Iran will check Erdogan’s ambitious goals in Iraq, experts say

Kirkuk, Iraq/Washington — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has agreed with Iraqi officials to expand bilateral relations, an attempt that experts say will be challenged by neighbor Iran, which has established significant political clout in Iraq.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani said at a joint news conference with Erdogan on Monday that the 26 memorandums of understanding he signed that day provided a "road map for sustainable cooperation" between Iraq and Turkey.

Erdogan, on his first visit to Iraq in 13 years, hailed the memorandums.

’I believe that my visit and the agreements we signed will be a turning point in the relations between Iraq and Turkey," he said.

The documents address key issues between the two countries, including security, water management and trade.

The two leaders also witnessed the signing of preliminary agreements among Iraq, Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates on a 1,200-kilometer highway and railway project known as the Development Road Project, which would connect the Persian Gulf countries to Turkey and Europe through Iraq.

However, some experts are skeptical about Turkey’s ability to expand its interests in Iraq. They think Iran, as a regional competitor with more influence in Iraq, will ultimately shape Ankara’s relations with Baghdad.

’Whether Iran will agree to a NATO member to become the main character in Iraq and Tehran’s competitor is questionable," Sardar Aziz, a researcher at the Emirates Policy Center and a former senior adviser in the Kurdistan Regional Parliament, told VOA.

Aziz argued that the term of Iraq’s current Cabinet is approaching its end, adding more uncertainty for Turkey.

"Prime Minister al-Sudani has only one year left in office, and his chances of remaining in his position are very low," he said. "Additionally, no money has been allocated in the Iraqi budget for these projects. These make it impossible for the agreements to become long term, unless Iran agrees to them."

While competition between Turkey and Iran over influence in Iraq is not new, Tehran has had the most influence since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. In 2014, the Popular Mobilization Forces, an organization of Iran’s Shiite proxy militias in Iraq, further solidified Iran’s hand in Iraq.

However, experts say Turkey is seeking to balance Iran’s dominance by supporting Iraq’s Sunni and Turkmen communities.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani speak to reporters in Baghdad, April 22, 2024. Erdogan was making his first official visit in more than a decade. (Pool / AP) Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani speak to reporters in Baghdad, April 22, 2024. Erdogan was making his first official visit in more than a decade. (Pool / AP)

According to the Turkish presidency, Erdogan met with several representatives of Baghdad’s Turkmen community during his visit on Monday to Iraq. That meeting followed one with the Sunni community in the Iraqi capital.

Hassan Hanzal al-Nasir, an Iraqi writer and journalist in Baghdad, argued that Turkey’s influence over Iraqi Sunnis was unlikely to help Erdogan because of a stark division in the Sunni political base, particularly after the removal of Iraq’s parliamentary speaker.

Iraq’s Sunni parliament speaker, Mohamed al-Halbousi, was removed from his position in November 2023 by the overwhelmingly Shiite Iraqi Supreme Court over forgery allegations. Some Sunni political leaders condemned the decision as an attempt to further marginalize their community.

’Iraq’s Sunni political leaders are confused between Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Emirates and even Jordan. There is no consensus among the Iraqi Sunnis to fill the position of the parliament head," al-Nasir told VOA.

Nazar Haidar, director of the Iraq Media Center based in Virginia, said Turkey is leveraging Iraq’s sectarian divisions as "a negotiating card."

"Indeed, the Iraqi public has been shocked in the recent two days after seeing pictures of President Erdogan meeting with those he called the representatives of the Sunni community and the representatives of the Turkmen community. This is an extremely dangerous subject," he told VOA.

"The Sunni and Turkmen communities see Ankara as a support force in the Iraqi political process, and Ankara sees the Sunni and Turkmen communities as the negotiating card with the Iraqi government," Haidar added.

Experts predict Iran’s involvement will similarly complicate Iraq’s and Turkey’s attempts to cooperate on security.

While speaking to reporters on his flight home, Erdogan said Iraqi officials had agreed to cooperate with his government against Turkey’s Kurdish PKK militants. He said he wished to see concrete results of Baghdad’s labeling of the PKK as a ‘banned organization.’

Aziz, of the Emirates Policy Center, told VOA, ‘It seems that Turkey did not achieve its goal of convincing Iraq to recognize the PKK as a terrorist organization."

"In practice, Iraq’s assistance to Turkey against the PKK is difficult, because the issue has geopolitical and regional dimensions," he said, adding that Turkey’s possible military operations inside Iraq, particularly in the city of Sinjar, where the PKK and PMF simultaneously operate, could lead to direct involvement from Iran.

But Haidar predicted no Iranian objection to a future Turkish military operation against Kurdish militants in Iraq.

"Iran will agree on such an operation by Turkey because it will give [Iran] a good opportunity to further enhance its strategic interests inside the Iraqi territory. It will be a mutually beneficial scenario for Iran and Turkey," Haidar said.

This story originated in VOA’s Kurdish Service.