Jordanian-Iraqi Relations on the Mend, but Problems Remain

With the near defeat of the so-called Islamic State (IS) and the reopening of the Iraqi-Jordanian border, Jordan’s King Abdullah II anticipates an improvement in Jordanian-Iraqi trade that will bolster Jordan’s troubled economy. He also sees Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi as an improvement over his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, and hopes Abadi’s efforts to bring about national reconciliation will help the standing of Iraq’s Sunni Muslim population, with which the Jordanian population shares a cultural and religious affinity. From Abadi’s perspective, friendly relations with Jordan would demonstrate his commitment to improve ties with neighboring Arab states, help to convince Sunni Arab tribes in Iraq’s Anbar province that he is sympathetic toward their situation, and restore and protect an important trade route.

Jordan’s view that Iran remains a strategic threat to the region causes it to cast a wary eye on Iraq.

However, Jordan’s view that Iran remains a strategic threat to the region causes it to cast a wary eye on Iraq because of Baghdad’s friendly relations with Tehran. Iran’s military role in the crisis in Syria, Jordan’s neighbor to the north, is also troubling for Amman. What would hinder a true warming of relations with Iraq is if Jordan believes that Abadi is not doing enough to limit Iran’s role in Iraq and curb Iran’s purported desire to create a land bridge through Iraq into Syria.

Longstanding Ties

Jordan and Iraq have historically enjoyed close links since the British colonial administration created the two states in the aftermath of World War I, placing the brothers Abdullah and Faisal, sons of Sharif Hussein ibn Ali of the Hashemite tribe, on the thrones of each country, respectively, in the early 1920s. The Iraqi revolution of 1958 ended the Hashemite dynasty in Iraq. For a time thereafter, relations between Jordan and Iraq were very tense, especially as the two countries were on opposite sides of the so-called Arab Cold War, with Jordan staying in the pro-western camp and Iraq developing friendly ties with the former Soviet Union. But after a time, relations between Jordan and Iraq improved in light of common threats such as the Iranian revolution of 1979. Jordan sent military aid and some troops to Iraq during the subsequent Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). For its part, Iraq valued Jordan for its willingness to provide it with supplies and the use of its port at Aqaba on the Red Sea, which became a lifeline for Iraq as Iran’s attacks on Iraq’s shipping rendered trade through the Gulf dangerous. In return, Jordan received Iraqi oil on discounted terms.

These friendly relations endured through the 1990-1991 Gulf war, when Jordan—to the consternation of the United States and the Gulf Arab states—sided with Iraq in that conflict. After the anti-Iraq coalition rolled back Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait in early 1991, Jordan was in a difficult, isolated position, and it took some time before the Hashemite kingdom was able to restore relations with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Arab states. The fact that Jordan was willing to receive anti-Saddam Hussein exiles helped achieve an eventual rapprochement with its neighbors. By the time of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, Jordan was squarely back in the pro-US camp. Even though it publicly spoke against such a war, as did many Arab states, Jordan quietly aided the United States in that conflict by allowing some of its bases to be used by the US military.

Post-2003 Tensions

While Jordan, like many other Arab states, did not shed any tears over the demise of Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime, it came to see post-2003 Iraq with alarm; this was because Iraq’s Shia became the dominant political group in the country, and many of their leaders had developed close ties to Iran. Seeing the new Iraq as a kind of Iranian vassal state, King Abdullah was the first of the Sunni Arab leaders to warn publicly, in late 2004, of a so-called “Shia Crescent,” by which he meant there was a strategic arc running from Iran through Iraq and Syria (with its Alawi-dominated regime) to Lebanon (where Hezbollah had become a powerful military and political force). In the king’s mind, such an Iranian-Shia arc of control would pose a serious threat to Sunni Muslim Arabs.

For Iraq, the highway to Jordan is a route to the outside world that is not dependent on the whims of its other neighbors.

For their part, many of Iraq’s Shia political leaders held a dim view of Jordan, believing it was not doing enough to stem the flow of militants entering Iraq to join al-Qaeda’s affiliate there—even though Jordan reportedly provided intelligence to the United States that enabled the US military to target and kill Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, head of al-Qaeda in Iraq. On the popular level in Iraq, Jordan was criticized from all sides. In August 2003, a powerful truck bomb heavily damaged Jordan’s embassy in Baghdad, killing 11 people. Some analysts speculated that the attack was carried out by Saddam Hussein loyalists who were angry that Jordan did not side with his regime this time around. But soon after the attack, on the same day, some Iraqi citizens, probably of Shia background, ransacked the embassy building, tearing down pictures of Jordan’s King Abdullah and his late father, King Hussein. They were reportedly angry that Jordan had given sanctuary to Saddam Hussein’s daughters. In the aftermath of this episode, relations between Iraq and Jordan deteriorated.

The ascent of Shia political leader Nouri al-Maliki to Iraq’s premiership in 2006also strained Jordanian-Iraqi relations. Although King Abdullah visited Iraq in 2008 and pledged cooperation, Jordan, like many other Arab Sunni states, came to view Maliki as pursuing a narrow internal sectarian agenda that was detrimental to Iraq’s minority Sunni community. On the popular level, many Sunni Muslim Jordanians evinced sympathy for the plight of Iraqi Sunnis under Maliki’s rule. Relations hit a low point in July 2014 when Jordan hosted a meeting of Iraqi Sunni leaders who called on Maliki to resign. This caused a rupture in Iraqi-Jordanian relations.

Warming of Ties

After facing considerable pressure from the United States, Iran, and Iraq’s main Shia religious leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Maliki was forced to resign in August 2014, to be replaced by Haidar al-Abadi. Although from the same Shia Daawa Party as Maliki, Abadi appeared more moderate and less sectarian than his predecessor. To improve ties with Jordan and underscore the importance he attached to the bilateral relationship, Abadi’s first trip as prime minister outside of Iraq was to Jordan in late October 2014.

During this visit, King Abdullah impressed upon Abadi Jordan’s concern for Iraq’s territorial unity, stability, and security, while underscoring the need to bring all Iraqis into the political process. Abadi emphasized that Jordan remains Iraq’s closest neighbor and tried to solicit the monarch’s help in thwarting IS in Iraq’s Anbar province, which borders Jordan.

For Jordan, it is hoped that Iraq would provide a steady source of oil and a market for its goods to help Jordan’s troubled economy.

Both countries came to understand that they had mutual interests. That IS had occupied most of Anbar by then gave them a common enemy. Jordan soon joined the anti-IS coalition by conducting air strikes against IS targets, and Abadi wanted Jordan to use its influence with Sunni tribal leaders from Anbar, some of whom had fled to Jordan when Maliki was cracking down on them, to help form a 30,000-strong volunteer force against IS, similar to the so-called “Awakening movement” by many of these same tribes against al-Qaeda in Iraq in the 2006-2009 period. Although such a new volunteer force did not emerge for complicated reasons, it showed how the two countries had a commonality of interests. The Islamic State’s brutal burning execution of a captured Jordanian pilot in Syria in 2015 helped to solidify Jordan’s opposition to IS.

Trade and Security Issues

The IS occupation of Iraq’s Anbar province severely hurt Jordanian-Iraqi bilateral trade as the highway connecting the two countries ran through the middle of this region. Jordanian exports to Iraq dropped from $1.4 billion in 2014 to $424 million in 2016, with most of the decline occurring after IS closed the Iraqi-Jordanian border in 2015. There was little the two countries could do to revive their trade links until IS would be removed from the area.

After IS started to suffer significant defeats and loss of territory in 2016, Amman and Baghdad began serious discussions in the commercial sphere. That year, the two countries signed a preliminary agreement to build an oil and gas pipeline from Basra in southern Iraq to the Jordanian port of Aqaba. This pipeline would not only diversify Iraq’s oil transit routes but also meet all of Jordan’s energy needs when completed. Jordan would receive 150,000 barrels a day at preferential rates while Iraq would receive Jordanian produce and other agricultural goods.

Abadi, while valuing improved ties with Jordan, probably has limited room to maneuver, especially if he hopes to maintain the support of his Shia base.

In January 2017, Jordanian Prime Minister Hani al-Mulki traveled to Baghdad to discuss how to implement the pipeline project as well as to find ways to enhance Jordanian private sector involvement in Iraq, promote counterterrorism and intelligence cooperation, and prepare for the opening of the border.

This visit was followed by the president of Iraq, Fuad Masum, who traveled to Amman in May 2017. During Masum’s visit, King Abdullah underscored Jordanian support for Iraq’s territorial integrity and unity, and the two leaders talked of the importance of securing their border and implementing the pipeline agreement. And for the first time, Jordan invited Iraq to participate in a 20-nation military exercise, called the 7th Eager Lion, held in May 2017 on Jordanian soil under the direction of the US Central Command. Moreover, during the Kurdish crisis in Iraq in October 2017 when most Kurds voted for independence, Jordan sided with the Iraqi central government against the Kurdish Regional Government, expressing support for Iraqi unity.

When the border crossing finally opened in August 2017, Abadi expressed optimism that it would boost bilateral relations “considerably.” It is clear that both countries need each other economically. For Iraq, the highway to Jordan and to the port of Aqaba represents a land route to the outside world that is not dependent on the whims of its other neighbors. For Jordan, it is hoped that Iraq would provide a steady source of oil and a market for its goods to help Jordan’s troubled economy. Indicative of the strain that its economy is facing, Amman is currently raising the costs of fuel and bread and will soon impose sales taxes on sugar, tea, rice, and milk to boost revenues in light of its chronic budget deficits.

A Complex Regional Context

Although Iraq under Abadi has reached out to other neighboring Arab states for support, and these gestures, after many years of delay, have now been reciprocated by the Saudis and other Gulf Arab states (with US encouragement), Iraq cannot count on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as a lifeline, especially as the GCC remains in crisis over the Qatar issue.

This dispute has put Baghdad in a difficult position. Abadi and his government have taken a neutral stand in the crisis, not wanting to alienate any country that could be a potential donor, especially as Iraq looks for substantial economic assistance for the massive task of rebuilding its heavily damaged cities. Moreover, since Qatar has grown more dependent on Iran as a result of this crisis, and with Iraq still wanting to have cordial relations with Tehran for a variety of reasons, Abadi cannot afford to side exclusively with Saudi Arabia and its allies in this dispute. Iraq’s neutral stand has angered the Saudis, who may use the aid card to try to compel Abadi to bend. Reports that Iraq hosted a meeting between Qatari officials and the Iranian Quds Force commander, Qassem Suleimani, in June 2017—though denied by the Qatari government—also probably angered the Saudis. Hence, Iraq’s trade route with Jordan looks like a more attractive bet.

In seeking improved economic ties with Iraq, Jordan still has concerns about Iraq’s links to Iran. In an April 2017 interview, King Abdullah equated IS with Iran, a comment that drew sharp criticism from Tehran. And despite its support for Abadi, Jordan remains wary about the so-called “land corridor” that Iran purportedly wants to develop to continue to aid the Assad regime in Syria. Despite a thawing of relations with the Assad regime, Jordan does not want its northeastern border area (which is close to the highway linking Iraq to Syria) to fall into the hands of pro-Iranian Shia militias. Moreover, King Abdullah would probably want to see Abadi reduce Iranian influence in the mostly Iraqi Shia militia umbrella called the Popular Mobilization Forces. But Abadi, while valuing improved ties with Jordan, probably has limited room to maneuver, especially if he hopes to retain significant support from his own Shia community to remain prime minister.

Recommendations for the United States

Given Jordan’s shaky economy, it is in the interest of the United States to encourage trade links between Iraq and Jordan as a way of boosting their economic ties. An increase in bilateral trade would help to create jobs in Jordan, while the Basra-to-Aqaba oil pipeline, if completed, would help resource-poor Jordan deal with its mounting energy needs. Iraq would also benefit from improved ties with Jordan, which would help Baghdad’s outreach with the Arab world and earn the regime more trust with the Sunni Arab tribes of Anbar province. Perhaps these deepened ties would also diminish Iraq’s relations with Iran.

The United States has an interest in treating both Iraq and Jordan as allies and in continuing to encourage not only trade but strategic ties between them.

It would behoove both Jordan and the United States to be realistic about Iraq’s relations regarding Iran. Although Abadi may be able to reduce this dependence to some extent, it is unrealistic for any Iraqi Shia-led government to substantially curtail ties with Tehran, based on religious, cultural, and strategic reasons. Moreover, putting excessive pressure on Abadi could backfire, and having Maliki or a similar type of sectarian leader come to power again would not be in either country’s interest, as it could lead to repetition of the recent, destabilizing past.

The United States has an interest in treating both Iraq and Jordan as allies and in continuing to encourage not only trade but strategic ties between them. Iraq’s participation in US-led military exercises in Jordan is a step in the right direction. To make this policy effective, however, the Trump Administration should drop all talk of punishing countries that voted against the United States at the United Nations over its recent Jerusalem decision. Such talk sows confusion about US commitment to these countries’ political and economic stability and provokes angry popular sentiments, which makes them less willing to publicly support US strategic objectives in the region.

Gregory Aftandilian is a Non-resident Analyst at Arab Center Washington DC