We Will Deal with the Next Iranian President in Good Faith: Iraqi PM Mustafa Al-Kadhimi
In an in-depth interview with four Iranian news agencies, Iraq Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi lays out his views on a wide range of topics, including Iran-Iraq relations, mediation between Tehran and Washington, and upcoming elections in Iran and Iraq. The full transcript of the interview is provided below. Questions and answers have been reordered:
I would like to brief you first on the circumstances that led to the formation of this government which, unlike its predecessors that have ruled in Iraq since the toppling of Saddam’s dictatorship regime, was not the result of elections, but directly because of an exceptional sequence of events the country went through.
There were protests and popular movements all over the Iraqi streets that led to the resignation of Adel Abdul Mahdi's government. However, the Shia political blocs did not reach an agreement on a prime minister, though, many names were submitted.
I was nominated by the President to assume the position of the prime minister. In order to accept the responsibility, I stipulated that a clear Shia unanimity be on me, and so it was.
A complete Shia consensus entrusted me with the task of running this government, and there were three demands:
- To establish fair and proper elections as soon as possible.
- To safeguard the Iraqi economy from collapse because of the economic crisis due to the downfall in oil prices and the repercussions of the Corona pandemic. And that;
- Iraq becomes a safe country that maintains control over: unruly weapons, organized crime gangs, as well as Daesh terrorist groups.
My nomination came with these intricate circumstances, and my goal in the first place, was to work on terminate the political problems in Iraq which, frankly speaking, were very serious.
I know that the Iranian media conveys a single-sided viewpoint. Today, I shall represent all Iraqis honestly and our statements will convey an Iraqi national point of view. As a prime minister, I am given the task of the elections and my objective is to realize it. I have no personal interests, and I will protect everyone’s interest.
We worked with the political elite, to dismantle the political problems and the divisions in the street. Our aim was to bridge the gaps or reach a consensus among the Iraqi political blocs, including the Shias, and the public. We achieved progress in this regard. At the same time, we have worked very hard to sort out the complicated situations brought by the ongoing foreign escalations on the Iraqi territories. We tried our best to prevent Iraq from turning into a battlefield, an arena for conflicts. Rather, it could become a dome for peace and rapprochement. We worked on focusing on the points of overlap instead of highlighting the points of difference.
Most of Baghdad’s squares as well as other Iraqi cities were eventful with demonstration activities on daily basis. Some of the squares were fully attended around the clock. Thus, our cities almost became void of business. We managed to convince the demonstrators to express their demands in alternative ways. There was an agreement to listen to their demands, and their rights.
My government witnessed also an escalation by Daesh (ISIS), in the aftermath of the great victory that was attained by the Iraqis of all components who were supported by all the friends of Iraq, including the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has a major role in backing Iraq in the fight against Daesh.
This government came when Iraq was experiencing severe economic circumstances, as oil revenues plummeted to nearly one dollar/barrel. In addition, Iraq's committed share to OPEC has been reduced to 50 %. Finally, the public coffers were almost empty.
I am the first prime minister, ever, in Iraq to receive a poor balance of cash. The money available was so little that it couldn’t meet any obligation with respect to employees and citizens. Yet, we have developed an economic reform program (the long-term white paper) which takes five years to implement. We also provided funds to pay for the state commitment towards its citizens. There was boundless chaos, due to mismanagement and corruption. More than 7.5 million of the 40 million population in Iraq are civil servants or retirees.
In fact, the post-Saddam political system received many blows, including: the war by al-Qaeda, the war by Daesh, and then the chaos of unsuccessful attempts by the political blocs to accommodate all Iraqis. These situations led to demonstrations and protests that affected the structure of the Iraqi state.
In addition to the economic White Paper, we put forward reform projects in agriculture, industry, and health. We have worked very hard to provide vaccines; Iraq was the only country in the region that provided the three globally available COVID-19 vaccines.
We also undertook to end Iraq's foreign political and diplomatic problems. Iraq was accused of being a failed state. The global interest in Iraq had become less, and Iraq was almost isolated. We succeeded in rebuilding good relations with all friendly countries of Iraq, and with the Arab neighbors. Likewise, with the Islamic Republic of Iran, Turkey, the Islamic region, as well as with Europe.
I am proud that Iraq's relations with Iran are at their best now. I might be the prime minister who worked more than predecessors on Iraqi-Iranian common interests, and advanced the ties. I am proud that I was frank in developing a constructive relationship for the benefit of the two countries.
With regard to external relations, as I told you, we have established balanced relations with all neighbors. No exchanges were made at the expense of another country, especially with Iran. Our relationship has been historical, strategic and aimed for the future; that is why we succeeded in signing a Memorandum of Understanding and an agreement to build the Shalamcheh-Basra railway project, which has been stalled since 2005. We have no worries of building relations with Iran, as long as the national interests of both countries are considered. Last month, the Council of Ministers voted on the agreement, and God willing, it will soon be executed to serve pilgrims and maintain trade between our two countries.
There was a great coordination in terms of trade, customs, tariffs, as well as in building good economic relations. We are still working hard to develop an accord on the stability of the whole region where Iraq takes a part among many of the countries in the region. The stability of our region is a stability for all countries.
I reiterate that there is an opportunity to build these relations now, because Iraq in the past was like an ill man, out of Saddam's reckless policies, which put Iraq in a difficult situation. We should learn from the past and keenly refrain from repeating the same mistakes. We must advance investment and develop our countries, and base our relations on the economic interests as well as the interests of our peoples.
We looked after this all within a year. We were able, under difficult and complex circumstances, to overcome a lot of problems and obstacles in the path of restoring citizen confidence in the political system and their belief in fair and integral elections in order for everyone to do their part in building this country.
Iranian Diplomacy: As we approach the early elections date next October, there are many coalitions being formed by multiple political blocs. What is your stance in the next elections and with which entity or entities will you be forming a political coalition?
Concerning the elections, my position was clear; I came to provide free and fair elections. It is therefore unreasonable for me to think about free and fair elections while being part of the political competition. That is why I have chosen to be a neutral side, I support the elections, and we work upon being at equal distances from all political sides. As for alliances, we will support all political powers or parties participating in these elections, and we will create all the right conditions on the basis of justice. I, myself will not take part in the elections, nor do I have any party, but there are those who are trying to accuse the Prime Minister with false accusations that he will be running for elections. At first they said that the Prime Minister doesn’t want the elections, while I had said that I wanted the elections date to be set for the 6th of June, which is one week from now. The Electoral Commission was not ready for that date and required more time, and we suggested that the elections day be on the 10th of October of this year. So we announced the elections and supported the Electoral Commission in the coordination of all details associated with the elections, then some came to say that the Prime Minister will enter the elections and form a party to steal away the elections. I have frankly stated that I do not have a party and will not run for elections. Therefore, I want everybody to understand that my goal is to try to fulfill the principle of justice for all, all political blocs, parties, and all popular activities. There must be a chance for everybody, and my role is to protect the elections, and to provide success opportunities for these elections. I will not participate in the elections, and will not support an alliance at the expense of another, I will simply encourage all parties to have dialogues, set work guidelines, and participate in national competition.
Iranian Diplomacy: There will be elections in Iran soon, and a new government will assume power. There were agreements and understandings between you and the current government. What is the future of these agreements and understandings? How will you deal with the new government?
Iran is institutional, it follows a presidential system, any name comes to the position of the president of republic will be dealt with in good faith by the Iraqis. The presence or change of names and personalities according to the system of the Republic of Iran will not affect the relations with Iraq. We depend in our relations on the strategic aspects and the history of the Iraq-Iran relations, no matter whichever party wins the elections. We will work to further deepen these relations.
We certainly respect the results of the Iranian elections whatsoever it is. We must stress that the Iraq-Iran relations will not be affected by the results of the elections. As our historical and strategic relations are based on common interests, and we wish the Iranian people success in whoever they choose. We respect the will of the Iranian people, as well as the will of Iran's leadership.
Iranian Diplomacy: What is the mediation role of Iraq between Iran and US? What role did Iraq play in lifting sanctions on Iran? Can Iraq replace Oman in the mediation between Iran and America?
We wish to see an understanding and fruitful results out of adhering to Vienna Agreement in a manner that serves the peoples of the region and the world. Iraq is ready to assume any role necessary, upon request, to convey and converge the views regarding these relations.
Iran went through difficult circumstances, and now is the time to help correct many paths. If requested, Iraq is certainly ready to play any necessary role to support.
Iranian Diplomacy: What is the status of the Iraq-Chinese agreement that was signed during the term of Mr. Adel Abdul-Mahdi? Is it still in effect? How is this agreement consistent with the vision of this government towards linking the Arab depth and the vision of the new Levant?
The Iraqi-Chinese agreement was signed during the term of Dr. Al-Abadi. It was confirmed under the term of Adel Abdul-Mahdi, and it is supposed to be confirmed also by this government, but the conditions of COVID-19 and the collapse of oil prices had its toll on the effectiveness of putting this agreement into effect.
Contrary to popular belief, this agreement is important and strategic for Iraq and we are working to implement and protect this agreement, but strategic agreements take a lot of time. Iran for example, started dialogues over the agreement with China in the nineties and it was signed only two months ago.
We are greatly interested in this agreement, and we negotiated ways of the implementation with our friends in China, such as providing funds through the Iraqi oil sales, but due to the downfall of oil prices and because of COVID, there were no official visits to China to follow up on this matter. However, on the diplomatic level, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is following-up on this agreement, which bears a great hope for the Iraqi society. This however does not contradict Iraq’s openness toward the rest of the world, regarding the vision of a new Levant, the economic agreement with Europe, nor with any other countries.
IRNA: How do you assess the security cooperation between Iraq and Iran during the fight against terrorism? What is the current status of the security cooperation between the Quartets: Iran, Iraq, Russia and Syria in the war against terrorism?
No doubt, the security of any neighboring country to Iraq is a priority for the Iraqi government. Because any cross-border infiltration of these countries will affect Iraq. When I became head of the Iraqi intelligence service there was a significant security cooperation with Iran, and we managed to prevent Daesh, through some of the proactive operations, from carrying out operations related to targeting internal security in both Iran and Iraq. We harnessed forces to support Iran in the war against Daesh when there was an attempt to break through the borders and carry out operations that harm the interests of the Iranian people.
The quadrilateral cooperation is still ongoing. In this regard, there is a joint committee, and a meeting which was held a while ago between the Chiefs of Staff. We continue to provide our support for this quadrilateral committee concerned with war issues, information exchange and intelligence work during the war against Daesh. There is a high coordination which we greatly value and firmly support.
Tasnim: There are many objections against your economic policy by the Iraqi people. What are your plans and proposals to confront the economic problems and to what extent have you been able to overcome these problems? Were these programs successful?
Absolutely, Iraq has been through a major economic crisis and the reason behind this crisis is poor planning for over more than 17 years. Corruption has played a crucial role in the economic collapse.
Favoritism, which led to a hugely oversized Iraqi State institutions also had its repercussions on Iraqi economy. Solving economic problems requires courage, it implies taking difficult decisions, and still while Iraq was going through times where it was unable to pay employees’ salaries, at the time of our government, we succeeded in providing liquidity in order to pay the employees their salaries, as we also succeeded in providing funding for all government operational requirements.
The economic crisis requires a vision, and for the first time in Iraq’s history since the Iraqi State’s establishment, never has a government presented a future vision for economic reform the way our government has done. That is why we introduced the White Paper which we discussed with all Iraqi national political blocs and presented to the parliament, to be part of a group of reforms set in the 2021 General Budget.
Iraq was 96% dependent on oil, and in the White Paper the oil dependency is reduced to about 70-71%, the alternatives being fields such as agriculture, industry, and we will offer all the necessary conditions and loans for these oil alternatives in order to revive Iraqi economy. Such measures will necessitate time, and this administration is only one years old, while repercussions on economy can only be observed after a long period of time. Furthermore, there might have been some pains and challenges in the beginning, but I can say that within a short time we were able to overcome the stage of danger, and succeeded in saving big amounts of money and here I will cite two examples:
In 2019, within 40 days the Iraqi currency auction sold about 7.9 billion dollars, and most of this money was laundered or went to corrupt individuals.
With this government we succeeded to sell only 1.3 billion dollars on the same date of year 2019 and also within 40 days. So where the balanced 6 billion dollars were going? They went directly into the thieves and corrupts’ pockets and in money laundering operations.
When we first came into government, Iraq’s reserve in the Central Bank was approximately 51 billion dollars, and through the banks classification plan, in addition to the implementation of our finance policy, within 5 months we succeeded in increasing the Central Bank’s reserve from 51 billion dollars to about 61 million dollars, and it is still increasing. There were satisfactory and excellent results within a short period of time, and still I believe that the commitment of the upcoming government to the White Paper will help in alleviating the burden of Iraqi economy and will represent a big opportunity for hope by God’s will.
Fars: You mentioned at the beginning of the interview the railway project between Basra and Shalamcheh. When will this project be executed? What are your programs for the trade transit from East to West through Iraq?
When we first signed the Shalamcheh agreement, unfortunately it was criticized by hostile media and even by some of Iran’s friends. Iraq has succeeded in forming closer relations with the Islamic Republic; our relations become stronger with other States when there is economic integration. This project was first suggested in 2005, but its implementation was feared by some. Nonetheless we concluded the agreement since we believed that it was in the interest of Iraqi people and Iranian-Iraqi relations.
This is a strategic project and it will be an extension to the historical “silk belt” crossing from China into Pakistan and the Islamic Republic, arriving to the Mediterranean Sea and off to the rest of the world. Surely we will not be limited to this project, and whenever the opportunity will allow us to do so, we will go beyond the limits between Iraq and the Islamic Republic, to reach all the states of the region so they may benefit from it and serve the economy of these countries. Of course there will be great advantages from the presence of transit of goods to the Mediterranean Sea through any of the neighboring countries to Iraq, such as Jordan, Syria, and Turkey- what will matter is how to serve our people with the revenues and benefits of this project. This will greatly influence the future of relations in the region and we will strongly work upon protecting this agreement. I am aware that some are trying to rely on bureaucratic measures to hinder the development of this project, nevertheless we were able to conclude the agreement within a short period of time.
I have personally followed through all the details of the project’s different stages and we were successful in obtaining the Council of Ministers’ consent. I am very optimistic about this project; it will serve the Iraqi-Iranian relations as well as all the peoples of the region.
IRNA: What are the results acquired from the strategic dialogue between Iraq and the USA? Will the American forces exit Iraq? There are diverse views and statements on that subject.
Regarding the strategic dialogue, during this year we have entered three stages of dialogue, and in the second stage we were able to obtain an explicit admission from the American President Trump that the Americans will pull out of Iraq, and before reaching the third stage we were able to reduce the size of American forces in Iraq to more than 60%. We will have a meeting soon with the technical committee approved by the third stage of the dialogue, whose main task consists of setting the fixed date or schedule for the pullout of combatting forces from Iraq. For sure, there will be a next stage of dialogue in July or August, as dialogue is the basis for not only the forces’ pullout, but for many other dimensions concerning the regulation of relations between the two countries in the fields of health, education, and technology.
Tasnim: There are some speculations and comments made regarding postponing the elections, as some believe that you are not serious about holding early elections. Is there a decision regarding postponing the elections? How concerned are you about holding the elections on time? Will you or someone close to you be running for elections?
I say this honestly; Iraqis greatly need the elections and there is mistrust between political blocs and the people, as well as real discord and dissention…How have I come to become Prime Minister? I was not named Prime Minister through elections but took office as a result of a social crisis. We need to establish the elections, despite the fact that some are trying to (demonize) the Prime Minister in everything he does as I have mentioned earlier in our interview.
from the first moment of the governmental manifesto that was voted on by the Iraqi parliament, I said I will work on holding an early, free and fair elections within a year time. I fixed the 6th of June 2021, a week later, as a date for the elections. How can they say I am not serious, and I have no will regarding the elections?
The political blocs as well as the electoral commission held their meeting to decide that this date is very early. Whoever claims that I do not want elections, my answer to him will be as follows: I’ve asked for the elections to be held on the 6th of June, 2021.
The will to hold the election is available. But, after negotiations with the commission and the political blocs we agreed to announce that the deadline for elections will be on the 10th of October of this year. The government is serious, and we requested the Security Council to provide us with international observers to provide more credibility to this election. We are serious about dealing in the same manner with any nominee and protecting the elections from any doubt or forgery.
I definitely will not run for the elections. My aim is to send a clear message that I care for the Iraqi national identity and I care for the principle of justice for all. If I run for elections then I would compete while assuming power, money and authority, then it wouldn’t be fair elections. I’ve chosen to believe in the principle of justice that we learned from the Ameer ul-Mu’mineen Ali, peace be upon him, and from the infallible imams. Our culture promotes the principle of creating an Iraqi national identity, therefore, and I will not run for the elections in order to exert all efforts to conduct successful elections. For this reason, we have provided all the support to the Electoral Commission. Now we are in the last stage of providing necessary conditions and a safe environment for the elections.
Fars: The Popular Mobilization Forces are considered as part of the official Iraqi security forces. There are statements from some foreign officials, such as Paul Bremer, calling for the abolishment of the PMF. What is your response?
Definitely, the Popular Mobilization is an Iraqi constitutional institution, and it is part of the Iraqi security system, and part of the Iraqi national security, and we are working to support the Popular Mobilization and develop its capabilities and defenses. PMF played a major role in the fight against Daesh side by side with the Iraqi security services such as the army and Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service. PMF, the Peshmerga, the Federal Police and everyone else played an essential role in the war against Daesh, and it is unreasonable to allow external parties to dictate a sovereign decision on us regarding PMF weapons or any of its formations. Members of PMF are my own folk. This institution is sponsored by the government and we keep good relations with PMF since inception, in spite of many attempts to stir problems between us. PMF has been under the auspices of the government as we provide it with all support, and we will not accept any impositions on the Iraqi government that is directed to undermine any security institution whether it is the Popular Mobilization or any other institution.
IRNA: Given the deep historical and religious relationship between the Iraqi and Iranian people and the start of vaccination operations in the two countries, when will Iranians be able to visit the holy shrines in Iraq? Iraq has provided the opportunity for citizens of 36 countries to obtain a visa at the airport; will this also include the Islamic Republic in the near future?
With regard to visiting the holy shrines, and in particular the Arbaeen holy visit, we are certainly working to create convenient conditions for the pilgrims. Our brothers in the Islamic Republic are well aware that when I was chief of intelligence, I was the most helpful person in the pilgrimage committee because this concerns Abu Abdullah Al-Hussein, it is illogical for me to hinder or put hurdle in the way of pilgrims.
COVID pandemic repercussions have prevented the visit and imposed certain hurdles and conditions. After completing the vaccination process and controlling the pandemic, we will work to facilitate the future visits as before or even better. We certainly, will not only treat this visit, as a religious pilgrimage, but also a cultural, ideological, and historical one. We must strengthen our relations through these visits and work to facilitate future relations with regard to visa applications. We currently consider with our brothers in the Islamic Republic the visa application matter. I believe in cancelling the visa requirement for the Iranian pilgrims to Iraq, and we will definitely work on it, and we are trying to consult some bureaucrats here in Iraq and Iran, in addition to facilitating some circumstances to reach a stage where soon by God willing, visa requirement between the Islamic Republic and Iraq will be lifted.
IRNA: According to your assessment of the vaccination situation in Iraq, when will Iraq be ready to open its borders to Iranian visitors?
The Health and Safety Committee has a meeting in the near future, and the circumstances of the Arbaeen Visit will be among the points that we will discuss. The Health and Safety Committee meeting will be held soon to study the prospects for finding a solution to the issue of the visit.
Tasnim: There are ongoing dialogues between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Iraq. What is Iraq’s role in this dialogue? To what extent have the dialogues succeeded? How optimistic are you about its success? Moreover, when will we see tangible results of these dialogues?
Seeing a stable future in the region is the goal of all the people and the leaders of the region. We believe that Iraq’s neighboring countries and those of the region should search for commonalities rather than contention. We are bound by a long history, one geography, one religion, even one or a related culture. Iraq seeks to bring the views of all parties in the region together, to be a meeting point for establishing stability in the region. We, undoubtedly, hope that the Iranian-Arab, Iranian-Saudi and even Iranian relationships with other countries of the region, would grow and have common points, that will advance these relations. Iraq endeavors to pave the way, if requested to do so, to get the views of the conflicted parties in the region closer, as the stability of the region is intertwined with the stability of Iraq and the development of its economy, as well as the economies of the region.
We will work with all our friends and neighbors to converge views in all the existing spaces. We are deeply connected, and the points of contention are small in our relationships with the whole region. Let us discuss the future of this region, and there will certainly be a role for Iraq, and for the countries of the region in creating a better future for this region and its stability.
Tasnim: How do you assess the extent of differences during these dialogues?
I believe that there are no differences in the region, but it is rather a disconnect that created this gap in the region. When you and I disagree, we must engage in dialogues, because through dialogue, problems are solved. The long separation in the region is what creates these differences, which allowed external parties that do not want stability nor interest for the region to make this division. I am optimistic about the future of the region and of all the leaders of the region. Everyone thinks that there is an opportunity for stability, and there is a good policy in the region. There is a new international policy in the region as well. We must look for all the commonalities to rebuild and rearrange the Arab House, the Iranian Arab House, and the Islamic House in the region.
Fars: Many urban projects in electricity, construction and other fields were agreed upon during President Rouhani's visit to Iraq. What is the status of these projects? Will these projects be promoted in the coming period?
The trade exchange between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Iraq is very significant, and the ambition is to reach more than 21 billion dollars annually.
Currently we coordinate, as we have an important delegation in Tehran; the Ministers of Finance and Electricity, as well as the Iraqi banking sector to work towards finding future links regarding electricity, energy, and certainly developing economic relations. What unites us with Iran is the fact that not only do we share 1,500 kilometers of borders, but we share many historical and cultural aspects that help in the process of trade exchange, and the development of economic capabilities as well. Our vision is to establish a new Levant that depends on the economic relations in the region.
Fars: How does Iraqis look at the resistance in the region?
Iraq supports any just cause in the world, whether in the region or outside it and for this reason we always take moves to support the Muslim as well as humanitarian causes everywhere in the world. However, every country has its own peculiarities and circumstances, but we believe that the principle of resistance and the demand for justice is a humanitarian cause that the countries of the world and its people must stand with and offer the needed support in order to achieve justice.