Marc Lynch

Maliki in Tehran

The enduring image of President George W. Bush’s final visit to Baghad was without question Montazer al-Zaydi’s flying shoes. The enduring image of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s quick trip to Tehran this week will likely be this image of his cordial get-together with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (with no flying shoes in sight). ...

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The enduring image of President George W. Bush’s final visit to Baghad was without question Montazer al-Zaydi’s flying shoes. The enduring image of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s quick trip to Tehran this week will likely be this image of his cordial get-together with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (with no flying shoes in sight). The contrasting symbolism of the two visits could hardly be lost on Iraqis or Arabs pondering the real winner of the U.S.-Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement negotiations (which Iraqis call the Withdrawal Agreement) or the future of Iraq.

Nuri al-Maliki and Ali Khamenei
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki chatting with Iran’s Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei (source: Iraqi Prime Minister’s Office)

Maliki came to Iran after postponing a planned visit last week.The Iraqi rumor mill had somehow convinced itself that he had returned home to host a surprise visit by Barack Obama, in spite of the near-constant surveillance of the President-elect by a press pool which dutifully reported his every visit to the gym and would likely have noticed his departure for an 11,000 mile, 17 hour flight from Hawaii. The real reasons for his return were less obvious.Current speculation focuses on a bitter public complaint leveled by Maliki confidante Sami al-Askari that the four major ruling parties (including ISCI) were plotting to bring down the Prime Minister (a charge which the parties have denied in desultory fashion). Whatever the case, a week later Maliki’s fourth official trip to Tehran — and the first since the signing of the SOFA/WA — was back on.

Thanks to the mysterious delay, Maliki arrived in Tehran amidst escalating outrage over the Israeli assault on Gaza. The erstwhile U.S. ally showed no signs of disagreeing with his Iranian hosts on the regional issue of the day. Doing so would have scored him no political points in Iraq, where solidarity with Gaza seems to be as high as anywhere else in the region. Maliki’s government long ago issued a statement condemning the Israeli attack on Gaza, as did the Iraqi Parliament, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and many of the leading political parties. So not surprising — though perhaps noteworthy at a time when Michael Oren, tasked to “reinforce Israel’s position in the media military“, declares that “in Gaza, the real enemy is Iran.”To steal Spencer Ackerman’s line, “next stop: Baghdad?

The two sides instead talked of more prosaic things such as increasing trade and Iranian investment in Iraq. Iraq again promised that its land would never be used to attack its neighbor. Khamenei warned that the U.S. would likely break its agreements (a fear already widespread among Iraqis, and unfortunately fueled of late by injudicious remarks by General Ray Odierno and other military officials about U.S. plans). Iran’s Arabic-language al-Alam focused on Khamenei’s claim that most of the violence in Iraq was due to the presence of American and British forces (no objection from Maliki is noted). Whatever the private conversations, the Iranians did not seem particularly dismayed by the SOFA or to view it as the defeat described in some American rhetoric.

Maliki’s friendly trip to Tehran and chat with Khamenei are important signals. But I’m not highlighting it in order to fan any kind of hysteria or outrage. In fact, I think it’s a potential positive if managed well. The idea that this Iraq could be free of Iranian influence has always been an odd fantasy, and Iran has always cultivated a wide portfolio of Iraqi allies and partners far beyond the Sadrists upon which American attention tends to focus (their closest ally, of course, has always been ISCI, the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq — something else they share with the U.S.). As the incoming Obama administration contemplates direct engagement with Iran — and Iraq prepares for a series of elections and transitions, while Iran prepares for its own Presidential election — a constructive relationship between Baghdad and Tehran is hardly the worst development imaginable. Depending on how it’s managed, that is…

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