Iraq in The Middle Part VI: Richard Weitz on Iraq’s Relations with China and Russia

RT: Right now, China and Russia are in direct competition to win more customers in the arms trade. Iraq is potentially a much bigger customer for arms than Pakistan (China’s no.1 arms buyer.) For example, the size of Iraq’s recent arms deals with the US dwarf those made between Pakistan and China, and Iraq has purchased both Russian and Chinese weapons before. If they continue to do so, they stand to reduce American leverage in this area, joining more traditional arms customers of Russia and China such as Myanmar, Syria, Sudan, Iran and Venezuela who want weapons suppliers with little to no interest in their internal affairs. This is serious in the case of Iraq, as numerous international human rights groups have been damning of Maliki’s government. Theoretically, Congress is supposed to restrict arms sales to specific military units suspected of violating human rights. As Maliki is increasingly accused of centralising power and abusing individual rights, do you think the US should restrict some of its arms deals with Iraq, or at least threaten to do so, or is that simply going to hand the prize  (arms sales, influence) to China and Russia? Iraq clearly wants US arms and advice since Nouri al- Maliki recently asked the US to “hurry up” arms deliveries to Iraq.

RW: But the Kurds have called on Washington to delay the sales because Maliki allegedly threatened to use the warplanes against them, and they are probably right. The United States has already lost considerable leverage by withdrawing its troops, not pressing for a return of military advisers and trainers, and focusing on other countries. U.S. arms sales are also at record levels. If the Iraqis can buy arms from China and Russia, that would not really change matters since arms sales are traditionally not a strong tool of influence. The Russians and the Chinese would be competing with one another, which would further reduce their leverage. And in this case the United States would not need to subsidize the sales, as in Afghanistan.

RT: You recently remarked on Sino- Iraqi relations that "theUnited States and other countries arguably benefit from the presence of China and other states in Iraq, which dilutes Iran’s invariably large influence."This is true to an extent- the Iraqi government profit from CNPC involvement in Iraq, and some of that money gets ploughed into construction projects (some of which are to be completed by Chinese firms) which in turn should create jobs and add to Iraq’s stability. Also, most TNC’s operating in Iraq have a lot more to offer than Iran. However, one wonders how stable China wants things to get-  Iraq is increasing cooperation with Iranian oil and gas firms, and while not a puppet of Iran, Maliki has significantly boosted ties. Of course, China don’t want a security crisis in the region, but they might enjoy the regional tension because it is “tripping up” America’s strategic shift to the Pacific. US and European companies- even outside the energy sector, want to do business in Iraq (eg. Ford Middle East and French firm Lafarge) Should the US and EU be encouraging companies to get involved in Iraq lest we lost out to the Chinese?

RW: I would not worry about China stirring up trouble, since Beijing would be most harmed by the rise of global oil prices. Russia might have an incentive in theory, but even in the case of Iran, Moscow has not flamed the flames of conflict just to boost the price of its oil and gas exports. The US and EU are already encouraging their companies to get involved. The main problem is that the security, infrastructure, and other conditions in Iraq are not sufficiently attractive to entice many of them to enter, while the Chinese government can exert more direct pressure.

RT: As the EU and US pursue a policy of constructive engagement with Iraq and try and keep Iraq both stable and within their sphere of influence, I am reminded of what Sadat said about the Russians: “Russians can give you arms, but only the United States can give you a solution.”

The US and EU might like to think they are pushing soft power in a country like Iraq with civilian led initiatives, but other interests in the region jeopardize our chance to be seen as neutral arbiters of conflict (ie, providing what Sadat called “solutions.”) Do you think our backing of the Syrian rebels, as well as the governments in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia make us look self interested, a charge levelled at Russia and China?

RW: Yes, but this is inevitable. Western governments have long become accustomed to having charges of hypocrisy leveled at them, especially on the nuclear weapons issue due to their ties with Israel. The Iranian and Assad regimes are considered anti-Western, whereas the Israeli and Bahrain governments are important U.S. strategic allies. From the perspective of Iraq, the United States can serve as an important interlocutor between Baghdad and the other pro-Western regimes in the Gulf, many of which are currently alienated from the Maliki government since it is perceived as too pro-Iranian. Perhaps only Washington can help counterbalance Iran’s growing influence in Iraq.

RT: The recent round of sanctions on Iran targeted China’s Kunlun and Iraq’s Eslaf Islamic Bank, businesses that have facilitated transactions on behalf of Iran. David Cohen, the Treasury Department's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence said that these sanctions “will have a significant chilling effect on the ability of Kunlun and Elaf to operate anywhere in the world."

It is interesting that sanctions against Iran have had to target Iraqi and Chinese companies. China and Iraq are by no means the only nations doing business with Iran, but EU involvement has virtually disappeared, and America’s Asian friends (Japan, South Korea, India) have scaled back their purchases of Iranian oil, despite having similar supply challenges to China. Recently, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) on the Senate Armed Services Committee successfully called for sanctions against Rosoboronexport because they are a major arms supplier to Syria (many SWJ readers will also know the company supply Russian helicopters to Iraq and Afghanistan.) Congress has now voted to end the Pentagon’s contracts with the firm.

Do you think there is a shared strategic interest between Russia, China, Iran, Syria (and to a lesser extent Iraq) that helps explain the commercial interests of the companies mentioned above and is it wise to combat this by targeting these companies (with sanctions) or will that simply sour relations with Russia, China and Iraq?

RW: The influence of the sanctions on China and Russia has been mixed. Their governments hate them in public, but in private they have changed their behavior to reduce U.S. objections. China in particular no longer deliberately transfers nuclear weapons technology to Pakistan or other countries. The pressure of the unilateral Western sanctions has induced both Beijing and Moscow to go along with additional sanctions in the UN Security Council to discourage further Western ones. How the sanctions will affect Iraq is unknown, but Iraqis are most concerned about securing Washington’s help in removing the remaining UN sanctions dating back from the Gulf War.

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Comments

Mark,
I have to agree with you here. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) is one of only a handful in the US to challenge the wisdom of certain arms deals, deals that might hurt US interests and the interests of allies, as well as making the West look hypocritical, further lending weight to the resistance axis and their propaganda. Outside of huge arms deals with very few strings attached, the oil majors are also adept at hurting foreign policy gains. Now with the recent SEC ruling,they are finally being held to account, just as Standard Chartered have been held to account. Some will try and argue that such measures, be they against an energy or arms TNC's are an unwarranted govt. interference in free trade- in the long run however, actions by the SEC, the US treasury and senator Cornyn benefit everyone.
-Robert Tollast.

The Iranians are actually hopeful--privately, of course--that American F-16IQ Block 52 fighter planes and M1 MBTs are delivered to Iraq. The Iranians highly prize American weapon systems, and believe these forces would contribute toward the "resistance" bloc.

It will be interesting to see if American policy makers can put aside the profit factors and take a more realistic assessment of Iraq--Iran's sister nation--particularly where it concerns arms sales. But this may not be possible, and the Iranians and Iraqis remain hopeful that the profit factor will continue to win out and the American arms delivered.

For their part, particularly where it concerns military aviation, the Iranians consider Russian and Chinese arms to be little more than junk compared to American arms. This attitude is based on the clear superiority of their American arms fielded during the Iranian war against Saddam Hussein in the 1980s.