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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Iraq's Abadi pulled by competing US and Iranian forces 

The premier's support for US sanctions on Iran has isolated him from Tehran

Iraq's Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi speaks during a ceremony in Najaf, Iraq January 7, 2018. Reuters 
Iraq's Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi speaks during a ceremony in Najaf, Iraq January 7, 2018. Reuters 

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi’s support for renewed US sanctions on Iran has placed his outgoing government in a difficult position and highlighted his fragile relationship with Tehran.

Since last week, the Iraqi leader has come under increasing pressure from Iran after he announced that he had no choice but to abide by the economic embargo imposed by US President Donald Trump, a move that has angered Tehran.

Conflicting reports emerged on Monday around a potential visit by Mr Abadi to Iran. An unnamed Iraqi official told AFP news agency that Iran had cancelled a visit by Mr Al Abadi to Tehran, citing his support for the sanctions. But his spokesman denied that there was ever a visit planned to Iran.

“We usually announce a state visit by publishing a statement at least two days before it is scheduled to take place, and in this case we haven’t done that and we cannot announce its cancellation,” Saad Al Hadithi told The National, adding that Mr Al Abadi has no planned visits to Iran.

Since taking office in 2014, the premier has sought to project an image of independence from Iran while maintaining friendly relations with the country.

Yet, Washington began restoring sanctions, which had been lifted under the 2015 nuclear deal, on Iran last week. Mr Trump withdrew from that pact in May.

The administration says the renewed sanctions are meant to pressure Tehran to halt its alleged support for international terrorism, its military activity in the Middle East and its ballistic missile programme.

Positioning Mr Al Abadi in an awkward stand between his government's biggest allies, Washington and Tehran.

Mr Al Abadi’s statement will likely cause more damage to himself than Iran as he is currently in the process of trying to form a government, Amir Handjani, senior resident fellow at The Atlantic Council told The National.

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“He is not Iran’s candidate of choice, this further isolates him from Tehran. Iran wants Hadi Al Ameri, he is the candidate of choice and this further cements that for Iran,” Mr Handjani said.

“A red line for Iran will always be that they cannot have an Iraqi government in power that is anti-Iranian,” he added.

Tehran has maintained close ties to Baghdad's government since the 2003 US-led invasion toppled former dictator Saddam Hussein, Tehran's archenemy. Thus, it continues to work for a government in Baghdad that is supportive of Iranian interests.

“Iran’s strategic objective in Iraq doesn’t change, they want an Iraqi government that is mindful of the fact that they have to walk a tight rope in balancing multiple factions, the Kurds, the Sunnis”.

Iraq is the second-largest importer of Iranian-made non-hydrocarbon products, buying approximately $6 billion (Dh22.04bn) worth of goods in 2017.

Yet, since 2003 Iraq has also forged close ties with Washington, forcing its government to delicately balance relations with both. Iraq has occasionally mediated between Iran and the United States and sponsored talks between the two.

The anti-Iran sanctions are set to be followed by a second wave on November 5, targeting Tehran's oil and gas sector.

Resentment over US sanctions lingers in Iraq, where the economy was crippled by 12 years of restrictions that began in 1990 after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.