Building a Strong, Capable Iraq Will Shape Its Foreign Policy

Farhad Alaaldin*

Partnerships, common interests, and economic cooperation is key for strong Iraq foreign policy.

Emerging from twenty years of turbulence and challenges, a "strong and capable Iraq" is what Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammad Shia al-Sudani promised the Iraqi people in his Eid message on June 27. Most Iraq observers might consider such an idea far-fetched, or even impossible, but the vision that the Prime Minister forecast has already been guided by the work of his government program on the ground since October 2022, laying the foundations for making a stronger Iraq a reality.

Building a strong Iraq depends on two aspects: the first is the reform program adopted by the government, which includes five key priorities: fighting corruption, tackling poverty, reducing unemployment, providing services, and carrying out economic reform. In addition to this, the government is focused on building state institutions and depoliticizing them, prioritizing capacity building in the country, and investing in the future.

The second aspect is the transformative foreign policy drive adopted by the al-Sudani government, based on a "productive diplomacy". This is designed to foster constructive relations between Iraq and its partners, based on long-term partnerships and mutual interests in all sectors. Crucially, dealing with Iraq as a partner, and not as a proxy for broader conflict or an arena for settling scores in proxy wars, is paramount. Foreign relations will be built upon Iraq’s sovereignty.

In practice, Iraq is now working on multiple levels to enhance its diplomatic efforts, strengthening its position in the region, and developing a more robust relationship with the international community. 

Focusing on bilateral relations and developing meaningful partnerships around tangible results is a crucial component of this new approach. This has already led to the signing of several strategic bilateral agreements, memoranda of understanding, and progressive cooperation with partners. As a result, Iraq now enjoys a solid relationship with its regional neighbors, as well as relative security and stability.

Furthermore, Iraq is engaged in several initiatives over the coming weeks and months to further enhance its position as the focal point in regional diplomacy, reshaping its relationship with the international community. Iraq will host the 2023 Baghdad Summit (for Economic Integration and Regional Stability), and, in view of the progress made on the ground, review both the relationship with the International Coalition to Defeat ISIS, and the presence of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI).

Baghdad has played a vital role in facilitating talks among regional players to settle their differences and find common ground for a better and more fruitful relationship. The most notable role was the facilitation of talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, resulting in the historic agreement announced on March 10, 2023, in addition to facilitating talks between Iran and Egypt.

Now, the focus of Iraq's diplomacy is shifting to economic cooperation; the 2023 Baghdad Summit, planned for this autumn in Baghdad itself, will host heads of state from regional governments and high representatives from international partners. The summit will see the launch of Prime Minister al-Sudani’s vision to establish a new economic zone linking the region together for the benefit of its people.

The conference will also secure Iraq’s position within multilateral mega projects designed to benefit the entire region. The first such project launched already is the Development Road, which will have the active participation of regional governments and companies serving the entire region. Interest in building this project is mounting daily; fourteen different institutions ranging from sovereign funds and financial organizations have expressed an interest in investing in it so far, in addition to the hundreds of companies keen to take part in building the road from across the region.

Iraq has fought and won the war against ISIS with the help of the international community, represented by the Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF), Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), and other partners, including Iran. Previously occupied territories are long liberated, and remnants of the terrorist organization are mainly scattered in remote areas inside and outside of the country. Iraq is now firmly in charge of its ground force and no longer needs a foreign fighting presence. The country has what it takes to fight ISIS wherever it might be, and regular successful missions are carried out to find and destroy their hideouts.

As a result, Iraq is now trying to redefine its engagement with coalition forces. Al-Sudani had recently expressed his views in an interview on February 2, stating that "the presence of the global coalition forces in Iraq needs to be regulated and legally mandated." The focus would be on advising, assisting, and enabling the Iraqi Security Forces to do their job. The Iraqi government's vision for the country’s security is clear: to protect Iraq's sovereignty and to enable its security forces to stand on their own feet to defend Iraq. This is the priority and notion on which all relations with the international coalition will be based.

Similarly, a strategic review of the UNAMI’s mandate is now due. While the UN Security Council (UNSC) unanimously adopted resolution 2682 on May 30 to extend the work of the UNAMI, the Iraqi government supported in a letter to the UNSC "an Independent Strategic Review" of the mission.

Over the course of its work, UNAMI has engaged across all levels of Iraq’s governance and has been instrumental in supporting the holding of parliamentary and provincial elections, providing assistance to build Iraq’s state institutions and capacity, and at times working on reconciliation and regional diplomacy. However, such a broad mandate to engage is no longer what Iraq requires. Hence, the resolution adopted states that the Secretary-General will conduct "an independent strategic review of UNAMI, in consultation with the Government of Iraq" no later than March 31, 2024. Such a review needs to consider the positive improvements across many sectors through the reform program carried out by the Iraqi government.

Against the odds and despite the complex and major challenges, Iraq is making rapid progress on many fronts. It is this government's firm desire to translate this success into strengthening the country’s position on the world stage and as a key player in regional and international politics. It is time for Iraq’s international partners to realize the value of its partnership. Iraq has what it requires to take this role on, and the government has the clarity of vision to harness its strengths.

*Advisor of foreign relations to the Prime Minister of Iraq