April 20 (UPI) — For years, Iraq’s future has been determined by its theocratic neighbor, the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Iranian regime’s vicious meddling in Iraq has caused growing resentment and resistance from the Iraqi people. There are now signs that the mullahs’ vice-like grip may be beginning to waver. But Iraq is not the only problem facing Tehran.
As the Biden administration sends yet another delegation to Vienna to continue negotiations on reviving the defunct Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal, Israel sits smugly on the sidelines, relishing the latest explosion at Iran’s Natanz underground nuclear facility. The mullahs have accused Israel of engineering the sabotage that caused extensive damage and a total blackout at the centrifuge plant, where the Iranians are boasting that they will enrich uranium to 60% purity, a hair’s breadth away from weapons grade. Although Israel has neither admitted nor denied its involvement in the Natanz explosion, no one doubts its determination to stop the theocratic regime from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
The Iranian economy has collapsed. There is massive unemployment and severe poverty. Due to the regime’s corruption and incompetence, the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic has soared to 250,000. Iran’s 80 million population are sick to death of their national wealth being stolen by the mullahs and pocketed, or squandered on their bid to build nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and on proxy wars across the Middle East.
That’s why Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is desperate for U.S. sanctions to be lifted so that he can cling to power. His threat to install a further 1,000 centrifuges and accelerate his uranium enrichment program is a blatant attempt to blackmail the West. U.S. President Joe Biden should beware of falling into this trap. He should listen to the voice of the Iranian millions who demand regime change, and he should listen to the people from neighboring Iraq who echo those sentiments.
Iraqis are fed up with Iran. They once regarded Qassem Soleimani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force commander, as a hero for mobilizing the Iraqi militias and leading the fight to rid Iraq of the Islamic State‘s jihadists. Under orders from Tehran, Soleimani led the ruthless Iranian-funded Popular Mobilization Forces in a thinly disguised genocidal campaign aimed at eliminating Iraq’s Sunni population. In the process, he oversaw the near destruction of the ancient cities of Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul.
Soleimani’s pretext of being the great liberator was in fact a lie. He was a murderer and terrorist, and his elimination by the Americans at Baghdad Airport in January 2020 was entirely justified and came as a lethal blow to his Iranian masters. The elimination of Abu Mahdi Muhandis, the PMF commander killed in the same airstrike, has left the Iranian-backed militias leaderless and in disarray. They have begun to splinter, as Iran’s stranglehold on Iraq loosens.
Iraq’s prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, is also refusing to kowtow to Tehran. He does not belong to one of the pro-Iranian political factions, and since taking office last May, he has enforced American sanctions, preventing Iran from repatriating the billions of dollars it earns from exports to Iraq. This has infuriated the mullahs. Kadhimi has to walk a tightrope, trying to edge Iraq away from Iranian meddling, while attempting to placate ardently pro-Iranian members of his Cabinet.
The situation is volatile. Iranian-backed militias have twice this year fired missiles at U.S. personnel in Iraq, and they have attacked Saudi targets with explosive drones launched from Iraq. Kadhimi has to try to stop the situation from getting out of hand, and his task may have become more difficult following the recent signing of a 25-year deal, allegedly worth $400 billion, between China and Iran, the terms of which virtually turn Iran into a Chinese colony.
Although Beijing denies that a monetary value has been placed on the deal, Iran has become a satellite of China rather than an ally. The accord brings Iran into China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a multitrillion-dollar infrastructure scheme intended to stretch from East Asia to Europe. It is believed the deal will incorporate military cooperation between the two nations, including weapon development and combined training and intelligence sharing. Strategically, this means that Kadhimi has to tread carefully when he opposes the mullahs, because in doing so he may risk irritating the Chinese.
The China-Iran deal also complicates American foreign policy. Where Biden and his Secretary of State Antony Blinken appear to be rushing toward restoring the JCPOA, the situation has entirely changed. With China as its protector and provider, the terms of the JCPOA are obsolete. The promotion of Iran as a Chinese client state able to spread its influence and anti-Western capacity across the whole region creates a fresh challenge, which the U.S. State Department has been quick to dismiss, claiming that America shares a common interest with China in curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
But despite the rhetoric, the Biden administration will have to design a new paradigm in dealing with Iran, and the European Union will have to rethink its groveling appeasement policy to a nation that blatantly uses terrorism as statecraft, even sending its accredited diplomats to mount bomb outrages on European soil.
Kadhimi will also require a new strategy to counter the China-Iran threat. His “New Mashreq” concept, which would cement an economic alliance with Jordan and Egypt, will be attractive to the Biden administration, although the mullahs clearly see such a powerful trilateral cooperation initiative as a threat to their hegemony in the region. The winds blowing out of Baghdad suggest that change is in the air. Giant posters and murals of Soleimani have been torn from city walls. The Iran-backed militias are beginning to break apart. Kadhimi seems to be asserting control and appears to be someone the West and Iraq’s allies can deal with.
For 38 million Iraqis, who have experienced decades of war, insurgency, corruption and deprivation, the restoration of peace and economic stability is long overdue. Biden must know that peace can only be restored across the Middle East by supporting the Iranian people in their demand for regime change.
Struan Stevenson is the coordinator of the Campaign for Iran Change. He was a member of the European Parliament representing Scotland (1999-2014), president of the Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with Iraq (2009-14) and chairman of the Friends of a Free Iran Intergroup (2004-14). He is an international lecturer on the Middle East and president of the European Iraqi Freedom Association. The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.