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On Sunday, November 15 Iran and Iraq held talks to strengthen military cooperation between both countries who fought a bitter war in the 1980s.

The Recent Iran-Iraq Meeting

Iraqi Defense Minister, Jouma Anad, made a two-day visit to Tehran on Saturday, November 14 to meet with Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces Major General Mohammad Hossein Baqeri. Both worked to prepare a document on military cooperation which they will sign next week.

Anad and Bageri discussed several defense-related issues, such as a planned military exercise and enhancing security at common borders. Baqeri is optimistic the cooperation will strengthen Iraq’s military capability in combating terrorism, claiming that the US is sparking terrorism in the country that has long been Iran’s geopolitical enemy. 

Such an agreement will likely increase Iran’s influence in Iraq. Tehran’s Iraqi role already rose in importance when a Shi’ite leader took over in Iraq after toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Understanding the Iran-Iraq War

On September 22, 1980, the war erupted when Iraqi troops invaded Iran’s oil-producing province of Khuzestan. The attack occurred one year after Iran ousted their US-backed monarch the Shah, marking the birth of Islamic revolution.

It is estimated the Iran-Iraq war claimed around 1.5 million lives. Even though many analysts argued that the contested Shatt Al-Arab River boundary triggered the war between both nations, other experts have different opinions about the war’s roots, since it involves several aspects, including the US and other parties’ intervention.

The war also cannot be separated from the regime change which occurred in both countries, as Williamson Murray and Kevin M. Woods in the book entitled the Iran-Iraq War: A Military and Strategic History (2014). In Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini came to power to overthrow the Shah Reza Pahlevi regime. In the same year, Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party succeeded in forcing then-President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr to resign.

A truce ended the war without a winner in 1988 and both countries normalized diplomatic ties on August 16, 1990, when the peace accord was signed.

Post-War Iran-Iraq Relations

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 pushed the Iraqi government further into the arms of Iran as it began to rely on cheap Iran construction materials. Under Saddam Hussein, Iran’s goods were widely smuggled through the border, a Euronews report revealed.

Iran also needs Iraq since it is a key export destination due to the US sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.

“Iranian companies are looking for somewhere full of consumers, as you can’t grow your sales in Iran now because things are tough,” explained Esfandyar Batmanghelidj of Bourse & Bazaar, a news and analysis website supporting business diplomacy with Iran.

Iran’s Influence in Iraq Politics

In November of last year, a US-based media published cables from Iranian intelligence showing Iran’s sizable influence in Iraq politics. In 2019, mass demonstrations in Iraq sparked by corruption and economic hardship ­turned into anti-Iran protests as rioters targeted Iran-related buildings.

No Iraqi politicians can be a prime minister without Tehran’s approval one of the cables revealed. Adil Abdul Mahdi— former Iraqi Prime Minister who resigned last May — was then considered a figure both Tehran and Washington accepted.

“According to one of the leaked Iranian intelligence cables, Mr. Mahdi, who in exile worked closely with Iran while Saddam Hussein was in power in Iraq, had a “special relationship with the I.R.I.” — the Islamic Republic of Iran — when he was Iraq’s oil minister in 2014,” the document stated.

What are Tehran’s Plans for Iraq?

This year’s military cooperation deal comes amid the UN decision to lift the arms embargo on Iran — which the US opposes. Previously in 2017, Iran and Iraq also inked a military accord, raising Washington’s concern given Iran’s role in Syria and Yemen.

This deal will pave the way for Iran’s defense equipment sale to Iraq, given that Iran continues to build up its weaponry despite the sanctions.

Iraq has been Iran’s main customer of Iran’s weapons. In 2014, Iraq’s procurement of Iran’s arms reached US$ 10 million, including anti-tank missiles, communication systems, sniper refiles, and many more, as Business Insider reported.

Furthermore, Iran plans to build its helicopters and sell them to Iraq, Islamic Republic of Iran Army Aviation (IRIAA) Commander Brig.-Gen. Yousef Ghorbani stated earlier this month.

“The Iraqi side was very willing to buy our parts and install night-vision systems on helicopters,” Ghorbani said after the meeting with the Iraqi Air Force.

Interestingly, Iran has also maintained a fleet of US-made helicopters since the 1970s. Now, Tehran has ambitions to produce its own, aiming to become one of the region’s military powerhouses and reduce imports from other countries.

The Iran-Iraq military deal is likely to mark a further strengthening of Iran’s influence in Iraq, which has been waning for some time. It should also serve as a caution of Iran’s resurgence into a regional military power despite sanctions pressure.