Iran signed off on the Israel-Lebanon maritime demarcation agreement last year, allowing gas exploration off the coast; and in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both backed by Iran, have to date avoided escalating recent violence between Israeli security forces and Palestinian resistance groups.

Iran’s tilt toward diplomacy and restraint is a sign of the times, which means it is fragile and could quickly change with events, as we see this week in Syria.

Saudi Arabia and Syria are reportedly close to restoring diplomatic ties, thanks to Russian mediation. Iran has so far publicly blessed the Arab rapprochement with Syria, a pivotal regional ally. This trend may be bittersweet for Tehran that, along with Russia, has had the lock on Syria since even before the Syrian uprising in 2011. Not to mention that the Arab reintegration of Syria is being sold in the region and the West as a means to counter Iranian influence in Syria.

“Pumping aid money into quake-ravaged Syria is a reminder to the Assad regime that cash-strapped Iran can do little in that regard,” writes Gilles Kepel. “Bringing Syria back into the Arab fold is a means to weaken the Iranian 'Shiite crescent policy,' which extends from Tehran to Beirut via Baghdad and Damascus.”

On Thursday, US military airstrikes hit Iranian forces in Syria after a US contractor was killed by a drone attack in Syria, with five US service members and another US contractor wounded, as Adam Lucente reports. The Pentagon reported another drone attack on coalition forces today. Israel also struck Iranian targets near Aleppo airport this week. Palestinian Islamic Jihad blamed Israel for killing a commander based in Syria last week, as Beatrice Farhat reports.

The Syria escalation comes as the United States and Israel have ramped up talk of military options should nuclear diplomacy fail.  

US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, testifying before the House Appropriations Committee last week, said that Iran could produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon in less than two weeks, after which it would take several more months to develop a nuclear weapon, and referred to “multiple” military options if Iran continues on this path.  

Israeli officials are increasing warnings that Iranian continued enrichment above 60% could trigger a military strike.  

But diplomacy may still have a pulse, however faint. Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Ali Baqeri-Kani met with political directors from the so-called E3 (Britain, France and Germany) for a reported "brainstorming" session on next steps in the nuclear talks, according to Amwaj. 

Iraq-Turkey talks focus on oil and water 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week agreed to increase the flow of water from the Tigris River into Iraq, a “palliative compromise" on an issue of vital interest to Iraq, as Ezgi Akin reports

Sudani, who met with Erdogan on a state visit to Ankara last week, expressed appreciation for the gesture, although it is a small step toward a more comprehensive solution to Iraq’s water crisis.

The Iraqi prime minister now has an oil card to play in his dealings in Turkey. On Friday, the International Chamber of Commerce's International Court of Arbitration in Paris ruled in favor of Iraq in a dispute with Turkey over the export of Iraqi Kurdistan’s oil resources via Turkey. With the decision, exports from the region via Turkey must now be approved by Baghdad. Turkey has said it will abide by the court’s decision, which could also impact both Baghdad and Ankara’s dealing with the KRG over oil exports from the region. 

Erdogan seemed unmoved by Sudani’s appeal to respect Iraqi sovereignty and to withdraw its outposts from Iraq and cease cross border operations against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States, Turkey and other Western countries,. 

“Our expectation from our Iraqi brothers is to recognize the PKK as a terrorist organization and to clear out these terrorists from its land,” said Erdogan.   

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