U.S. Presses Baghdad to Resolve Disputes with KRG ahead of Sudani Visit: Report

The Biden administration has extended a new welcome to the KRG, as Iranian dominance in Baghdad is no longer as acceptable as it once was.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani meets with US national security advisor Jake Sullivan in Davos on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum on Jan. 16, 2024. (Photo: Al-Monitor)
Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani meets with US national security advisor Jake Sullivan in Davos on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum on Jan. 16, 2024. (Photo: Al-Monitor)

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) – “Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani is expected to make his first formal visit to the White House” since assuming office in Oct. 2022, Al-Monitor reported on Monday.

In advance of his visit, Sudani is facing a U.S. drive to improve relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which has been under pressure from elements in Baghdad aligned with Iran. They include, above all, Iraq’s Federal Supreme Court.

Indeed, a Supreme Court ruling following Iraq’s Oct. 2021 parliamentary elections, led to a year-long stalemate in the formation of a new government. The strongly nationalist Iraqi cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, won the most votes. But Sadr was opposed by Iran and Iraq’s Supreme Court, which had been suborned by Tehran.

Read More: Zalmay Khalilzad: Decisions of Iraq’s Supreme Court Contradict Constitution

Over the course of an entire year following those elections, no new government could be formed—until Sudani visited Erbil and met with Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP.)

Barzani threw his party’s weight behind Sudani, which gave him the votes in Iraq’s parliament necessary to become prime minister.

Read More: Iraqi PM-designate lauds Masoud Barzani—underscoring importance of KDP in Iraqi politics

Sudani is not anti-Kurdish, but pro-Iranian elements in his government are anti-Kurdish, as they pursue Tehran’s agenda.

Gaza War Transforms U.S. Policy–Positive Stance toward KRG Follows

That situation was long tolerated by the Biden administration, which had as its top Middle East priority when it took office in Jan. 2021, the restoration of the 2015 nuclear accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA.)

But it turned out that Iran was not that interested in restoring the JCPOA and following a year of unproductive talks, the effort was quietly dropped. 

Read More: US remains cool to proposals for reviving Iran nuclear deal

However, the administration still believed that its approach of defusing tensions with Iran had been successful.

On Sept. 29, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told The Atlantic Festival, a two-day policy forum hosted by The Atlantic magazine, “The Middle East is quieter today than it has been in two decades.”

Sullivan attributed that success to the administration’s policy “to depressurize, de-escalate, and ultimately integrate the Middle East region.”

The Biden administration, thus, believed it had worked out a modus vivendi with Iran that kept the Middle East quiet. But just eight days later, Hamas launched its brutal cross-border assault on Israel. The New York Times subsequently wrote, “Jake Sullivan’s ‘Quieter’ Middle East Comments Did Not Age Well.”

Iran, along with its so-called Axis of Resistance proxy groups, have been “exploiting the Israel-Hamas war to support their objective of expelling US forces from the Middle East,” the highly-regarded Institute of War has said.

They include pro-Iranian militias in Iraq and Syria, as well as the Houthis in Yemen.

Read More: Pro-Iran Militias Continue Attacks against US Forces in Iraq, Syria, as Biden Administration Criticized for Weak Stance

And this, after some months, has led to a major change in the Biden administration’s policy toward Iran. President Joe Biden recently characterized the new policy in his State of the Union speech. It is now “containing the threat posed by Iran.”

Read More: Biden: Need to Contain ‘Threat Posed by Iran'

The new policy of the Biden administration—to contain Iran—is, in fact, based on a recent U.S. intelligence analysis that describes Iran as a major threat to U.S. interests.

Read More: U.S. Intel: ‘Iran will Continue to Threaten U.S. Interests’

Thus, Iranian dominance in Baghdad is no longer as acceptable to the Biden administration as it once was, and Washington has extended a new welcome to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG.) 

“Red-Carpet Treatment” for PM Barzani

KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani visited the U.S. from Feb. 26 to March 1. It was his first visit to Washington as prime minister. 

Barzani’s visit to Washington came just before that of a team of Iraqi advisers arrived the following week to prepare for Sudani’s visit to Washington, which is expected in April, although no date has yet been set.

Thus, “Barzani got to make his case first,” Al-Monitor said, as it described “the red-carpet treatment accorded” to him. That included “meetings with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk and U.S. energy envoy Amos Hochstein, which are “seen as proof that the Biden administration has elevated the Kurdish entity in its Iraq strategy.”

Indeed, Barzani also met with National Security Council Advisor, Jake Sullivan, while he held significant meetings at the U.S. Congress and met at the Pentagon with Sasha Baker, Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Policy.

Read More: KRG Prime Minister meets with US National Security Advisor

Read More: PM Barzani Meets with Key Congressmen

Read More: Pentagon Spox: U.S. has ‘Long-standing Strategic Relationship’ with the KRG

In addition, a meeting with Brian Nelson, the Treasury Department’s Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, went especially well, Al-Monitor reported. 

“A presentation by Barzani’s team on reforms in the KRG banking sector in particular won high praise” from Nelson, it said, with the Under Secretary “reportedly noting that the KRG’s push for greater financial transparency, notably digital payments of public sector salaries, is what Washington has been telling Baghdad to do ‘for years.’”

In addition, “Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Affairs Geoffrey Pyatt, as well as Hochstein and McGurk, are expected to press Baghdad on the oil issue, when they travel to the region in the coming months,” Al-Monitor reported.

Certainly, it will not be easy to reverse the influence that Iran has gained in Baghdad, and with it, the hostile decisions that Baghdad has taken against the Kurdistan Region, undermining its autonomy and threatening its stability.

However, as the reception accorded Barzani in Washington suggests, the Biden administration now recognizes that doing so is an important objective, and such recognition is the first step in any meaningful change.

U.S. Priority to Resolve Differences between Baghdad, Erbil

Indeed, as Al-Monitor reported, “sources confirmed” that for the U.S. now, “resolving chronic differences between Baghdad and Erbil is a matter of priority, as they affect stability in an ever-fractious Iraq and, by extension, undermine the interests of the United States.”

“Escalating tensions between the United States and Iran since the outbreak of the Gaza conflict,” it continued, “has added a sense of urgency, as Tehran tightens its grip over Baghdad and presses for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.”

Indeed, in mid-January, three months after the Gaza war began, Sullivan met with Sudani at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. In that meeting “the pressure was palpable” on the need to resolve disputes with Erbil, Al-Monitor reported. As one source explained, “Sullivan told Sudani his visit [to Washington] should be in a good context, one in which progress was seen in the relationship with Erbil.”