Baghdad, Moscow Get Closer: Business Opportunity Or Conspiracy?
This article was originally published by Niqash. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.
Iraq and Russia have been getting cosy lately with high ranking visitors and multi-billion dollar arms deals. Is this friendship just a business opportunity? Related to events in Syria or Iran? Or something more sinister?
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s visit to Russia as well as the making, then breaking, of a multi-billion dollar arms deal with Russia has led to plenty of questions. These include questions on the state of the Russian-Iraqi friendship, its importance to both partners and its significance in geo-political terms.
Over the past century, the relationship between Iraq and Russia may best be described as inconsistent. Or possibly as similar to the kind of relationship that a small business might have with a big, multi-national business. It makes no sense for the big business – Russia – to sacrifice its interests and alliances with other big businesses – for instance, in the West – just to make deals with the small business.
Meanwhile inside Iraq, it feels like since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled the regime of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein there hasn’t been much of a cohesive, federal foreign policy. At least, not a unified one. We hear plenty of diverse opinions from the various political blocs but there is really no single spokesperson or national policy.
The recent debacle of the Russian arms deal is an excellent example. Different parties have said different things about the deal and it’s hard to know who is correct. Firstly, the Prime Minister’s office revealed there were allegations of corruption that needed to be investigated before the deal could be concluded. Other MPs accused the Iraqi deal makers of taking almost 10 percent off the total amount of the contract and profiting from it.
Then another MP said that what had actually happened was that the Russians had given the Iraqis a month to finalise the deal and that this hadn’t been done – so the deal needed to be totally renegotiated.
Finally, in this game of foreign affairs he-said-he-said, some of those making accusations of corruption and incompetency have been accused of doing so to advancing their own agendas. Some said the deal had caved in under pressure from the US, which remains Iraq’s biggest provider of arms. Others accused the Sadrists – who are part of al-Maliki’s ruling coalition – of criticising the deal just because they’re one of the only political groups with their own armed forces and they wish to maintain their own power; more weapons to the Iraqi army would neutralize them further.
All of which hardly makes for a disciplined, unified statement from the Iraq Parliament on this issue.
When it comes to Russia, it has not always been this way. As researchers Tareq Ismael and Andrei Kreutz write in the September 2001 edition of the Arab Studies Quarterly, the relationship between the two nations over the years has been influenced by three main factors. Geography – Iraq’s proximity to the Soviet Union and the historic Russian desire for a warm water port. Politics – Iraq’s influential Communists and their Kurdish population, both of which were anti-imperialist. And economics – Iraq’s oil wealth and a relatively well-off population.
Moscow and Baghdad first established diplomatic relations in September 1944. However in 1955, Iraq signed the Baghdad Pact, a US-sponsored treaty that also included Turkey, Pakistan and the United Kingdom, among others, that was supposed to protect the region against Soviet expansion. This resulted in the cutting of all diplomatic ties between Baghdad and Moscow and Iraq, ruled by a pro-Western monarchy, became a frontline for the Cold War.
However in 1958 when that monarchy was overthrown in a military coup, things changed quickly and by April 1972 the two nations had signed a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. The two did not always see eye to eye: the Iraqi treatment of the Kurdish people caused tensions as did the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan and then the Iraq-Iran war became a problem as the Soviet Union professed friendship with both warring nations.
But for around forty years, the relationship between the two countries was basically friendly. The biggest changes came in the 1980s when new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, initiated his policy of glasnost, aimed at improving relations with Western countries and his own country’s finances. The Soviet Union backed resolutions by the United Nations Security Council that allowed the US to use military force against Iraq after the latter invaded Kuwait.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, when Russia became the Russian Federation, as it is today, Iraq and other Middle Eastern states found themselves marginalized; the Russians adopted a foreign policy more in line with Western countries. Throughout the 1990s, the former super power had to take a back seat to the Americans.
When the Communist ideology collapsed and took the Soviet Union with it, Russia’s foreign policy had to change. It became more realistic. And soon international relationships were no longer based upon dogma or idealistic politics. Rather, they were based on practicality and whatever was in the Russian Federation’s own best interests.
However this did not stop the Russians, under the leadership of Russian President Vladimir Putin, from siding with Iraq on various issues. In fact, during this time the Russians were some of Iraq’s strongest allies.
For example, the Russian Federation objected to international sanctions against Iraq for their alleged nuclear weapons programme, saying that these sanctions harmed Russia’s commercial interests too. Russia also objected to any use of military force against Iraq – such as the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq – and insisted that weapons inspectors be allowed to return to the country again.
Having looked at the history of Russia’s relationship with Iraq and the current relationship between the two and it certainly starts to look as though the conclusions made during a half-hour Al Jazeera television special about the Russian-Iraqi weapons rings true.
The interviewees on that show – including Sabah al-Mukhtar, head of the Arab Lawyers Association in the UK and Dmitry Babich an analyst for the Voice of Russia radio station – said that, despite Russia and Iraq’s shared opinions on the Syria conflict (neither want outside interference), the arms deal was basically a business opportunity.
It could be construed as an indicator of growing Iraqi independence from the US as well as Russia’s urge to increase allies in the region – especially as the Syrian regime, with which it has a historic friendship, was in danger; Russia also already sells a lot of weaponry to Iran and Syria.
However on the whole, the speakers thought it was more of a business deal than any kind of long term indicator of Russian desires or any kind of Iraqi-Iranian-Syrian conspiracy in the Middle East.
Under the current Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, there has been a further increase in bilateral agreements between Iraq and Russia. New Russian consulates have opened in Erbil in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan and also in Basra in southern Iraq. Both of those cities are becoming economic hubs.
And there are also ongoing efforts by Russian oil company, Lukoil, to increase its holdings in southern Iraq. Lukoil already owns a major stake in one big oil field there, West Qurna 2, and it may take over the stake that Western multi-national, Exxon Mobil, wants to give up in another major oil field there, West Qurna 1.
And as has been pointed out before arms deals are not the beginning of any good diplomatic relationship; these kinds of things occur as a result of a good diplomatic relationship.
“Russia has been increasingly active in the Middle East in recent years, and further involvement in Iraq will generally be well received by the Arabs, who have traditionally viewed Moscow as a counterweight to the US,” concluded Marat Terterov, the founder of the Brussels-based European Geopolitical Forum, in an online interview on the website, World Politics Review, in June 2011. “Moscow’s involvement in Iraq is broadly consistent with Russian foreign policy objectives in the past five to eight years,” Terterov argued. “These have focused on extending Russian national interests in various regions of the world – including former allied countries – and lobbying for an expansion of Russian commercial opportunities in those regions.”